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Autism Spectrum Disorder Inclusion Strategies in the Elementary Art Room

Sandra LewAllen
Michigan State University
ED 870
July, 28 2007

AUTISM is a spectrum of conditions that typically includes impaired social abilities

and intense, systematic interests a trait that often emerges as skills in math, drawing and
music. Ms. Wiltshire, who is two years older than her brother, said that he started making
elaborate drawings when he was about 3. (Dwyer, 2009) Stephen Wiltshire, 35, will memorize
what he sees of cities by helicopter. His 19 foot drawings depicting the cities in great, minute,
detail are nothing short of genius. Stephen Wiltshire is a person with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
He communicates through drawing and until the age of 5, spoke no words. His first words were
pen and paper after returning from a kindergarten field trip. He needed to draw and what he
drew was an elaborate city. The outlet that art offers is fundamental to his means of
communication. More than ever, it is imperative to celebrate and support those skills and gifts
which need nurturing and developing in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The inclusive
art room is a place and space to begin.
Many children with autism are good at drawing, art, and computer programming.
These talent areas should be encouraged. I think there needs to be more emphasis on
developing the child's talents. Dr. Temple Grandin, Ph.D.
I teach 600 art students per week in grades K 5 in two separate public schools within
the same district. It is a diverse learning environment with students from all walks of life.
Within that number, 25 students with Autism Spectrum Disorder participate in art each week.
They do not all attend at one time, but rather they come with their assigned homerooms. Some
are low functioning from self-contained classrooms and attend with an aide, some are high
functioning and come from an inclusive classroom, and others are in the process of
mainstreaming and attend with a paraprofessional. The goal of this project is to understand,

research practical strategies, and adapt them to my inclusive art room so that every student has
the best art experience that he/she is capable of having.
There are three educational environments utilized by our public school system in which
to educate children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. These models include mainstreaming,
inclusion, and self contained classrooms. Children from all three environments participate in art
education along with other children on a weekly basis. Designing learning, altering the
environment, and accommodating individual needs is essential to the success of a meaningful
and productive art education experience in an inclusive classroom for all students. How, then,
does the art teacher provide a welcoming, productive, self expressive art experience in an
inclusive elementary art room setting for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder?
It is essential for the art educator to understand the three models for education because it
directly affects the comfort and expectations the students have upon entering the art room
environment. First, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder who are taught in a self-contained
classroom need the most supervision and assistance and their ratio of teacher to students is small.
In the self-contained classroom it is not uncommon to see a room with no fluorescent lighting,
minimal wall decorations, and even soft music playing. (Hincha-Ownby 2008) Second, the
children who are mainstreamed spend part of their day in a self contained classroom and the
other part of the day in a regular classroom setting. Mainstreaming takes place in non-academic
areas as well as extra curricular activities. Some students will attend with an aide, others may
not. Others may share the support of an aide with other students. The purpose of mainstreaming
is to socialize with other children and peers. The third model is inclusion which occurs for those
students who need minimal assistance and support and benefit from grade-level academics.

Additionally, they attend all specials classes offered (gym, music, art, library, and computer) as
well as extra curricular activities.
When children from these three environments come to the art room (a completely
different environment with loads of sensory stimulation) and they are accustomed to a modified
classroom environment that meets their own sensory needs, it can often times be a difficult
transition. Further, the types of learners coming from these three very different environments
need very different support and strategies in order to feel successful and safe in the art room.
I was able to succeed in spite of autism because I had good teachers. Dr. Temple
Grandin, Ph.D.
The physical art environment is the first thing the student encounters when walking
through the doors of the art room. It is most uncomfortable for these students to experience the
following distractions in classrooms; buzzing fluorescent lights, loud air conditioning units,
clicking fans, flag pole clanking outside the window and more. (Friedlander, 2008) Additionally,
something we take for granted in every classroom such as clocks, digital or analog, can inhibit
their ability to focus as some may become anxious and fixate on time. When I was a child, loud
sounds like the school bell hurt my ears like a dentist drill hitting a nerve. Children with autism
need to be protected from sounds that hurt their ears. The sounds that will cause the most
problems are school bells, PA systems, buzzers on the score board in the gym, and the sound of
chairs scraping the floor. In many cases the child will be able to tolerate the bell or the buzzer if
it is muffled slightly by stuffing it with tissues or duct tape. Scraping chairs can be silenced by
placing slit tennis balls on the ends of the legs or installing carpet. A child may fear a certain
room because he is afraid he may be suddenly subjected to squealing microphone feedback from
the PA system. The fear of the dreaded sound can cause bad behavior. (Grandin, 2002) These

