Huma's blog: reflections on autism, art therapy, parenting, mental health issues and all about Mo!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Let your child's art do the talking!

When I tell people that I am an art therapist, more often than not I get a puzzled look followed by the now familiar question “What does that mean? Do you teach art?”. By now I should be miffed by this recurrent inquiry, but I am not because I get another opportunity to talk about my favourite subject. Moreover, every time I talk about it, I realize what an amazing thing it is to be able to achieve mental well-being through art making even if you have no artistic skills. That is why art therapy is for everyone from a child who can make marks on paper to an elderly person who may not be able to do so due to old age or illness.

All individuals with any level of ability, emotional or mental need or desire for mental well-being can do art therapy. It can be done individually, as a family and in groups. The only prerequisite is the will to discover, heal and learn with a trained art therapist who is there to guide you through the process of art-making and healing.

I work with children and adolescents with diverse needs. Some may have developmental differences, some are experiencing emotional ups and downs, others may have familial problems, issues at school or in some cases serious mental health concerns. An art therapist can address the individual needs of each child by tailoring the session specifically to them.

When I work with a child with autism, I am not only concerned with their emotional well- being, but I am also aware of their sensory needs. It is not possible to focus on the mental health of a child who is not well regulated. Therefore, I use art materials to induce sensory modulation alongside the emotional work that is required. Engaging with art materials allows the child an opportunity to achieve sensory regulation as well as provides them with an opening for communication and expression. For a non-verbal child or one who has difficulty communicating this can often be a liberating experience.

Sometimes I get a defiant teenager who is aggressive at home and unhappy at school. The parents are at a loss because their child will not talk to the school counsellor or the talk therapist. They come for art therapy as their last resort. I tell them “the good news is, that your child does not necessarily have to talk in the session”. All they need to do is be present and the rest usually follows. The child who may be reluctant to make art, in the beginning, is usually drawn to art materials and will eventually start engaging with them and the therapist. Sometimes, if there are familial issues, the parents or parent will be asked to join in the sessions. Once again, a conversation may not be necessary as the artwork can do the talking.


It is the process of art making that lies at the core of the art therapy approach. The art product is not judged for aesthetic quality; there is no right or wrong you can do. The art therapist provides the safety and containment needed to confront difficult and sometimes very painful emotions. Art making can tap into the innermost aspects of the psyche that words may not have access to. Children especially, cannot be expected to know why they are feeling depressed or angry or defiant. However, the images they make can tell us pretty much what is going on.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Channelizing aggression in children through art


A 5 year old's expression of her internal trauma
Aggression in children could be a symptom of underlying issues that find external expression in inappropriate verbal and/or physical behaviour. The common course of treatment for anger management in children is behaviour modification and in extreme cases medication. These approaches have their merits and can help in averting disastrous consequences for the child and his/her family. However, focusing on behavioural techniques in isolation may inadvertently conceal the psycho-emotional problems that are at the root of the behaviours and may be a call for help from the child, rather than a deliberate attempt to cause harm.

Children lack the ability for metacognition or the capacity to think about their thoughts. Simply put, they may have no clue as to why they act out, transgress limits, push buttons and indulge in inappropriate behaviors beyond what is considered typical. Amongst the many reasons they may be doing so, attachment issues, familial problems, stress related to school and peers, learning differences and developmental challenges may be implicated. Thus, it seems rather one sided to expect external compliance from a child who may be suffering emotionally, without addressing the internal aspect of the matter.

I find art therapy to be most efficacious when it comes to addressing psycho-emotional problems in children as it has the capacity to tap into the hidden content of a child’s psyche that may not be accessible through words. Art making can by pass defence mechanisms that prevent access to deep-seated conflicts.

Very importantly, art therapists work through metaphors in the child’s artwork thus, if some trauma or difficult emotional content surfaces through art making, it can be processed in a safe and non-confrontational way. Art therapy is a safe therapeutic modality in that it avoids re-traumatization of the individual from exposure to difficult memories.

Art therapists are also trained to direct negative emotions into creative acts through prudent use of art material. Clay may be pounded or kneaded, scratched and poked in order to express anger or frustration just as paint may be splashed or paper torn and crushed to channelize aggressive affect into appropriate expression.

