Research sought to evaluate art therapy for those with autism
December 25, 2015 12:00 AM
Ryan Messmer, 15, a junior of Wesley Spectrum High School, sets up the "Art & Autism" exhibit Dec. 10 at Duquesne University. The exhibit explores the role of art with those who have autism.
Wesley Spectrum High School students and teachers set up the "Art & Autism" exhibit at Duquesne University.
A piece of art work by students of Wesley Spectrum High School at the "Art & Autism" exhibit.
By Sean D. Hamill / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ryan Messner knows that his art therapy class at Wesley Spectrum High School has helped him.
“It helped me mature and better express my emotions,” said Ryan, 15, a sophomore with autism spectrum disorder who has been in the once- or twice-weekly class for several years at the school in Whitehall.
Ryan’s art teacher, Lynda Braff, also has seen it with him and his classmates, several of whom gathered with Ryan at an “Art & Autism” discussion and exhibit of their work on Dec. 10 at Duquesne University. The event, which featured the students’ doll-making, photography, silk-screening and multi-medium work, was an outgrowth of a professional art exhibit — “Mindful: Exploring Mental Illness Through Art” — that continues through March 16 at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.
From the very first year of Wesley’s art program in 2009, “we noticed all of the sudden these kids didn’t have tunnel vision; they weren’t isolated in their own world,” Ms. Braff said.
Similar testimonials and anecdotal journal articles of the benefits of art therapy for people with autism spectrum disorder and other neurologically based conditions, are found about thousands of programs around the world.
But despite the half-century of defined use of art therapy, experts say there is no scientifically rigorous proof with large cohort studies — the standard in scientific research — that such practice benefits people, or why.
“There are many studies that show the benefits of art therapy. And many claim to have some success,” said Giovanni Mirabella, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Rome in Italy, who published an overview of art therapy research earlier this year. “But when we look carefully at these studies, you find they don’t have any convincing scientific evidence of their effectiveness.”
That fact has frustrated even art therapy’s most ardent proponents: art therapists themselves.
The American Art Therapy Association is spending $5,000 to get eight researchers around the country to create their own groups of up to 30 subjects — along with control groups — to study the effectiveness of art therapy, said Donna Betts, association president.
“This would be the first organized effort to get to the bottom of it,” said Ms. Betts, an assistant professor of art therapy at George Washington University.
One driving reason to do the research, she said, is “to convince states to fund art therapy classes. The states [that don’t fund it currently] often ask to see the research before they fund it.”
Pennsylvania — one of the nation’s leaders in autism spectrum program support — does fund such classes.
But the first challenge to get the research is to find enough people who can be put into a study group together. That is more difficult than it may sound.
“There are some logistical problems,” said Mr. Mirabella, who recently completed a study of people with Parkinson’s disease and their use of theater art therapy. “To have a large cohort of homogeneous patients, all at the same stage of the disease or disorder, is difficult.”
The other problem, said Kara Reagon, associate director of Dissemination Science at Autism Speaks, a national organization that funds research, is that most of the existing studies of art therapy “are usually in conjunction with schools or camps” like it is at Wesley Spectrum.
”That makes it so hard to tease out why you benefited. Was it the art? Or other schooling? Or the fact that you were at camp? It’s very hard to do,” she said.
Alycia Halladay, chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation, agrees.
But she said because art therapy is used to “augment evidence-based therapies, not replace them,” she’s “not sure there’s a huge need to study” art therapy more intensely.
“I’ve never seen anyone say for therapy: ‘They just get to draw several hours a day and that’s it,’ ” she said.
Ms. Reagon said given such a lack of scientific proof, she believes that any broad claims about art therapy’s ability to improve peoples’ neurological abilities makes it “pseudo-science.”
“We’re trying to teach families how to distinguish between science and peudo-science,” she said, though Autism Speaks does not discourage people from taking art therapy courses.
“There may be benefits in fine motor skills for some people wit autism,” she said. “But the research does not show if it is going to improve IQs, or communications skills.”
Tammy Hughes, professor of school psychology at Duquesne and organizer of the art event Thursday, said while she understands there is a lack of deep scientific research, the fact remains that art therapy does work, as anyone can easily see.
“If you work with these groups, it’s something when you see someone able to be connected, especially if it’s someone who has not be able to use words or use them effectively,” she said. “The clinical, emotional and behavioral proof is there to see. But we do need more research.”
Sean D. Hamill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2579 or on Twitter @seandhamill
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