Adolescents with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s Disorder have different needs than children with these disorders. Although they continue to have obsessive interests, difficulties with organization, and pragmatic language problems, learning to make social connections is the greatest need. As they strive to develop their own personalities, adolescents with high-functioning autism are also hoping to be accepted by their peers. Unfortunately, they are frequently rejected or ridiculed by classmates. Social skills training is frequently used to help adolescents fit in. Many social skills training programs focus on making eye contact, making introductions, and beginning conversations. Lessons are taught and participants engage in role-plays to practice the skills. In our experience, students who participate in such programs continue to stand out from their peers because, even though they may have learned what to say, they have not learned when to say it. In other words, they have not learned to generalize their skills in different settings. They may appear stiff and formal in attempted interactions with peers. They also do not appear to have gained insight into their own behavior or that of others. We elected to teach social skills in a different manner. A group of four boys ranging in age from 13 to 16 years met weekly for one hour for six weeks during the summer then 12 weeks during the fall semester. The group will continue in the spring. Ms. Muenke served as the leader for the group and Dr. DeOrnellas provided supervision and support. To provide opportunities for social interactions, the group was structured as activity therapy with the boys taking part in board games, card games, and art activities. The purpose of this presentation is to describe one particularly effective art activity. While it is generally accepted that all children will benefit from the experience of art, children with autism spectrum disorder, especially those who are cut off from the world of social interaction, may particularly benefit from the positive growth produced by art. Flowers (1992) reported that art helps children with autism to develop a positive self-image, pride in accomplishment, and an appreciation of the beauty around them. It also helps them to develop the basic skills of “concept development, cause and effect, spatial relationships, body in space, form discrimination, perceptual motor skills, sequencing, tactile/kinesthetic awareness, fine motor skills, attention span, [and] eye contact” (Flowers, 1992, p. 1). While many articles have been written about using art activities with individuals in therapy, Noble (2001) reported on the use of art therapy in social skills groups with children with autism and Martinovich (2006) outlined creative activities for use with groups of individuals with Asperger’s Disorder. To help the boys in our group develop a better sense of their identities, a mask making activity was planned. We were not sure how the boys would react since they have sensory issues and do not always like to be touched. To help them to feel more comfortable, they were allowed to choose the type of mask they wanted to make. Participants could choose a full mask (eyes and/or mouth covered or not) or a partial mask (Phantom of the Opera style). They could also choose to have a plaster mask made of their face by the group leader or a group member or they could choose to use a pre-made mask. Two participants chose to have their masks made of plaster while the other two elected to use pre-made masks. They then decorated their masks with tissue paper, paint, and feathers. The mask making activity took several weeks to complete and a number of lessons were learned. For those participants who chose the plaster mask, trust and patience were required. Working with the wet plaster was uncomfortable for participants who had sensory issues. Frustration tolerance came into play as the participants waited for plaster to dry. Sharing took place naturally when too few supplies were deliberately set out on the table. As they worked on their masks, the boys chatted about what they were planning to do. Once the masks were complete, the boys shared their final products with each other and the group leader led them in a processing activity. Participants were asked a number of thought-provoking questions. These included:
· How do others perceive/see you?
· Are there parts of you that others may not know about?
· What do you keep to yourself?
· What parts are you excited to share with others? What parts do you share more slowly?
· What emotions do others often see in you?
· What emotions do you often feel?
· Do you see yourself the way others see you?
· Are there things that others tee you that you do not believe about yourself?
In responding to the questions, the boys demonstrated insight into their own behavior and that of others. They were able to describe their feelings and demonstrate their understanding that their behavior does not always match the way they feel. The boys were very proud of the masks they made and a number of activities will be developed using the masks in future sessions.
Flowers, T. (1992). Reaching the child with autism through art. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
Martinovich, J. (2006). Creative expressive activities and Asperger’s syndrome: Social and emotional skills and positive life goals for adolescents and young adults. London: Jessica Kingsley.
Noble, J. (2001). Art as an instrument for creating social reciprocity: Social skills group for children with autism. In S. Riley (Ed.), Group processes made visible: Group art therapy (pp. 82-114). Philadelphia: Brunner-Routledge.