Art making, whether in the form of seemingly random scribbles and doodles or skillful images and sculptures is an expression of the unconscious. Thus, to partake of art therapy absolutely no skill in art making is necessary. In fact I have come across children who do not show any inclination to draw or paint yet can be tempted to engage in acts of creation that lead to inner expression.

A child cannot convey with words what they are not aware of; and some children may not have the ability to speak. You will be amazed to find what can be achieved through the simplest forms of creativity and relational art making with an art therapist.


Time and time again I am asked if art therapy and art class are one and the same? Once again, I will repeat that ONLY a Master’s level art therapist can conduct art therapy. Most art therapists are registered with regional boards of art therapy associations and have gone through hundreds if not thousands of hours of clinical practice.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Autism: Another perspective

Traditional definitions of autism focus on deficits in communication, social interaction and imagination. For most of autism’s history, it has been believed that individuals with autism lack interest in and avoid social contact. Observable behaviors across the spectrum such as stimming, repetitive acts, unusual mannerisms and echolalia are targeted for behavioral intervention to be corrected or redirected. In fact, most caregivers of children with autism will vouch that a large portion of the latter’s awake time is spent in behavioral modification and social skills enhancement. However, research over the past two decades has begun to look at autism beyond what is largely a socially constructed interpretation. There has been a shift in science to gain a deeper understanding of why certain behaviors occur. Could we be missing out or misinterpreting the actual reason behind for instance, why a child with autism is seen banging his head incessantly, flicking objects in front of his eyes, or smiling cheek to cheek for seemingly no rhyme or reason at all (these three examples are from my own personal experience with my son).

 Recent research has started to pay attention to sensory and motor/movement deficits that may explain symptoms that are commonly termed as ‘autistic behaviors’. This means that issues in sensory and motor functioning are being implicated for deficits in communication and socialization systems. Hence, researchers are broadening their lens to look at the neurological deficits that underlie autism. This shift in perspective is very significant if we are to get to the source of the so called autistic behaviors and understand why they take place. Our knowledge in this regard has great implications for the way we view these mannerisms and treat them. For instance, would you consider correcting the gait of someone with advanced Parkinson disease or redirecting a tic in someone with Tourette’s Syndrome. Probably not, and the reason for that is because you are looking at them from a neurological lens; you know that it may not be within the means of the individual suffering from those diseases to control the behavior.

To put it plainly, a restrictive view of autism may be misleading us into why someone with autism engages in loud vocalizations, has extreme reactions to small changes, rocks back and forth or repeats nursery rhymes endlessly. Interviews and self-stories of people on the spectrum have revealed that these stereotypical behaviors are more often that not a source of organizing and regulating experience; even perhaps a source of learning. 

Instead of looking at the person with autism as a whole, mind and body, we have relegated autism to a social interpretation of its symptoms. A new way of looking may be necessary so that opportunities to extend learning and develop relationships are not lost. It is essential to understand each and every individual with autism as unique, so that appropriate support can be provided; not to look for deficits but to focus on their strengths and competence.


Our children with autism are often at the receiving end of massive interventions to correct, stop, redirect and modify behaviors. We often forget the little souls that occupy these innocent bodies that are a jungle of misfiring neurons. Let’s get to know our children better and deeper so that we can help them without endangering their self-esteem. (Donellan, Hill & Leary 2013).

For appointments contact Huma at www.colouredcanvas.net

Reference
Donnellan, M. A., Hill, A. D., & Leary, R. M. (2013). Rethinking Autism:Implications of Sensory and Movement Differences for Understanding and support.  Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience 6, 124. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2012.00124

Friday, June 23, 2017

Art therapy, emotional regulation and so on

Alan comes into the session somewhat anxious. As soon as he sits at the drawing table, he chooses his favourite medium: pencil. Alan begins to draw skyscrapers with multiple storeys, stairs and lifts as is always the case at the beginning of each session. He spins a story around his image as it progresses. The pencil is easy to control, also its marks can be erased, hence it feels less threatening to Alan than paint which has a mind of its own. The deep pressure of the pencil and its willingness to obey Alan’s commands seems to calm him down. 10 minutes into the drawing Alan appears excitable once again, perhaps it’s the turn that his story has taken or something else around him that has triggered this change of mood. I sense Alan’s frenzy and draw his attention to the clay that I have at hand for moments such as these. Clay will help Alan channelise his energy into a medium that has the capacity to ground or contain his anxiety. Alan begins to pound and knead the clay and once again a sense of calm pervades him. Later in the session, I  will ask Alan to use paint as I want to dig deep into his emotions. The session will probably end with Alan back to using the pencil, in control.

