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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Teaching art to students with autism

An art teacher posted a request to our facebook wall, asking for input from others who are teaching art to students with autism. I'll start the discussion with some of the methods I have used over the years and found to be effective in one-to-one and group teaching situations.

One of the major challenges for all teachers of students with autism (regardless of the subject matter) is getting past the severe communication deficits that are typical of this diagnosis. In a usual classroom setting, the teacher can stand at the front of the class, give information and directions, and have a reasonable expectation that their students will understand what's been presented. Students with autism will generally learn poorly or not at all under these conditions - the verbal information goes by too quickly and is often drowned in a sea of background noise - even when the words are heard clearly, their meaning may not be understood (because of gaps in language knowledge).

If you want to teach a person with autism effectively, you would do better to "show" more than you "tell". Rather than filling the air with verbal explanations, put information into visual format and then model what you would like the student to do. If you are chatty by nature, damp it down - speak in single words and short phrases backed up by your visual pictures and modeling - think of your words as stones dropping one by one into a pond, with lovely silence in the in-between time as the ripples go out and the ASD student can think about what you said.

Art is a perfect subject for this type of approach - you are teaching visual and hand-eye coordination skills that are only imperfectly described by verbal language in the first place. A book that I would highly recommend is Mona Brookes' "Drawing with Children" (and the follow-up book "Drawing for Older Children & Teens"). In the initial chapters of the "Drawing with Children" book, Mona describes a method for teaching classes of young children to draw what they see - she draws a picture step-by-step, describing what she is drawing, and the children draw each line and shape as she does. I have used a variation of this "follow me" style of art teaching for many ASD students of varying levels. One major difference, compared to the method described in the book, involves the language level - talk less than is suggested, and use words that name and describe the pieces of what you are drawing (rather than the shapes and angles). The other major difference is that you will get better results, and a calmer happier student, if you (or another adult model) sit side-by-side with the ASD student, modeling the drawing or painting or sculpting, letting them control the pace of incoming information (don't start modeling a new step until they have completed the step before).

Another type of resource I would recommend for art teaching are the books that use pictures and words to give step-by-step visual instructions for art projects. Ed Emberley (children's author and illustrator) is terrific at this, and he has published many books that lay out visual stepwise instructions for how to draw almost anything. The first time that Adam learned how to draw something from someone other than me, was sitting side-by-side in his school classroom with an adult volunteer (who was an artist herself), drawing animals in a "follow me" mode, using an Ed Emberley "learn to draw" book as a reference for both of them.

Here is an example of an early picture that Adam drew using an Ed Emberley book on drawing animals for reference, with me sitting beside him providing a step-by-step model in the "follow me" format:

note: using this method, Adam drew a much more detailed picture than his usual style
- gradually, his own drawing style matured to match the skills he was learning in this context -

You can find out more about Ed Emberley (including an extensive book list) at his website: .

Other books that explore different art media and techniques, and are great for visual instructions, include "Fun with Modeling Clay" by Barbara Reid (children's illustrator famous for her plasticine sculpted pictures), "How to Make Pop-Ups" by Joan Irvine (paper sculpting) and the many books in the Klutz publishing line that show kids how to do various craft techniques. In addition, you can now find some good visual instructions at various sites online (love that Google search!), and I would also recommend searching YouTube for "how-to" videos on various art/craft, cooking and sewing skills and projects. If you are ambitious, you can make your own customized visual instructions (picture/written or video) - with advances in digital cameras, this is much easier now than it was even a few years ago.

A few last notes for those of you teaching multiple students at one time:

If you are teaching a class of ASD students, make sure the number of students is small, so that you do not get ahead of the slowest person (nothing stresses out a person with ASD like time pressure). Have visual instructions at each student's spot, and make sure that your model is close enough that all students can see the details (be prepared to re-model trickier or more intricate steps). You may want to have extra adults beside students who are more severely involved (and more likely to get stressed by missing information given from a distance). If you have an ASD student integrated into a regular art class, you can use a similar method (with an adult sitting beside the ASD student and modeling the art project using a step-by-step visual method) - this will be most effective if you and the adult support person can get together before each class to ensure that they understand how to do the art project themselves (nothing more panic-producing for an adult than finding out "in the moment" that they don't know how to do the thing they are supposed to be teaching).

I welcome input on this topic from teachers of art (and other subjects) - please join the discussion and share methods that you have "field tested" and found to be useful.

Look forward to hearing from you!

Sheila B

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