Art therapy can be enormously beneficial to those with learning disabilities, and thousands of parents, carers and professionals have already discovered how getting creative can help deal with challenging behaviour and give a better understanding of emotions.
Art therapy is a psychological and creative intervention that uses all sorts of art and craft materials to aid the expression of feelings. An art therapist facilitates the process and helps the person get a better understanding of their emotional world.
It can be particularly beneficial to those with limited or no speech and is a great approach to self-expression through exploration. Even a smudge of paint can say a lot where words can’t express a feeling.
As you will know being a parent, carer or professional, those with learning disabilities can face problems with emotional development because they rely on you for many of their daily needs. Normal milestones, such as birthdays, starting school and moving into assisted living, can be incredibly difficult.
People come to me for art therapy for various reasons, and if you think it could help the person you are caring for do investigate the options. Transitional times in life, bereavement, abuse and trauma are common reasons for starting art therapy.
Creative groups can bring a sense of belonging, encourage social interaction and communication, and are a great opportunity to learn. Carers can also benefit from art therapy – a sense of release and respite is often found.
Each person will come to art therapy for different reasons; and the outcomes will be correspondingly different. But whatever the underlying issues, the sessions can bring a chance to discuss and explore feelings and situations, and in a safe, controlled environment that gives space for self-discovery and unleashed creativity.
As an example, in a group for young women with mild learning disabilities, one member made a house out of a cardboard box, furnished with found objects and recycled materials. Others followed this idea, and all ended up creating these ‘dolls houses’, a symbol of youth and escape, but something that then allowed us to talk about hopes and dreams for the future. A wish to be independent was a common theme, but as they were dependent on parents and carers, this was a huge challenge. The houses allowed the group to talk about the possibility of becoming more independent and issues around growing up.
For others, pieces produced in art therapy can have a more immediate and obvious meaning. One woman in her 40s with moderate learning disabilities drew herself much smaller than the residential carers and friends in her pictures. This stemmed from abuse in her upbringing, showing how vulnerable she felt. Over time, she was able to think about her relationships and the representations of herself became bigger, sometimes the same size as others.
Art therapy is a unique process, combining creativity and psychotherapy for growth, awareness and healing. No skills are required – it is not about making realistic drawings or painting a masterpiece – everyone is free to make the images that express their feelings.
Over the years I have found that this therapy can ease distress, increase awareness, resolve conflicts and cope with trauma, helping those with learning disabilities, their carers and parents manage problems.
London Art Therapy Centre