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Tips for doing art with your neuro-divergent child

February 23, 2022
By Beth Herrild

My nephew, Oliver, shies away from drawing anything realistic. He prefers to draw abstract designs. As a perfectionist, he is afraid his realistic drawings won’t be perfect. But he loves drawing. It gives him great pleasure, and he’s learned to navigate around his perfectionism.

Morgan rushes through drawing activities with a haphazard approach because she lacks the patience and focus. While both kids are on the Autism spectrum, (more broadly they are neuro divergent or non neurotypical,) they couldn’t be more different. We humans are a neuro-diverse species. We all have our unique gifts and challenges. Art engages children’s senses and supports their development in amazing ways that enhance cognitive, social-emotional and multi-sensory growth & learning, but some kids can have extra challenges engaging in art projects. Below are some strategies to help in doing art with your neuro-divergent or non neurotypical child.

Perfectionism

Many of us have perfectionism tendencies and in some neuro divergent children these are heightened. Perfectionists typically have unrealistically high expectations for themselves. When they do not meet them, it can lead to frustration, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. If your child is a perfectionist, try these tips:

1. Be careful about showing an example of what the project should look like. Instead, focus on technique, showing them some examples and then let them decide what their artwork should look like, without trying to live up to an example.
2. Focus on the process rather than the final product as much as possible. One way to do this is to do art activities that aren’t meant to produce a finished work of art. You are just trying different techniques or playing with color. 3. Encourage drawing and painting, and don’t require them to draw realistic images.
4. Get a Buddha Board so that drawings fade away when they dry.
5. Try working on a piece for a maximum of 20 minutes and then walking away.
6. Work on a piece together (this can be really freeing for some kids who are perfectionists but super stressful for others.)
7. If drawing or painting stresses your child out, try a 3-D project like clay, paper mache, or building sculptures with cardboard.

If your child is a perfectionist, he may have trouble with transitions. My oldest son had a tough time in elementary school whenever he was forced to transition to a new activity before what he was working on was completed to his satisfaction. Keep art projects small and simple if you need to have a time limit.

Read our blog post Art Perfectionism & Your Child for more suggestions on dealing with perfectionism.

Lack of Patience

If your child tends to become overwhelmed easily, try these:

1. Reduce unnecessary stimuli while maintaining structure and routine.
2. Limit the choices of supplies; too many choices can be paralyzing. “Today we’re playing with watercolors.”
3. Give them some structure for the project and then freedom within the structure.

Many kids on the autism spectrum need to know what the sequence of events will be. Be as clear as possible about what you’ll do first, second, and third and create a routine for whenever you do art together. We like to begin by reading a book together on a sofa or floor. The book can be about an artist or time period; or perhaps the illustrations show the technique we’re learning that day. Reading together to begin is a way to connect with your child and set a context for the art project, which can be particularly important for some kids.

Then, you can put on your art aprons and proceed to a table where you have already set out all of the necessary supplies and taken away anything that isn’t necessary. Keep all supplies that you won’t be using out of sight. You may even want to create a poster with the steps on it and some images to cue each step like a book, an apron, and a table.

As mentioned above, many kids have trouble with transitions. Give five and 10-minute warnings to cue transitions. Setting a timer can be helpful so your child has a visual cue of when time will be up.

Although for perfectionists, it can be good to avoid showing an example of what a project could look like, other kids may need more concrete examples. Some kids need explicit instructions that break down directions into bite-sized chunks, modeling expectations, using visual clues, and discussing thinking processes.

Art supplies or activities that could cause your child to engage in sensory avoidance or sensory-seeking behavior

There are many sensory experiences when creating art, including smells and textures. Anticipating a child’s sensory avoidance or sensory-seeking behaviors will help you be prepared to create the best possible experience for him. Engaging with art supplies tactilely may be a wonderful thing for your child or it may be problematic. Some kids LOVE touching things – everything! Others HATE touching things.

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For the touching things LOVERS:

Some kids just love diving in and getting their hands dirty, whether with finger painting or clay modeling. There is something really magical about interacting with art supplies with our hands rather than a tool, like a brush. If your child is one to just dive in hands first, here are a few tips:

1. For finger painting, our favorite supplies are actually water soluble oil paints. If they are decent quality, they should be buttery and creamy and oh so satisfying! You can paint on mixed media paper, canvas, canvas boards, smooth wood boards, or Masonite. Just make sure that you aren’t using any pigments that are toxic. Check labels on paints before encouraging your kids to get them all over their hands. Some pigments have minerals in them that can be toxic and can go into your bloodstream through the skin, like cadmium, cobalt, manganese, chromium, and lead.

2. If your child loves touching everything and getting covered in paint, put some boundaries around your art activity like: “The paint must stay on this table that is covered with plastic. You can use your hands as much as you want, but when you’re done, let me know so I can help you clean up.”

3. Also, make sure that putting on an old shirt or apron, pushing sleeves up, and covering your table and floor are part of your routine every time, even when you aren’t using supplies that seem messy.

4. If you do let kids get their fingers in the paint, there needs to be a clear and simple process for cleaning hands before they touch something else (or each other). Also, water soluble oils and acrylics wash off surfaces and clothes while they’re still wet, but once they dry, they’re permanent!

5. Our favorite air-dry clay is Creative Paper Clay. It is non-toxic and easy to manipulate for little hands. For more about containing the mess, read our blog post, Want to Do Art With Your Kids But Afraid of the Mess?

For the touching things HATERS:

If your child is tactually defensive, certain materials or activities may cause him to go into sensory avoidance mode and refuse to participate. When my son was in early elementary school, he would rather go hungry than eat a messy sandwich that would get his hands dirty. Sticking his fingers in glue or paint was absolutely out of the question. For these kiddos:

1. Offer a variety of tools like brushes, cotton swabs, sponges etc.
2. Since our brains process creativity differently when we’re using our hands rather than a tool, like a brush, you may also try giving him thin disposable gloves. The gloves could allow experiencing manipulating the materials with the hands without fear of getting messy.
3. Smell the supplies before introducing them to your child. I’ve had kids in my class who were preoccupied by how a specific product smelled and were unable to do the project. These were supplies that I never even noticed had odors, but now I realize they did! There are some art suppliers that intentionally add smell for fun, like fruit-scented markers. Even if these scents aren’t objectionable to your child, they could be super distracting!

So stick to supplies that aren’t messy and don’t smell. Later, you can try adding one in from time to time, just to test it out slowly.

Follow Your Child’s Passions

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Find out what your child finds joyful about art making and do more of that! If he wants to explore color and just paint entire sheets of paper with colors – go with it! In time, you may be able to encourage him to mix colors and see what happens. You can also encourage him to try different techniques with his colors. Perhaps he’s super knowledgeable about dinosaurs or machines. Try to incorporate these subjects into art-making. Art should be fun and include an element of play.

Show him lots of art with the colors he loves. If your child is drawn to three-dimensional art, let him explore that. Provide a structure and a small selection of materials and then within the structure, let him experiment. Then, after the project is done, ask your child to tell you about his art to encourage reflection. For more about this, read our blog post, How to Talk to Your Child (or Anyone) About Her Art.

He may even create things that you don’t really think are art but he used his creativity, so that’s great. Some kids enjoy creating 3-D sculptures and then playing with them as toys.

In the end, you know your kids best. No two children are exactly alike. Hope these tips have given you some ideas for creating art with your neuro-divergent child!