types of interferences affect their ability to engage in learning. By eliminating and modifying the
art room space to lessen the sensory overload, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a
better chance of comfortably and safely participating in their art experience.
Simple strategies to alter the art space can have huge benefits. According to Diana
Friedlander, special education inclusion teacher and doctoral candidate, we can do simple things
and employ simple strategies to physically alter our rooms. She suggests having space in the
room where the schedule can be posted. The art schedule for the hour they attend can be posted
in the same spot each time so they know where to look and what to expect. There should be
plenty of open space for the students to move about freely when the need presents itself
(Friedlander, 2008). For those distracted with the presence of a clock, it is helpful to cover the
clocks prior to them entering the room. Placing students with Autism near bright windows
lessens the affects of the fluorescent lights. A space in the room dedicated to a safe place with
sensory toys/materials should be part of the environment. A basket filled with fidget toys, chairs
that have rice filled or inflatable cushions should also be available. These students also benefit
from soft music thus the art room should have a permanent CD player for this purpose. Art
rooms are highly visual and stimulation. Often times, art room spaces have a tendency of being a
chaotic mess and this, for students with Autism, is highly distracting. Organizing the space in a
minimalist approach can be soothing and beneficial.

Many people with autism are visual thinkers. I think in pictures. I do not think in

language. Temple Grandin

In F. E. Andersons book titled, Art for All the Children, she states that creative
expression is a positive creative outlet for children with disabilities. Art has value for students
with disabilities. There is also a relational component to art in that reinforces skills within the

curriculum and cross curricular. Further, art raises, in a positive manner, a childs self image.
(Anderson, 1978). Art is crucial to the curriculum for children with Autism in that they are
unique ways of learning about selfare structured disciplines that make a childs mind and
emotions reach far beyond a handicap; and finally, because for some children the arts are the best
way or the only way they are able to learn. (Gair, 1980) How do art teachers ensure that
children with Autism Spectrum Disorder engage fully in the value of art education in an
inclusive classroom while at the same time, feel comfortable?
Juliet Hart and Kelly Whalon have researched strategies that assist children with Autism
Spectrum Disorder in an inclusive classroom. Some of these strategies can be adapted to fit the
art room and the creative process. Meeting the needs of the students within the classroom
environment is an important first step in inclusion that can be easily adapted to the art room. By
examining ones instructional time, level of engagement, quality and clarity of directions for a
task, instructional pacing, appropriateness of content, and adaptation of teaching based on
student performance (Hart , & Whalon, 2008) the teacher is able to actively engage all learners.
In the art room, this can be done in several ways. Instructional time can and should be flexible as
needed for the student with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Breaking the lesson into very small
teaching segments assists with instructional pacing. Offering choices to the student pertaining to
content impacts his level of interest and thus his likeliness of remaining actively engaged.
Flexible grouping strategies can also be adapted to art education. By finding the right
group or cooperative learning team, the ASD child can be modeling peer behaviors and
processes. This lends itself easily to the art room in that the students are typically seated at
community tables. Peer tutors at the table encourage autonomy which allows the student to feel a
level of success. While creating his/her own individual art work, the encouragement and self

esteem boosting that comes from peers at the table community is invaluable. In this way, the art
room can offer a place for building self-esteem and independence. (Hart , & Whalon, 2008)
Social skills are connected to this strategy. The art room offers another opportunity to reinforce
and integrate social skills. This is a natural setting in which positive, formidable impressions can
be shaped. (Bellini, Peters, Brenner, & Hope, 2007).
The strategy of task analysis in the art room is easily achieved. When information is
broken down into small precise pieces, the student can succeed (Hart , & Whalon, 2008). If a
lesson on slab clay building is being presented, the art teacher would not present the entire
process all at one time. To fully utilize task analysis, she might begin by showing the students
how to roll the slab of clay. After this is achieved, the students would gather back to learn how
to cut the clay and assemble. When complete, they gather again to learn how to score and attach
the pieces using slip. Again, they return to the demonstration table to learn about the final
assembly. The student with ASD is learning the process, but not all at once.
Providing directions in multiple forms is another useful strategy. The directions can be
written on the board, Smart Board or Elmo. It can be verbally communicated. To reinforce, it can
be visually depicted in the form of a demonstration. Finally, the teacher can ask the student to
teach it back to the class. The variation of communicating ideas and lessons to the student in
addition to the spoken language is beneficial. (Hart , & Whalon, 2008)
An activity schedule in pictorial form, written word, color coding and more (on the board
or at their table) is helpful in teaching independence. If, perhaps, the lesson is printmaking, the
activity schedule would include the numbered steps, a visual representation next to each step,
and color codes. This gives the student a sense of autonomy. (Hart , & Whalon, 2008)