This brief anecdote provides a glimpse into how the inherent qualities of art materials are used within an art therapy session. Art therapists are trained to work with a large variety of materials to induce or subdue psychoemotional states according to the specific needs of their clients. Especially in the case of children with self-regulation issues a deep knowledge of the effect of art materials is necessary to modulate sensory/emotional states. For children with sensory integration dysfunction (SID), art materials can be used to sensitise or desensitise hypo or hyper sensitive children. Art therapy is being used effectively with children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), learning differences and developmental issues. It is an effective mode of intervention for all ages and a wide range of psychoemotional issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, bullying, trauma, abuse loss, grief and so on.

 When words are not enough; where language has no access to emotions; when verbal expression feels threatening and unsafe, art therapy is the way to go.


*You donot need to have any artmaking skill to do art therapy.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Therapy for caregivers

In March 2017, I conducted a survey about self-care for caregivers of children with differences. This survey is part of my action research project that aims to bring awareness to caregivers about the importance of looking after their emotional needs. As a caregiver of a child with ASD  for the past nineteen years, I am all too familiar with the highs and lows of raising a child with special needs, the toll it can take not just on the primary caregiver of the child but also the entire family.

The survey revealed three things:

  • Approximately 90% of the caregivers are aware of what self-care means and how it impacts their caregiving.


  • Almost all caregivers agree that their well-being is directly related to the well-being of their child, meaning that if they are mentally and physically well they will be better at caregiving (quality of caregiving has implications for the prognosis of a child).


  • The majority of caregivers take time out some time for exercise or leisure and around 37% indulge in holistic and spiritual practices but only 20% seek any kind of psychological help through counselling or psychotherapy.


Stress impacts everyone varyingly. Likewise, each of us copes with it in a different manner and not everyone needs to see a therapist for counselling or psychotherapy. In fact, some degree of stress is not necessarily a bad thing because it alerts us to situations within our bodies and in our environment that may need to be taken care of. However, when stress reaches a level where it is a constant companion, impairs daily functioning and begins to effect relationships, it can be detrimental to the individual suffering from it as well as their family and friends. Left unaddressed, extreme stress may lead to mental health issues and manifest as anxiety disorders, depression, agitation, frustration, pessimism, guilt and so on.


I myself suffered for many years with chronic anxiety before seeking psychotherapy and counselling and I am so, so glad that I did. I can only say that not only did therapy save me from potentially disastrous consequences, it equipped me to achieve things in the future that I could not have imagined. I am grateful to God for guiding me through this time.

Today I am an art psychotherapist. My son is 19 and interning at a restaurant as a waiter. He wants to work in a café. I tell him one day he will own one. I do art therapy with children and adolescents with ASD, developmental issues and psychoemotional problems. I am in the process of establishing my private practice in Singapore where I hope to run therapy groups for caregivers of children with special needs.

Though I am an ardent advocate of art therapy, be it for children or adults, the point of this writing is not to sell art therapy to you. In fact, I am fully aware that for many of you art therapy may not even be an option since qualified art therapists are not be found everywhere. However, I urge you to seek help in any form that is available to you and not to ignore your mental well-being especially if you feel you are having difficulty coping with the stress of caregiving. Go see a mental health professional, join a support group, reach out to others in similar circumstances. There are many professionals who offer online sessions for those who are unable to leave their homes for mental health services or may not have access to them.

If you want to know more about what art therapy can do for you and would like to connect to art therapists in Asia, write to me at myartherapy@gmail.com


Note: You do not need to have any artmaking skills to do art therapy.