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Monday, June 23, 2014

Drawing Together for Communication: how to get things started

Drawing can be a useful tool for developing communication skills in young children, and in older children (and teens and adults) with communication delays.

One of the techniques I commonly use in therapy is "collaborative drawing", where each person contributes to the larger drawing, and the drawing itself acts as a visual record of the conversation or story. Take a look at this video (made with my typically developing nephew Will when he was 4 years old) for a short demonstration of this technique:


Today I want to share with you some interesting developments from one of my young friends on the autism spectrum. Kieran is a bright active young boy (in grade 4) with delays in the development of his verbal language. He is very visual and is a whiz at math and putting together complicated building toys using diagram instructions. For the past two years, his family and I have been drawing things for him, making visual representations of what happens in our toy play and also of situations and interactions from the larger world around him.

During our early sessions, he was happy to have others do the drawing. The drawing was a good anchor for our conversations during play and this helped his focus, his comprehension and his verbal language development. Following our drawing/play sessions he liked to have the big drawings posted on the walls at home so he could look at them, think about them and talk about them with his family.

Then, at the beginning of this calendar year, Kieran started to take a more active role in the drawing process.

He began to frequently tell me what to draw and how to draw it. For example, this "portrait" of him and his cat was drawn in January according to his very detailed instructions:

portrait of Kieran in cowboy hat & tractor pyjamas (drawn by me, directed verbally by him)

He started drawing spontaneously to express himself - here is a picture, also from January, that he drew when his mom was drawing out some challenges from the school day (his suggestion ... how about going to Monster University?):

"I want to go to Monster University"

He has begun to draw collaboratively, adding details and figures to our large drawings (that we do beside our toy play), so now those drawings include his direct visual thoughts as well as his play ideas and what he has verbally directed me to add.

Here's a drawing from February where we explored the difficulty of loud noises and emotional responses to various situations - at the end of our session, he spontaneously added his two cats:

this "big picture" is done on 2 ft x 3 ft paper beside our toy play area
(this day we were playing with trains & plasticine figures)

Kieran's cat Ginger

Keiran's cat Spooky
Then at our last session in April, he added multiple details to our picture about Thomas the Tank Engine and friends:
Kieran added tracks and faces and smokestacks and many other details

What are the benefits of going after communication in this context?
First and foremost, it's fun and relaxed, and it makes formidably difficult skills (communication and social interaction) more approachable and accessible.
Second, it stimulates communication development in a very natural context, so the language learned is already generalized to where it's functional and fits.
Third, it lets the individual (who is the target of the therapy) set the pace - you can be certain that the information is going in, and they will show you when they have enough information and confidence to give the new skills a try.
Because we have never forced the issue, Kieran continues to willingly taking steps forward, trying new things and gaining confidence daily.
I leave you with his latest creation, a plasticine cat modeled after the many little plasticine animals I have made for him during our play over the last year - as you can see, it's a great cat with lots of personality and a happy disposition ... just like the young artist who made it.
Kieran's clay creation

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Bob's your uncle, Bob's your dad

A father is someone who carries pictures in his wallet where his money used to be ~ author unknown

I grew up in a big family and many of my childhood memories look like this ...

... lots of kids and four brave parents, two of them dads named Bob - one my own dad, and one my Uncle Bob.

Because of  "the Bobs", I know a lot about what a dad should be: a dad is warm and kind, he spends time with you, he invests his money in his family (refer to opening quote), he tells you when you're going off track, he helps you get back on track, he leads by example, he does silly things, he laughs with his children when they point out those silly things, he loves his life and his wife and his children without reservation or boundary or time limit.

We (my brothers and sisters, cousins and I) have been fortunate to have had the wit and wisdom of "the Bobs" to support and guide us over many decades now - through good times and bad, they have always had our backs, and we have depended on them time and again to help us find our way.

This past week, my Uncle Bob passed away quite suddenly, leaving a hole in the family the size of his large and generous heart. But he didn't leave things undone. Every day, with words and actions, he let his family know how much he loved them. It's this final lesson from my Uncle Bob that I'm holding in my heart - to live my life fully and love my family extravagantly, to leave no room for regrets.

So on Father's Day, take time to show your dad you love him.
Leave no room for regrets.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Art Lessons for Less Verbal People: painting self-portraits

~ this post is dedicated to (and prompted by) Raymond, Kevin's brother and #1 art fan, who reminded me that lately I've been neglecting the blog ~

This has been a very creative spring for Kevin and Adam. I've been wanting to share what we've been up to, but have been so busy doing art that there's been little time left over to write about our artistic ventures and adventures. In keeping with the creative mindset, we're not going to worry about timeline, and lessons will not be presented chronologically, but instead will be ordered by the whims of my right brain.

Note: when teaching art to students (of any age) who are less verbal, it's important to show more than tell. I use a technique I call "Follow Me" (modified from teaching strategies described in Mona Brooke's excellent book "Drawing with Children") to introduce new art media and techniques. For more on this method, take a look at this video from our YouTube channel:


And so, we start at the most recent project, self-portraits.

According to my art teacher (at the Ottawa School of Art), one reason for starting portrait painting with a self-portrait is that the face is very familiar to you. Often artists will create complicated set-ups of easels and mirrors to make it possible to paint on a canvas and refer to the "live model in the mirror" without moving around. We simplified this process (and eliminated the need to stay in one spot) by using the "mirror photo" function on the iPad.

Here's Kevin's iPad photo that he used as a model (we set up our photo so that the source of light was clearly from one side, to simplify the light and shadow):

Next step was to have Kevin do a spontaneous drawing of himself from the photo. When he did this, he made himself in "cartoon" form (which is how he frequently draws himself and family members in our language exercises):

For the next step, Kevin and I drew a side-by-side "guided" drawing, where I brought Kevin's attention to the lines, contours and shadows on the actual photo of his face. This is the "planning" drawing he produced:

Then we started in with paint on canvas. Following the method of my own painting teacher, we made a "paint sketch" with yellow ochre (no pencil lines to paint over later). Then we blocked in the shapes of skin, hair, shirt and background, as well as the areas of light and shadow. By the end of our first session, this is what Kevin's painting looked like:

You can still see some of the yellow ochre sketch lines around the eyes, eyebrows and mouth. With acrylic paints, it takes more than one layer to get vivid colours - this project was the first time that Kevin left a painting incomplete with a plan to finish it the next week (we made this clear before we started painting, so that he was prepared to leave it half-done - another important art lesson tip is "no surprises").

The next week, we added more layers of paint, more details, more light and shadow. And here's the completed self-portrait that Kevin painted (I love the personality that comes through in this painting!):

Adam was involved with some Picasso lessons (more on that in a later post), and so did his self-portrait later in the spring than Kevin. Here are the stages of Adam's self-portrait, and you'll see that although the teaching method was the same, Adam's style and personality results in a different type of finished painting:

One final note:
always very interesting to me how my "model" drawings and paintings are somewhat mechanical and bland, but the drawings and paintings produced by my students have personality and quirkiness and life to them ...
I'm giving "visual instructions" and they're expressing themselves with art ... so cool
Stay tuned for more lessons (how am I doing Raymond?)
......... Sheila B