An Outlet for the Entire Family
By: Maureen McShane
When art therapist Kerith Glass welcomes a child with autism to her studio in Haddonfield, the whole family is liable to show up. Glass said the autistic child is not the only one in the family who needs to express frustration, fears and anger in dealing with daily life. All family members need to explore the dynamics of what’s in front of them with an autistic sibling and child, and exploring is a positive thing, “so things don’t become so frustrating,” she said.
Many family members are reluctant to engage in the artwork exercise, but their artwork tells the story.
“I look at the colors and the shapes and the amount of pressure someone puts into the artwork. Sometimes when someone is experiencing isolation, or anger it comes out,” Glass said.
They may choose to draw very faint lines, fragmented, or not a lot of detail, or colors.
As for the autistic child’s artwork, it tends to be repetitive, and autistic children get easily frustrated with the exercise and sometimes rip up their work.
“They may not ask you for materials, but grab things from you,” she said. Their difficulty in how they relate to adults shows. They are perfectionists at times as well.
For example, one of Glass’ autistic clients drew a detailed road map from where he lived to the family vacation home in Ocean City.
“He marked off every street light, every tree on the major highways. He drew them on a series of papers, so if we taped them all together, you’d probably could take the papers with you in the car and find the family’s house,” she said.
The detail was remarkable, but while creating these roadmaps, the boy would become very frustrated if it didn’t come out exactly as he wanted. Glass said her art studio gave him the space to express that frustration.
About 25 percent of her clients fall in the autistic population, and she sees her role broaden in dealing with the issue of autism, as the child and the family need to figure out their roles in coping with a condition that is not going away.
“This is life long. Issues of, ‘what’s going to happen to my children when I’m gone,’ and ‘what do I plan for them,’ come up continually. And then you can also throw in the issue of divorce,” she added, as many marriages become stressed to the point of breaking when it comes to the pressures of caring for a child afflicted with autism.
That pressure and tension in the family structure impacts the autistic child as well. Glass asserts that medical professionals find that children with autism reaching ages 10 to12 additionally diagnose them with bipolar disorders.
”So they are dealing with the swing of emotions as well,” Glass added.
The struggles are complex, but it comes down to answering a basic question: Will the family have to work in a different way now that autism has affected their lives?
“Coming to terms with an answer enables everyone to be on the same page,” she said.
Kerith Glass is the owner of Expressions Art Therapy, Haddonfield, NJ. You can learn more about Kerith and her services by visiting her website at www.expressionsarttherapy.com