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An aspect of the Center for Children and Families

Topic: The Uses of Art Therapy with Exceptional Children
Researched and written by: Leslie A.  Aguila
*I attest that the following report is a product of my own original work.

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There is a large percentage of students with exceptionalities in the schools. Majority of these students are under various forms of therapy, which could include medications, cognitive, behavioral, etc. Art therapy has been known to be an effective tool to incorporate with other forms of therapy. There are many ways of examining art therapy, including understanding its nature, benefits, uses in schools, and even discussing the issues relating to it. It has been known to build communication skills and school achievement for children with various disabilities. Giftedness, however, was not a type of exceptionality that art therapy was used for.
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            Artwork, in general, has a tendency to be abstract and complex. Artists who create these artworks have to have a sense of focused behavior and individual creativity. Exceptional children can relate to this idea due to the many various abstract and sometimes complicated disabilities they experience. But could art be used as a coping mechanism along with other forms therapy, such as medications, cognitive, and behavioral treatments. Many schools have art classes or activities as a part of its curriculum base, but the use of art as a therapeutic tool for children with exceptionalities is the idea behind art therapy. Art therapy’s purpose, regardless of the circumstance, is to encourage children and adolescents to express their feelings, participate in new tasks, such as those involving focused attention, and to learn creativity (Henley, 1998; Hume & Hiti, 1988; Sundaram, 1995; Zamierowski, 1980).

            Art therapy involves different tasks that allow children to be in the “artist’s seat”, and uses their creativity to form different kinds of artwork. This would include being able to perform simple acts such as learning where to find various art materials, choosing the correct materials needed for specific projects, or knowing how to clean up the mess from those projects (Kornreich & Schimmel, 1991). Artwork done by children under this type of therapy create drawings, murals, collages, paintings, and even sculptures to express their feelings. Remarkably, a child’s drawing, for example, becomes more detailed and livelier near the end of a therapy program.

There are five ways of examining the form of therapy currently presented. The first way would be having an understanding for which population art therapy would be helpful. Another way would be to examine the benefits of art therapy with different situations. The third discussion would be exploring its uses and incorporating it within the schools. Next, would be discussing some possible issues relating to art therapy. Last, but not least, some additional web sites created for art therapy would broaden perspectives on this issue.


            Before looking at the benefits of art therapy, it is important to have an understanding of how valuable it would be to have throughout all schools. In today’s American schools, approximately 83% of all students participate in special education (Turnball, Turnbull, Shank, and Smith, 2004). Within the special education population, two-thirds of all students were male and had emotional disturbances and/or learning disabilities (Turnball et al, 2004). The socioeconomic status of a student’s family as well as the ethnicity of the student has been found to have a relationship to those who would require special needs in school. Poverty, or a yearly income of less than $25,000, has a significant relationship to children with disabilities (Turnball et al, 2004). Almost two-thirds of the students with disabilities were from a household that fell at the poverty level. Majority of the households were found to involve single parenting.

The student’s ethnicity has a relationship to the placement of special education or giftedness program as well. There are certain demographic trends involving ethnicity throughout the U.S. that were listed by Deardorff & Hollmann (1997) found through Turnball et al (2004). Majority of these students were European American (73%) and African American (12%), although Hispanic American students, the fastest growing racial group, had a close percentage to African Americans with 11%. Minority students were underrepresented by 40 to 50% in gifted education, mean while; European Americans were overrepresented by 17%. Children who are in general education for many years can even be placed in special education after their peers are. Whether in special education or not, many children could benefit to art therapy.


Art therapy has been found to be a useful tool in many disabilities. Some of these disabilities involve discrepancies within the brain that art therapy may be useful for. Sommers (1977) suggested that children, specifically those with learning disabilities, have an imbalance in the brain that disrupts proper perception. An imbalancement of the left and right hemispheres affects perception, which has been known to occur in the right side (Zamierowski, 1980). A distortion in the right hemisphere relates to ‘negative emotions’, including anger, depression, etc., and art therapy can be seen as a tool that could relieve some of those feelings within a child (Prager, 1993). Using a creative-expressive approach, such as art therapy, can aid the necessary attention needed for the right hemisphere (Zamierowski, 1980).

Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) was another disability that this form of therapy had positive effects on. Integrating art therapy to a multi-modal program, which also involved psychodynamic, cognitive, and behavioral therapy, enhances a child’s capability to coping with AD/HD on a long-term basis (Henley, 1998). These effects included controlling impulse behavior as well as increasing the ability to focus, even with a stimulating activity such as painting a mural.

Expressive art can boost success of other types of therapy. Group art therapy was used with adolescents with mental retardation (Hume & Hiti, 1988). Those with mental retardation typically mistrust their own opinions and have a tendency to be dependent on others, especially authority figures like teachers or parents. Group art therapy has been found to allow adolescents to reassess their internal as well as their external worlds that resulted in building ego strengths and expressing emotions. A simple act as drawing, teenagers with mental retardation were able to express themselves in a way that was difficult to put into words.

Art therapy was also found to be useful with a child who had autism (Kornreich & Schimmel, 1991). Typical autistic behaviors, such as symptoms of withdrawal, were controlled through the use of art therapy. Through proper training within art therapy, the child was able to perform simple acts such as learning where various art materials were located at, choosing the correct materials needed for specific projects, or knowing how to clean up after completing the projects. The child was also able to gain a trusting relationship to the art therapist he worked with that made it easier to create bonds with his other siblings and classmates.

