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Creating Inclusivity for Autism in the Art Room

Creating an inclusive curriculum is essential to educators so we may reach and celebrate all of our students. One important aspect of doing this is eliminating ableism. Ableism is discrimination against, prejudice against, or disregard for the needs of people with disabilities. Many of our students live with disabilities, and it’s important to recognize and celebrate their differences without marginalization. It’s also essential to educate our students who do not live with disabilities to understand their peers better.

The CDC defines autism as “a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. There is often nothing about how people with ASD look that sets them apart from other people, but people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people.” According to the CDC, 1 in 54 children is identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with that rate being four times higher in boys. These numbers tell us art teachers are welcoming students with autism into their classrooms daily.

Puzzle pieces on white background as symbol of autism

Founder of the Autism Network International, Jim Sinclair, describes autism from the lens of a person with autism in the essay, “Don’t Mourn For Us.” According to Sinclair, “Autism isn’t something a person has or a ‘shell’ that a person is trapped inside. There’s no normal child hidden behind autism. Autism is a way of being. It is pervasive; it colors every experience, every sensation, perception, thought, emotion, and encounter, every aspect of existence. It is not possible to separate the autism from the person—and if it were possible, the person you’d have left would not be the same person you started with. This is important, so take a moment to consider it: Autism is a way of being. It is not possible to separate the person from the autism.”

April is World Autism Month; while autism isn’t only present in the lives of students and individuals for one month of the year, it’s important to bring awareness. It’s important for our students with autism to see ASD being discussed in the classroom and for peers to learn more about it.

Research on Autism and Art Education

Studies have shown the positive impact of the visual art experience on students with autism. A 2018 case study followed a thirteen-year-old male student’s experiences in the art classroom. The findings took into account the perspectives of the parents, students, and art educators. The visual arts teacher and parents found an increase in social skills. The student also had a more calm demeanor and better interactions with peers. From the child’s perspective, he found art class fun and exciting because he got to try new things. This excitement allowed the student to create things he was proud of, which led to increased social interaction as he wanted to share his creations.

card with autism word and painting of head with brain on white with paint brushes, chalks and paints

Simone B. Alter-Muri’s research (2017), “Art Education and Art Therapy Strategies for Autism Spectrum Disorder Students,” published in Art Education, explores concrete ways for students with ASD to find success in the art room. One method suggested in the study is to utilize Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to accommodate all learners in the classroom better.

More resources to explore:

Artists with Autism

Eliminating ableism in our curriculum will take time as we strive to make it more inclusive. One thing you can do right now is to introduce artists with autism. Doing so is one small step of starting a conversation about ASD. Here is a list of artists to get you started.

Anna Berry
Stephen Wiltshire
Kambel Smith
Mikaela Sheldt
Megan Rhiannon
Thomas Oscar Miles
Peter Howson
Amina Mucciolo

Creating an inclusive classroom is one way we, as art teachers, can support students and contribute to a positive classroom climate for all students. The art room is the perfect place for students to cultivate an environment based on acceptance and understanding. Helping students learn more about one another to identify commonalities and celebrate differences is one way we can work toward a more inclusive world!

What questions do you have about supporting your students with autism?
What strategies have you found effective when working with students with autism?

Abby is a middle school art teacher in Omaha, NE. She focuses on creating meaningful experiences for her students through technology integration, innovation, and creativity.

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