Art therapy helps cultivate development in children with special needs

“Special needs” is a term used to describe a wide variety of children living with medical, mental and psychological disorders. These may include children diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, or those on the Autism spectrum. Children who fall under the umbrella of special needs, share many similar characteristics. Like all children, they are bright, fun, imaginative, and curious. They want to be successful, understood, acknowledged, and validated for their unique strengths and talents. Sometimes underdeveloped communication, sensory integration challenges, disruptive behaviors, and lack of focus can undermine a child’s ability to learn and thrive. This can leave both the parent and the child feeling frustrated and wondering what to do. Art therapy is a way to address these challenges and more, all the while providing a creative, enjoyable outlet for your child that fosters imagination, expression, self-fulfillment, and connection.


Cartoon with check mark

  • understand what art therapy is
  • understand how art therapy can help
  • take time finding the right therapist
  • discuss goals
  • let your therapist know about any/all allergies

Cartoon with x mark

  • think art skill is required for it to be beneficial
  • assume that nonverbal or blind kids can’t benefit from that art therapy
  • focus on the product
  • be afraid to discuss how your child is doing
  • give up after just a few sessions

Molly van Rijssen, MA, ATR, LPC‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand what art therapy is

Art therapy, like its name suggests, is a blend of art and therapy. The therapeutic quality of art making has been recognized for hundreds of years. Art therapy uses this creative process to help to cultivate health and wholeness. The art therapist is generally a masters level therapist who has been trained in the visual arts, creative process, human development, behavior, personality, and mental health. From the outside, an art therapy session might appear very much like an art lesson – but the purpose and goals are very different.

Do understand how art therapy can help

Art therapy can help to develop a variety of skills: emotional, cognitive, relational, and motor. Art therapy can improve communication (both verbal and nonverbal), promote relaxation, improve focus, foster expression, reduce anxiety, provide a sense of accomplishment, help build a sense of self, increase self-esteem, and teach interpersonal skills. The list of therapeutic benefits goes on and on. The materials used can help with fine motor control, as well as tactile defensiveness. Many children with sensory integration challenges benefit greatly from this aspect of art therapy because the art process lends itself to new and pleasurable sensory experiences. The therapist is well versed in which materials will elicit different responses, and trained to know when to challenge a bit more, or pull back so as not to overwhelm.

Do take time finding the right therapist

There are several ways to find an art therapist. Talking to the therapists that are already in your child’s life can be a great way to get a referral because these trusted therapists know your child, and may know someone who might be a good fit. Many art therapists are registered with the American Art Therapy Association. Contact foundations and programs where art therapy is a part of the work that is being done. For instance, in Denver, the Epilepsy Foundation, Adams Camp, Denver Hospice, and Naropa University all have programs which include art therapy. Reaching out to accredited art therapy schools in your area for a list of referrals can be another way to find a therapist.

Once you have a few names, ask each therapist what types of individuals they generally work with. Therapists are all trained differently and have different specialties. The most important thing is to find someone with whom both you and your child feel comfortable.

Do discuss goals

Goals help define what it is being addressed in therapy. Talk to your therapist about how you hope your child will benefit from art therapy. Strengthening nonverbal communication, increasing expression, providing relaxation, or even simply offering a creative outlet are all examples of goals. This helps both the therapist and the parents to become clear about what is expected. From this clear starting point goals can be evaluated and adjusted accordingly.

Do let your therapist know about any/all allergies

Art therapists will often create materials that your child will enjoy on many different sensory levels. At times this can be anything from creating homemade play clay with a cornstarch base to paints scented with essential oils or extracts. Letting the therapist know when there are allergies will help prevent a dangerous situation from occurring. Additionally, if you know your child tends to eat small items or materials resembling food, let the therapist know this too. Everyone will have peace of mind knowing your child is creating art safely.

Molly van Rijssen, MA, ATR, LPC‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not think art skill is required for it to be beneficial

Part of the therapeutic nature of art therapy is simply engaging in a creative process where there is no right or wrong way. The art therapist has the training to assist and support your child to create successful engagement and to provide a therapeutic space where expression and self-discovery can unfold.

Do not assume that nonverbal or blind kids can’t benefit from that art therapy

Art therapy addresses all five senses and has the ability to provide any individual with a means of creative expression. The therapist will create interventions that are tailored to your child and your child’s specific needs. This individualized treatment will then help your child to access feelings, while providing a safe, and possibly new, world of expression.

Do not focus on the product

Focusing more on the process, rather than the final product, reduces the stress of “getting it right”, and allows your child the freedom to practice taking risks, and to create something which is special and uniquely his or her own. The images, colors, and story your child tells about the image and process are just as important as the finished product. There are many levels of creation happening in each art piece and each should be celebrated and treasured. Honoring your child’s creation is validating.

Do not be afraid to discuss how your child is doing

Both you and your therapist want your child to be successful. After some time passes, if something isn’t working, talk to your therapist about it. Adjustments can be made to help fine tune the therapeutic process. Additionally, if something is working well, let your therapist know this too. Celebrating success is important!

Do not give up after just a few sessions

Any strong therapeutic relationship takes time to build. The relationship between your child and his/her therapist, helps create the therapeutic space in which your child can feel safe to express and grow. Help support the relationship formation by talking about upcoming sessions positively, and by reminding your child when the therapist is coming.


Children living with special needs, like all children, want to be able to express themselves and be successful. Art therapy is a beneficial and enjoyable way to help support your child’s development. Working with a trained art therapist can open up a new world of nonverbal expression, which ultimately helps your child to be understood, acknowledged, and validated for their unique strengths and talents.

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