Children being hospitalized can benefit to art therapy as well. Serious illnesses can cause children to have psychological distress as a result of it. Art therapy can be used as a coping mechanism and it also allows children to express their emotions (Prager, 1993; Sundaram, 1995). Art therapy was seen as a powerful tool for encouraging hospitalized children, such as those with paralysis, a fatal kidney disease or even a borderline psychotic child (Prager, 1993; Steinhardt, 1995). A borderline psychotic child benefited from art therapy by using artistic rituals, which included repeated drawings that implied fear, emotions, and mobility of the outside world, to understand basic life processes and a sense of self through its symbolism (Steinhardt, 1995). Art therapy was also useful with a child who was temporarily hospitalized for a sports injury (Sundaram, 1995). The child was overwhelmed with anxiety and fear, but because of the barrier free qualities involved in drawing, a part of the child’s art therapy program, it lowered the child’s inhibitions and increased confidence and eagerness to take risks (Sundaram, 1995).


            Art therapy isn’t used in all schools as a coping mechanism for disabilities, but there have been some research that tested its usefulness and incorporated it within a school environment. Polarities, or contrasting emotions, such as right/left hemisphere functioning, or verbal/non-verbal skills, are imbalanced within developmentally disabled children and are important for the process of learning as needed in schools (Thompson, 1982). Among other factors as well, regarding polarities with the use of art therapy, can encourage proper balance of emotions within children (Thompson, 1982). In one study, an art teacher at a school for learning disabilities wanted children to have a sense of self-awareness, identifying oneself to attain self-knowledge (Sommers, 1977). Children with learning disabilities have a distortion in the brain, which appears to have an effect on poor judgment. It was found that making marionette dolls as a group class project caused students to be more grounded and less random (Sommers, 1977). Within the schools, it has been suggested that those who are learning disabled, with educable mentally retardation, or emotionally disturbed all have the capability to achieve but also, if not treated, could potentially diminish learning capacity (Zamierowski, 1980). Art therapy was even useful for a borderline psychotic child, who as a result to this method, allowed him to be able to enter a normal school environment (Steinhardt, 1995). Children who undergone this form of therapy have improved on school performance, creativity, self-awareness, and relating to fellow peers (Carter, 1979; Henley, 1998; Steinhardt, 1995).


            The therapeutic practice of art therapy is still relatively new and has not been widely used for a long duration of time. In 1979, art therapy was not commonly used but Carter tested its effectiveness with children who had a learning disability. Even in the 1960s, controlling unwanted behaviors of autism only used operant conditioning as the main tool, despite its lack of long-term success (Kornreich & Schimmel, 1991). Using this form of therapy as the only way of coping with a disability was not found. Art therapy was meant to be an additional form of treatment along with medication, group therapy, etc. No research was found that conducted the effects of art therapy with giftedness.


            Art therapy, no matter what type of disability a child has, was found to be an effective tool to incorporate in a program. Despite its lack of use within schools and how relatively new this has been found to be, with more studies on the subject matter, it is possible to ensure proper development of disabled children. The artwork of children under art therapy has found to increase in detail throughout the duration of the program, suggesting that the child’s individual abilities are increasing and providing ways for a child to cope with their disability. Special Education involves many students, as well as those who are placed into it even after being under general education for years. It can be inferred that something lacks within these children and the use of focused attention and creativity involved with art therapy can increase the possibility of long-term success in life. Building communication skills, self-awareness, balancing emotions and ego strengths has also been found in children who were under art therapy. Giftedness and using art therapy alone should also be examined to support effectiveness throughout the entire population of students in schools.


1.)                           Concordia University not only provides information on the uses of art therapy, this web site covers all creative art therapies. Along with art this includes: drama and music therapy.


2.)                           Within the New Horizons for Learning web site, E.C. Jarboe proposes the benefits of art therapy as a part of full inclusion in school settings.

3.)                           For additional researches of the effects of art therapy on various disabilities, to name a few this web site includes its benefits to children with autism, coping bereavement, and abusive backgrounds. Therapy-Research.htm


Carter, J.L. (1979). Art therapy and learning disabled children. Art Psychotherapy, 6, 51 – 56.

Henley, D. (1998). Art therapy in a socialization program for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. American Journal of Art Therapy, 37(1), 2 – 11.

Hume, S.C. and Hiti, J.N. (1988). A rationale and model for group art therapy with mentally retarded adolescents. The American Journal of Art Therapy, 27, 2 – 12.

Kornreich, T.Z. and Schimmel, B.F. (1991). The world is attacked by great big snowflakes: Art therapy with an autistic boy. The American Journal of Art Therapy, 29, 77 – 84.

Prager, A. (1993). The art therapist’s role in working with hospitalized children. American Journal of Art Therapy, 32(1), 2 – 10.

Sommers, S. (1977). Marionette making and self-awareness. American Journal of Art Therapy, 16, 51 – 54.

Steinhardt, L. (1995). Long-term creative therapy with a borderline psychotic boy. American Journal of Art Therapy, 34, 43 – 49.

Sundaram, R. (1995). In focus: Art therapy with a hospitalized child. American Journal of Art Therapy, 34(1), 2 – 7.

Thompson, L. (1982). Movement therapy and the specific use of polarities with developmentally disabled children. Pratt Institute Creative Arts Therapy Review, 3, 33 – 40.

Turnbull, R., Turnbull, A., Shank, M., and Smith, S.J. (2004). Exceptional Lives Special Education in Today’s Schools (Fourth Edition). Columbus, OH: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Zamierowski, M.J. (1980). The integration of psychoanalytical and neurophysiological approaches into an art therapy framework for the treatment of children with learning disabilities. Pratt Institute Creative Arts Therapy Review, 1, 31 – 36.

This website is a service learning project by the students of "Psychology of the Exceptional Child" at Frostburg State University.  Manager of web page and project: Dr. Megan E. Bradley