Using Priming gives the student a chance to look at the content material prior to
coming to class. There is a sense of comfort the student receives by being familiar with the topic
before engaging with peers. It allows him/her to discover the topic without feeling pressured in a
classroom setting or in front of his classmates. The art teacher can easily accommodate this
strategy. The child is given the following weeks topic in advance with materials to look at with
the support of either the teacher or his/her parents. The material should not be limited to printed
form. Utilizing the internet and offering good sites to visit and interact with are other options.
Applying universal design principles to assist students with ASD who may feel uneasy or
overwhelmed with the workload assigned is another strategy. An easy adaptation of this strategy
in the art room can be to simply allow the student with ASD to choose a medium in which he/she
feels comfortable. If the lesson is batik still life, the student with ASD can still learn and
appreciate still life, while creating it in a less daunting medium. The art instructor should have
optional materials readily available in this case.
The National Education Association offers their own strategies to assist educators with
the inclusion of students with ASD in the inclusive classroom. Consistent and predictable
routines are essential. The art room, while sometimes organized chaos, must have structure and
routine in order to comfortably welcome and engage students with ASD. Art teachers should
take full advantage their visual strength. Communicating daily routines, procedures, processes,
schedules, and more in visual form such as icons, pictures, cartoons, symbols, helps the student
toward autonomy and understanding. The familiarity of the physical space is useful. For example
the art supplies should always be in the same location and the student should have visual cues for
transitioning from the completion of one project to another. Asking the students to fill out an
assessment at the end of an art project reinforces key objectives as well as motivations. Finally,

by using strong areas if content interest, an art teacher can motivate her student to try new
techniques and mediums. The content interest area becomes a safety net while allowing the
student to reach beyond familiarity in mediums and processes. (National Educational
Association, 2006).
Dr. Scott Myers strongly urges that students with ASD in an inclusive classroom require
a low student to teacher ratio to allow sufficient amounts of 1-on-1 time and small group
instruction to meet specific individualized goals (Myers, 2007). The paraprofessional or aide
that is assigned to the student with ASD can continue her work during the art class. While she
continues to reinforce social skills, tasks, goals, etc., the student continues receiving 1-on-1
instruction in a non-academic class experience. This carryover maintains the integrity of the
program as well as encouraging minimal transitional issues.
The issue of token economy, in the inclusive classroom as reinforcement, is discussed
in the book titled, Helping Children with Autism Learn: Treatment Approaches for Teachers
and Parents by Bryna Siegel. She states that using tokens helps students with ASD by allowing
them to receive the tokens as a sort of paycheck. They can accumulate tokens which are
rewarded by the teacher for completing work, staying on task, good behavior and more. Once
accumulated, the student can then purchase a prize of his choice (Siegel, 2003). Adapting the
token economy into the art room to reward productive initiatives, skills and behaviors further
supports the student with ASD.
The use of assistive technology has great value in the inclusive art room. According to
the Technology Related Assistance for Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1988, (Public Law
100-407), assistive technology device means any piece of equipment, or product system, whether
acquired commercially, off the shelf, modified or customized, that is used to increase, maintain,

