As a Speech-Language Pathologist and DIR/ Floortime professional specializing in children with autism spectrum disorders, I’m constantly searching for creative ways to “open windows” for the delightful children and families with whom I work. Many of these children with autism present unique differences in their sensory processing, in terms of hypo-responsiveness or hyper-responsiveness. I’ve found incorporating a wide variety of artistic experiences can be incredibly beneficial. It strengthens the sensory processing and communication of the children, while meeting them at their individual developmental levels and incorporating their preferences. The rich affectual, emotional components to art experiences are invaluable in bringing about that “light in their eyes,” engagement, and reciprocal communication.
Recently, I had the opportunity to be part of an “art” experience with one of my little ones that was life-changing and life-giving for many in Little Rock, Arkansas.
As a fundraiser for Autism Speaks and A-Camp (our camp for children with autism and their peers here in Little Rock), a local art gallery, M2 Gallery, hosted an art showing and auction. Brilliant artists from the state and country donated art for display and sale. The gallery owners also invited several of my young patients to create pieces.
As I thought of children on my caseload who had recently shown great responsiveness to art within our therapy sessions, my mind immediately went to 6-year-old Elijah. This precious young man had just begun enjoying expression with finger paint on huge strips of suspended paper. As he explored the sensations, engagement, delight, and a myriad of spontaneous, meaningful, reciprocal utterances emerged.
As I discussed what might be most representative of Elijah with his mother, she and I both thought of strings. For Elijah, strings of all shapes, sizes, and textures bring great joy, comfort, rhythmicity, and synchrony. We decided to let him express himself with strings on the canvas for sale. As he squeezed the first drops of paint on the canvas and pulled the strings through the paint to create his work of art, we held our breath, wondering what his feelings might be about altering many of his beloved strings. What delightful surprise it was to us all as he pulled string after string through the paint for 45 minutes, leaving many of them glued behind on the canvas. His mother and I named the piece “Strings from the Heart.”
What we thought might just be a minimal contribution to a very gracious fundraiser became Elijah’s fun “trip to fame” in the next several weeks. As publicity grew about the fundraiser for A-Camp, time and again the works of amazing artists were focused. Each time, Strings from the Heart was right there! Newscasters interviewed and conveyed the value of reaching children like Elijah with the emotion and sensory experiences of art.
No price could be placed on the joy and pride Elijah’s family members experienced. No doubt, his puzzle piece would’ve taken top price at the auction, but not a soul was willing to outbid his loving grandfather who stood beaming by the piece. What a great reminder it has been to me as a therapist to continually search for and incorporate whatever means might reach a child with autism and help him continually grow in a shared world of engagement and communication!
Rachel Morse, CCC-SLP, is an SLP in private practice in Little Rock, who has owned Building Bridges – Pediatric Therapy Services for over 25 years. She loves providing relationship-based, family-centered therapy for children with neurological differences. In the summers she also helps lead A-Camp, a 6-week therapeutic day camp for children with autism spectrum disorders.