How Art Can Help Students with Special Needs Express Themselves

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Why Art?

Art is a powerful medium and the value of artistic expression is evident from inception. The end product should not be overvalued, as the process is just as meaningful, if not more significant. Ahmed & Siddiqi, authors of “Essay Healing Through Art Therapy in Disaster Settings,” said that artwork consists of a process and product. The product has interpretive value, while the process helps expression and provides a medium for communication that might facilitate the healing of emotional scars. Special needs students face challenges on a daily basis and may need help dealing with resulting emotions and frustrations. As presented at the American Art Therapy Association conference, “Talk, Talk, Talk, When Do We Draw?” it is easier to tell about threatening experiences than hear about them, thus the most therapeutic value comes from expression. Art gives children a source of power to legitimize their life experiences.

Art & Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often encounter circumstances where their behaviors lead to misunderstandings that cause discomfort and anxiety. Henley (1998) said that impromptu art making opportunities facilitate self-expression and awareness of self and others. Increased awareness helps children to filter their impulses through the identification of triggers and repeating problematic situations. The program that Henley presented found behavioral problems to be effectively addressed when a child with ADHD was encouraged to draw a picture about a faulty behavior incident. Henley (1992) had previously stated that defenses such as resistance or oppositionality, which often operate when talking about an incident, frequently escape the mind’s censor when the topic is dealt with through drawing. Art is a non-threatening manner to inspect how the disorder impacts a child’s life. Naumburg (1973) explained that drawing about a behavior helps fix an incident in time and space by making it concrete to objectively examine the problem. Creative outlets offer children calming experiences that validate their reality.

Art & Autism

Art is an expressive tool for those who aren’t good with words or who struggle to be understood. Children with autism sometimes lack the means to communicate easily, but a more accurate description is that they often do not see the necessity or value of communication (Osborne, 2003). Traditional means of communication might seem burdensome or superfluous, therefore enticing alternative methods have the potential to help children with autism express themselves. Osborne (2003) said that the ability to use augmentative communication systems, fluency, literacy skills of expression, reciprocity of conversation and listening skills are valuable and necessary for all pupils to acquire, but they are dependent on an intention and drive children with autism typically lack. Art may spark the necessary drive that will bolster the development of other communication aspects. Evans & Dubowski (2001) found that art therapy was particularly conducive to facilitating communication in its widest sense for children with autism in a residential setting. Communication is liberating, especially for those who have experienced a hindrance in their ability to be communicative. Art is effective in promoting a sense of meaningfulness, of ordering experiences and restoring a positive sense of self (Osborne, 2003). Having different abilities can create a frustrating reality and lead to demoralizing feelings. It is important to capture any opportunity to empower children in the embracement of their unique abilities. As confidence and mastery of identified strengths increases, more challenging tasks might be faced with less resistance and greater esteem.


Ahmed, S. H. & Siddiqi, M. N. (2006). Essay healing through art therapy in disaster settings. Lancet, 368, 528-529 .

American Art Therapy Association. (1997). Talk, talk, talk, when do we draw? Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Evans, K. & Dubowski, J. (2001). Art therapy with children on the autistic spectrum: Beyond words. London: Jessica Kingsley.

Henley, D. (1992). Exceptional children, exceptional art. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications.

Henley, D. (1998). Art therapy in socialization program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Art Therapy, 37 (1).

Naumburg, M. (1973). An introduction to art therapy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Osborne, J. (2003). Art and the child with autism: Therapy or education?. Early Child Development & Care, 173(4), 411-423.