or improve functional capabilities of individuals with disabilities. (Wirkus, Comer, Swensen, &
Weingarten, 2009). As suggested in the manual titled, Assistive technology supports for
individuals with autism spectrum disorder, there are many different tools, strategies, low and
high tech tools that are available to assist students with ASD in the art room. Allowing the
student with ASD to chewing gum or drink water in the art room provides self regulating
stimulation that is socially acceptable as does a chewy for those needing oral stimulation. A
multi-sensory break card empowers the student to take breaks as he deems necessary. Brightly
colored wall art (a given in any art room) can be covered with a simple neutral covering to
eliminate visual over stimulation. Change the fluorescent light bulbs in the classroom with nonfluorescent bulbs. For tactile input, the art teacher should also have on hand Skishies, Koosh
balls, and looped Velcro. All of these low tech assistive technology tools can be used by every
art teacher with little to no cost. (Wirkus, Comer, Swensen, & Weingarten, 2009).
Mid and high tech tools and strategies also benefit ASD students. A mid tech tool and
strategy for multi sensory input is the Choice Sensory Board. This allows the student to choose
an activity when needed. Activities such as yo-yo, fast computer games, music movement and
walking can provide vestibular stimulation in the art room. High Tech Tools can also be used in
the art room. They include high or fast paced video games. This provides the sensory regulation
that many need.
Motor skills also present a challenge in the art room. To assist with this, there are several
low tech tools. The student will set their own preferences as to what works best for them. They
include; wider or thinner diameter pencils and markers, more color less pressure markers, soft
leads for less drag, drawing grips, graph paper, and alternate writing surfaces such as shaving
cream or sand.

Mid tech and high tech motor tools are also valid for use in the art room. They include
recording devices (for taping their thoughts and ideas), keyboarding (for communication) or
portable word processor. (Wirkus, Comer, Swensen, & Weingarten, 2009). Obviously the cost
could be prohibitive, but the likelihood is that those requiring these devices will already have
them and just simply bring them to the art room.
Art teachers of students with Autism Spectrum Disorder often times feel perplexed and
unqualified to handle inclusion in the art room. Without proper training and knowledge, art
teachers are unable to fully include in a productive manner a student with Autism Spectrum
Disorder. By adapting well researched strategies to the art room, we are able to provide the best
chance of a positive outcome in art for children with ASD. The strategies and accommodations
discussed set the path for successful art experiences in the inclusive art room. Students with
Autism Spectrum Disorder can enter the art room and feel welcomed and safe. Strategies for
altering lighting, sounds, and visual over-stimulation, while utilizing low, mid and high assistive
technologies and universal design principles in the art room positively encourages the best art
experience the student is capable of having.
As an artist, teacher, and human being, I have been profoundly inspired by working with these
students. I learn every day from my experiences with them, I learn about the purity of spirit,
the beauty of simplicity and the power of the creative soul. (Kennedy, 45)

Course References
Autism Society Canada, (2009). Asd arts. Retrieved from
Bellini, S., Peters, J. K., Benner, L., & Hope, A. (2007). A meta-analysis of school-based social
skills interventions for children with ASD Spectrum Disorders. Remedial and Special
Education, 28, 153-162.
Dwyer, Jim. (2009, October 27). Like a Skyline etched in his head. The New York Times

Friedlander, Diana. (Ed.). (2008). Sam comes to school: including students with autism in your
classroom. Washington, DC: Heldref Publications.

Hart , Juliet, & Whalon, Kelly. (2008, November). Promote academic engagement and
communication of students with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive settings.
Intervention in School and Clinic, 44(2), 116-119.
Myers M.D., M. (2007). Management of children with autism spectrum disorder. American
Academy of Pediatrics, 120(5), 1163.
National Educational Association (2006). The ASD puzzle. Washington, DC: Author.
Siegel, Bryna. (2003). Helping children with autism learn: treatment approaches for teachers
and parents. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.
Additional References
Anderson, F.E. (1978). Art for all the children: approaches to art therapy for children with
disabilities. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.
Furness, Gillian J. "Designing Art Lessons for Children with Aspergers Syndrome." SchoolArts:
The Art Education Magazine April 2008: 20. Print.
Gair, Sondra. (1980, December). Writing the art into individualized educational programs. Art
Education, 3, Retrieved from

Grandin, Ph.D, Temple. "Teaching Tips for Children and Adults with Autism." Autism Research
Institute. December 2002. Autism Research Institute, Web. 5 Dec 2009.
Hincha-Ownby, Melissa. "Autism Education Models: Self contained classrooms, Mainstreaming,
and Inclusion." Autism/Aspergers Syndrome 14 Jan. 2008: 1. Web. 5 Dec 2009.
Kellman, Julia. (2001). Autism, art, and children; the stories we draw. Westport, CT: Bergin and
Kennedy, Jody. "Art in the Lives of Students with Disabilities." SchoolArts October, 1999: 45.
Wirkus, Mary, Comer, Larua, Swensen, Kim, & Weingarten, Shelly. (2009). Assistive
technology supports for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (Adobe), Retrieved