Engaging Autistic Students with the Arts
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, November/December 2019 Issue
By Christine Hughes
The saying goes, “If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one.” As one person on the Autism spectrum may be highly verbal, another may be non-verbal. As one may not be able to tolerate touch, another may be extremely tactile.
Ask any educator who has welcomed multiple learners with autism into his or her classroom, and you will find there is no set formula for ensuring academic success. When charged with teaching any student on the spectrum, one will likely find him or herself teetering the line of adhering to predictable routines while “thinking outside the box.”
Because Autism Spectrum Disorder affects communication and behaviour, an ASD diagnosis can pose unique challenges to social learning. Limited interests and repetitive behaviours often impair a person’s ability to function in a school environment.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were protocols for embedding recognizable patterns and comforting routines into content delivery, while providing stimulating opportunities for student-led discovery? What if I told you that Arts Integrated Teaching can not only enliven your classroom, but also be a lifeline for those with ASD? Even teachers without prior experience in the arts can effectively use visual art and music to achieve learning targets with students regardless of ability.
As an elementary music teacher, I enjoy being instrumental in helping children express themselves. When my school was awarded grant funding for Arts Integration, my fine arts colleagues and I were ecstatic! Colourful hallways lined with student paintings and music pouring out of every door seemed an ideal environment for engaged learning. However, some of our general education colleagues were less enthused.
With so much focus on standardized testing, many were reticent to “waste time” on “fluff.” Some had concerns about their ability to incorporate the arts effectively and wondered if utilizing artistic tools might be better left to the experts. These concerns are not uncommon for those who are unfamiliar or new to Arts Integration.
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts defines Arts Integrated Teaching as “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject area and meets evolving objectives in both.”
Recognizing that the arts can provide helpful processes for learning, and letting go of expectations for perfect finished products is essential for implementing Arts Integration successfully. This “process over product,” ideology is the reason why arts practices resonate well with learners who struggle with abstract thought, but feel more in tune with linear objectives.
Let’s delve into specific ways in which drawing, responding to imagery, and engaging in music can positively impact the communication, emotional, and sensory needs of students on the autism spectrum in your class.
Drawing can help children with autism to convey thoughts and feelings they might otherwise have difficulty communicating. Yet, fine motor development is often delayed in those with ASD. Since drawing helps to develop coordination, step-by-step instruction, tracing, or hand-over hand support while drafting a graphic organizer or map can be extremely beneficial. The value of using drawing as a learning tool can be considerable as autism studies have found connections between fine motor development and expressive language skill.
An assignment that requires drawing the setting of a particular story chapter may be preferable to describing or writing about it. This task allows the learner to recall and depict details in a way that side-steps the challenges of accessing language in order to be understood. Lesson extension or assessment may involve labeling items and making predictions using joint attention, which is preferred by many autists over direct eye contact.
Responding to Imagery
Although a number of people with autism are highly verbal, nuanced language can be confusing. Many prefer pictorial communication. Visual aids help to illustrate new concepts, making them seem instantly accessible. Imagine the significance of presenting academic material in visual form to a child affected with autism.
VTS or Visual Thinking Strategies is an inquiry-based teaching method that is embraced by proponents of Arts Integration and can be applied in any subject area. The practice of VTS involves displaying an image such as a painting, poster, album cover, book illustration, etc., and asking students to draw conclusions based on text-based evidence (the context being the image).
The main aspects of VTS teaching protocol include three key inquiries:
- What’s going on in this picture?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can we find?
Utilizing this technique allows the learner to focus on easily identifiable information. The student can connect bits of information to deepen understanding and work toward inferring and deducing with support. You may be surprised to discover how emotionally aware many concrete thinkers can be. They often notice details that others miss.
Engaging in Music
Some children on the spectrum like the patterns and rhythms of music or chants, and they can benefit from learning content in song form. Making music or singing along with their peers gives the child with ASD a part to play which is predictable and easy to complete yet simultaneously creative, expressive, and inclusive. Although Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)—often associated with autism—may pose challenges to the incorporation of music in the classroom, I have found that a few strategies can help build healthy tolerance to sound stimuli:
- When playing songs or accompaniments on devices, give the student control over the power button and/or volume. Most often, the unpredictability of when the sound will occur causes more stress than the sound itself.
- If using musical instruments in the classroom, explore timbre (the tone quality or “colour” of the sound each instrument produces). Bright, piercing sounds may be irritants, so it could a good idea to limit the use of metals like triangles and cymbals. Conversely, they can be novel and attention-grabbing, cutting through other, confusing noises, and maybe preferred by some.
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There are so many ways Arts Integrated learning can help autists engage their expressive abilities and nourish habits of openness for socialization. The arts provide opportunities for independent decision-making. Students engaging in creativity regularly make personal choices related to colour, media, and content. The artistic arena fosters extended attention span and social skill development by requiring using and sharing tools with others. Tools themselves provide a tangible prompt to stay on task.
As I now encounter great Arts Integrated teaching at my school and others, I am inspired. I witness high-quality educators expand their capacity to teach. I watch as the myths of individuals with autism lacking individuality and emotion are dispelled. Most of all, I see the world of art helping special learners connect with the world, using modes that are accessible to them.
Christine Hughes is an autism mom and professional Music Specialist with Bartlett City Schools in Bartlett, TN. Christine has studied Arts Integration extensively and presented inclusive strategies on teaching students with disabilities at the district and state level.