The Art of Healing

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Art and Music Therapy Give Kids with Disabilities an Outlet for Their Thoughts and Emotions

Not everyone can create a masterpiece of art or music, poetry or dance a gift like that is all the more special because it is rare. But the process of creating art is a gift unto itself, empowering and life enhancing. For children with disabilities, art can be especially valuable in helping them communicate thoughts and feelings that might otherwise stay locked inside or end up expressed in inappropriate ways.

At Kennedy Krieger, art and music often play an integral role in a child's therapy plan. "I work with a lot of children who have pervasive developmental disorders," says Jennifer Glaaser, an art therapist at the Kennedy Krieger Lower and Middle Schools. "They have very limited resources for communication. For children who are non-verbal, art gives them a new way to say' what's on their mind. Many of the other children I work with have been diagnosed with emotional disorders and have been using unacceptable behaviors to convey their needs - art gives them a more appropriate middle ground."

To the untrained eye, the activities Glaaser arranges for the children she works with look much like typical grade school art projects. But the objectives are quite different. In most art education classes, instructors introduce concepts and assign projects designed to see how well a child has mastered those concepts. Art therapy takes the emphasis off of the finished product and focuses more on the process the child goes through to create it. "If I give a child a variety of craft supplies and ask if they want to build a car, I'm less concerned with whether or not the car can roll as I am with whether or not the child is confident doing it and doesn't seemed verwhelmed," says Glaaser.

Glaaser adapts her projects to suit children's individual needs. If she's working with a child who has problems with impulsivity, she'll introduce a loose material such as glitter or pasta shells and helps the child learn to control it. With children who have short attention spans, the emphasis is on sticking with a project until it is completed.

Many of the children Glaaser works with enjoy making collages, because they require less basic "skill" than creations made with raw materials like paints and crayons. "It's a huge myth that you have to be good' at art to benefit from making it," says Glaaser. "Collages are great projects for children who are less sure of their artistic abilities whether they're disabled or not."

At Kennedy Krieger, the work produced in art therapy sessions can be used as a visual record of how a child is doing. "If a child who is normally able to color inside the lines suddenly loses that ability, that's a sign that something is going on, something is troubling them," Glaaser says.

The Kennedy Krieger School also provides many students with music therapy. Like art therapy, music therapists pay little attention to whether a child can read music or understand tempo. Instead, music therapist Laura Tauzin uses the world of music to help students better prepare for the school day. "Some children, particularly children with autism spectrum disorders, learn better through the rhythm of song," she says. "It makes sense, when you think about it. Rhythm and music are an innate part of the human body's organization. Our heart and our respiratory system are dependent on rhythm to function properly." Instead of expecting children to learn letters, numbers and concepts like "in" and "out" purely from verbal lessons, Tauzin creates or introduces ways to convey those ideas through music.

Music therapy can be incorporated into the school day in a variety of ways. Tauzin uses songs to help children reduce their anxiety about attending school, or to reinforce concepts taught in more traditional classroom settings. "For children with pervasive developmental or emotional disorders, songwriting and improvisation help students to identify and explore emotions in non-threatening ways, develop coping skills and help them manage their behavior," says Tauzin. "Students can explore lots of different instruments for example, for some students, using a drum set allows them to vent anger and frustration. And many students are able to use singing or structured listening experiences to analyze lyrics and develop new insights into themselves and their behavior."

Art and music therapists have very different educational backgrounds than traditional art instructors. While art instructors typically have undergraduate degrees in fine arts or studio art and graduate work in art education, Glaaser's undergraduate degree included coursework in both fine arts and psychology. Her graduate program in art therapy included training in counseling and social work. Tauzin holds an undergraduate degree in music therapy, which includes coursework in music, psychology and sociology and a master's degree in music education. Relatively few schools have art or music therapists on staff. Some art and music therapists work privately, or in association with community centers. But parents can incorporate many of the concepts of art and music therapy into their lives at home.

In addition to helping kids learn behaviors like brushing their teeth and going to bed, Tauzin says parents can use music to help their children process difficult emotions. "If your child is going through the grieving process, see how they respond to a sad song, or one that might remind them of the person they miss," she says. Doing so helps children learn to face difficult emotions in a healthy way, rather than bottling them up or expressing them in an inappropriate fashion.

Glaaser recommends taking a similar attitude about children's art. "Make sure your child has a wide variety of materials to work with more than just crayons and paper," she suggests. "Give them glitter, pasta, feathers, buttons, whatever. Pick up on what your child gravitates to and make sure you provide a lot of that. More importantly, allow them to experiment, to make a mess and to fail in the traditional sense. When they do, tell them how impressed you were that they thought to try something different. Most kids, not just kids with disabilities, will quit making art by the age of 12 if they don't get positive reinforcement. That's a shame, because there are so many more benefits to making art than just hearing how good something looks."

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