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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Teaching Nonverbal and Less Verbal People - Adam paints a self portrait

"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." 
~ Mahatma Gandhi

Adam writes and draws about our portrait painting class

Adam is an intelligent young adult on the autism spectrum who is less verbal and uses drawing and other art forms for communication. I first met Adam when he was just 3 years old and profoundly nonverbal. My job as a speech-language pathologist was to help him learn to connect and communicate with the world around him. What actually happened over the next couple of decades was more interesting - as much as I taught him, he taught me more. So at this point, I'll say that together Adam and I have discovered some effective ways to get around the barrier of imperfect verbal communication and give voice to the intellect and creative soul within. With Adam's permission, we now share some of what we've learned.

In the Art Studio:

Portrait teaching setup (Adam's easel on the left, my instructional model on the right, iPad photo reference and painting materials in the center)

You need a space that is friendly and comfortable for the student. The art studio we are working in is one that Adam's dad set up for Adam and his mom (who is also learning to paint). We have a generous work surface so that materials can be visually set out in an organized way. There is room for Adam (a tall guy) to step back and move around. Also important to consider lighting (need to see clearly, but not aggravate sensory sensitivies), sound environment (reduce background noise) and air quality (allergies, eg. free from mold & mildew).

Below are links to the two instructional videos that we made from our recent portrait painting sessions (posted on our YouTube channel AUTISMartCOMMUNICATE). These videos highlight and demonstrate some effective teaching strategies when working with less verbal individuals, including:

  • use of visual demonstrations
  • working from visual models
  • effective use of the iPad as a visual tool (takes & displays photos, allows zooming in on specific details)
  • verbal language should be clear, slow-paced and match demonstrated actions
  • back up verbal language with visual supports (to improve comprehension)
  • allow time for processing of verbal questions and instructions
  • repetition and rephrasing (of key information) can be helpful
  • resist "chattering" (remind yourself to leave quiet spaces)
  • SHOW more than TELL
  • gentle "hand over hand" can sometimes be useful when teaching a new motor skill
  • simplify language without "talking down"
  • allow the student to work at their own pace (don't rush)
  • student should be mostly calm, relaxed and enjoying the experience
  • okay for students to talk to themselves as they work
  • specific to portrait painting, be aware that autism can affect the individual's ability to process the human face
  • balance direct instruction with developing the student's artistic expression & style
  • art activities are a good context for language learning 
  • assume competence (and that all of your words are received and understood)

Part 1 (from the first hour-long painting session):

(if the video won't play click this link: Adam paints a self portrait - part 1 )

And Part 2 (from our second one-hour portrait painting session):

(if the video won't play click this link: Adam paints a self portrait - part 2 )

We hope you find these videos helpful and that you try out some of the methods in your own classes and studios. There is a lot of untapped artistic potential in the autism population, and many new artists waiting to learn new ways to express themselves. We would love to hear about your experiences.

We'll end this post by sharing Adam's completed self portrait. He has a bold and expressive artistic style that comes through in all of his art work, and is all his own. I love it:

Self Portrait by the artist, Adam V