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NewsAug 24, 2022

Learning to listen to the neurodiverse ‘language’

Professor’s new book outlines a flexible, empathetic way to treat autistic children and adolescents

image of jane richardson outdoors, tropical setting
Dr. Jane Richardson has written a resource for therapists who work with children and adolescents with autism.

Art therapy is essentially the art of listening and creating, according to Dr. Jane Richardson, associate professor of Art Therapy in our College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“The person making the art is the authority on the art, I don’t care if they are 3 or 75,” says Richardson, a practicing art therapist and author of the book “Art As a Language for Autism: Building Effective Therapeutic Relationships with Children and Adolescents,” published this summer by Routledge.

The 214-page book explores how artistic and play-based expression can provide a communicative language for younger clients with autism spectrum disorder. The book also features cover art by her son, Gabriel, who earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2016 from our College of Art and Design.

“There aren’t a lot of resources in this area,” Richardson says, explaining that the interaction between adults and neurodiverse young people is too often regimented or “scripted,” rather than flexible. “The way many adults interact with them is not spontaneous,” making it difficult to help children feel more comfortable with change and move toward greater flexibility themselves.

image of child's hand in sand tray
A child's play in a sand tray can aid the communication between therapists and clients when a child with autism is labeled as nonverbal.

“Non-neurotypical” children are often labeled as noncommunicative when they don’t speak or make eye contact. Such children might simply be anxious in a community or school setting but, Richardson says, “Adults need to help to mitigate anxiety” and create the comfort needed for communication.

Richardson explains that the perception of doodling is that it’s a distraction, when it actually can support one’s attentiveness. Or, as she has seen in her own therapy office in her home, a child who was nonverbal in school would make up voices for the various toy animals he played with in the office sand tray.

Adults often are unaccustomed to the language being expressed by autistic young people.

“Behavior is always some sort of communication,” Richardson says. She alludes to the “dual empathy problem,” where neurotypical people believe children with autism aren’t picking up nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions, but, in fact, it is peers and sometimes adults who are missing the children’s cues.

image of book cover by Jane Richardson
Gabriel Richardson, a 2016 graduate of our College of Art and Design, created the cover art for his mother's new book.

That experience of reading children’s communicative cues is echoed in Richardson’s book. In the chapter “A World Between Art and Play,” she discusses how clients can build a world in a sand tray and tell the story of that world and, by extension, explore what’s going on in their own life. This sort of play, like a finished work of art, can help strengthen the therapeutic relationship between a child with autism and his or her therapist, the chapter indicates.

Richardson foreshadows this potential in an early chapter, “Listening to What We May Not Hear.” In it, she discusses how languages include verbal and nonverbal expression, such as the “body-based languages of movement, gestures, and dance; the sound-related languages of music and speech; and the visual languages made possible by art and natural materials.”

Looking at language in this way “expands children’s understanding and their ability to communicate,” Richardson writes.

The book, she says, is a useful tool for therapists and also provides a “broader look” at the contributions of neurodiverse people to the world, even if their language seems unfamiliar.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we looked at everyone’s strengths and needs, rather than simply setting benchmarks and expectations?” she says.