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How to Teach Autistic Students Through Art

written by: Keren Perles • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 9/11/2012

Art lessons for autistic students can be more than just a fun activity. In fact, autistic students can learn a lot through art – how to use their senses, work as a group, or become more self-aware. Take a look at some of the ways that you can build these skills through some simple art projects.

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    Tactile Art

    Autistic students often exhibit tactile defensiveness, and art class gives you an excellent opportunity to help them grapple with this tendency. Try fingerpainting with students and allowing them to express themselves through a medium that does not rely on tools. You can also make a thicker form of fingerpaint by combining shaving cream and food coloring, which can be helpful for students with fine motor difficulties. Alternatively, use clay or playdough to help students make simple art projects; even something as basic as rolling clay into a ball or making a handprint in playdough can help autistic students to become more familiar with these tactile media.

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    Group Art

    Because autistic students may need encouragement to develop social skills, group art can help them interact more easily with others in the group. For example, when fingerpainting or drawing, considering using a large piece of butcher paper and making it clear beforehand that students’ drawings can overlap or combine into a larger picture. Alternatively, you can ask students to trace each others’ hands or bodies as the first step of an art project, which can help them interact.

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    Self Awareness Art

    There are several “All About Me” activities that autistic students will enjoy and learn from. One that works particularly well with many autistic students involves clipping favorite items from old magazines and making them into an “All About Me” collage. Students can then share their favorite items with the class, thereby gaining a greater understanding into what makes each of them unique, as well as which interests several of them share.

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    A Combination: The Collage

    Other types of collages also make great art lessons for autistic students. To make a collage with students, give them several materials of different sizes, colors, and textures (e.g., beads, pieces of yarn, colored sand, stickers, sequins, pompoms, glitter) and help them glue the materials onto a piece of paper. For students with more basic fine motor skills, you can tape contact paper onto a table so that the materials stick more easily. If you’d like, you can turn this into a group art project by having each student’s collage be one “square” on a “quilt” that you build on a bulletin board. This wall quilt can be called a “Friendship Quilt,” and can be used as a springboard for a discussion of friendship.


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