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  • Writer's pictureAlana Stewart

How Art Therapy Supports Neurodivergents

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

As a neurodivergent person and a practicing Art Therapist working with many other neurodivergents, I know first hand how art and Art Therapy and Creative Arts Therapies (music, art, dance/movement, drama) helps our mental health needs. Arts Therapy is important for increasing accessibility of therapy for the neurodivergent community, offering other pathways to access and express self beyond the restrictions of verbal communication.


This blog explores only some of these benefits that I have noticed whilst practicing as an Art Therapist, working with many who have Autism, ADHD, trauma conditions, and other types of neurodivergence.

 

Offering More Ways to Communicate


Art Therapy offers more ways to communicate and express. As neurodivergents we all vary in our ability to use verbal speech and/or verbalise our thoughts and feelings. Traditional talk therapy has us thinking that the best or "right" way to express ourselves is to sit still in a chair and just "say what it is", otherwise we are being "resistant to change". Art Therapy and Creative Arts Therapies as a whole (music, drama, dance, movement, visual art) open up more avenues to connecting with our internal world and give more options in expressing those feelings outwardly. Through Arts Therapy we can express feelings non-verbally and reduce our reliance on spoken words for emotional communication.



Sensory Regulation


Arts Therapy can provide a diverse range of art materials that offer sensory input, catering to differing sensory needs of neurodivergent individuals. The experience of engaging with soothing and enjoyable sensory stimuli plays a vital role in fostering self-regulation skills and helping individuals understand their sensory preferences. The use of these materials during therapy creates a safe and relaxed environment, promoting a sense of comfort and ease.


Moreover, I have witnessed how the sensory experience of art-making can aid in improving focus and the ability to stay present with the topics and themes being explored in therapy. I feel that art's sensory qualities provide an ability to regulate and hold our attention and facilitate a deeper connection with emotions.



Art as the Focal Point


Maintaining eye contact during conversation can also be a challenge for quite a few neurodivergents. The pressure to maintain eye contact can often lead to feelings of discomfort and creates more difficulty in expressing self authentically. However, during Art Therapy the eye contact can be directed towards the art being made or explored.


The Art in Arts Therapy also provides a tangible object which contains an emotional expression, making the emotion less "abstract" and more visible. Giving emotion a tangible form often makes it easier to explore and understand. In cases where verbal processing of the art made in Art Therapy is possible and helpful, this "object" then becomes the focal point in conversation. Art as the focal point when discussing challenging topics, can help ease social anxieties, reduces challenges of making eye contact and face to face communication. The art gives emotions a physical form which can be seen, facilitating focused exploration around that emotion, additionally helping us find new language to describe emotions and reduce communication barriers.



Slowing Down Emotional Processing & Supporting Interoception


In order to understand and process emotions, we first need to have an awareness of what those emotions are and how they manifest within ourselves. This process is closely tied to interoception, which involves perceiving and understanding the sensations and signals from our own bodies. For many neurodivergent individuals who struggle with interoception, Art Therapy can provide a supportive environment to slow this process down.


Through art-making, Art Therapy allows us to access and explore our emotional and sensory states at a slower pace. It offers a safe space to engage with materials, reflect on different aspects of ourselves, and creatively express what needs to be communicated. By taking our time in this process, we can develop a deeper understanding of ourselves, enhance our self-awareness, and ability to notice and better respond to emotions.



Addressing Disability Stigma & Neurodivergent Trauma


Many individuals with disability and neurodivergence experience the harmful impacts of internalised-stigma. Internalised-stigma is formed by harmful beliefs, attitudes and ways of being treated that come from others, society and/or media representation that can contribute to negative self-perceptions. Moreover, neurodivergent individuals may also face neurodivergent trauma, which stems from the repeated misunderstandings and invalidation of their unique needs and perceptions throughout their lives.


It is not uncommon for neurodivergent individuals to struggle with feelings of being "weird," "alien," "not normal," or "non-human." Art Therapy plays a vital role in addressing and externalizing internalized stigma, enabling individuals to identify the sources of these beliefs and cultivate more positive self-perceptions. Through the process of creating art, these emotions associated with stigma can be expressed and processed, allowing for a separation between negative life experiences and one's sense of self.



Encouraging Participation in the Arts & Community Connection


Whilst Arts Therapy's primary focus is generally personal therapuetic exploration, rather than creating "artworks", it is worth noting that some creative neurodivergent clients have used the support of Arts Therapists to connect with their creative passions, overcome creative blocks and develop an artistic vision to explore as practicing artists.


Engaging in the arts in a broader sense can also foster connection within the neurodivergent community. It provides an avenue for individuals to connect with like-minded creative individuals, reducing feelings of isolation and facilitating validation and connection through shared appreciation of their art. The arts play a crucial role in creating and nurturing communities, promoting acceptance and inclusion, and fostering an appreciation for the diversity and differences within our society. These aspects are particularly significant for the neurodivergent population.

 


In conclusion, Art Therapy can be valuable for individuals who are neurodivergent by increasing accessibility of mental health therapy, through offering more ways to emotionally express and communicate, reducing reliance on verbal speech, engaging the senses through materials plus other benefits not explored in this blog! We hope more people will come to recognise the importance of Creative Arts Therapies to people with disability and our neurologically diverse (neurodiverse) community as a whole!


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