Create Awesome Art with your Students with Autism, part 1

by Leela Payne and Ron Kohler, guest bloggers


In observance of Autism Awareness Month, we have been asked to share some inspirational strategies you can use to provide authentic art experiences and inspire creativity in your students with Autism and other special needs. We are Leela Payne and Ron Kohler, elementary art teachers in Montgomery County Public Schools. Over time we have discovered numerous approaches to working with children with Autism and other special needs that have energized our teaching. We have attended and presented at conferences and workshops on this topic, engaged in discussions with our general education colleagues and other art teachers. We would like to share a few strategies we have learned along the way to hopefully spark some inspiration in your teaching practice and bring the joy of creativity to your students.

Teach Children How to Think Like an Artist

We are inspired by the contemporary art practices of Olivia Gude and her strategies for teaching children to think like artists by connecting the experience of artmaking to their lives and feelings. Teach children how to think like an artist. Provide them with opportunities to make choices about materials and let them decide the direction their work will take.

Enjoy the Process

Leela: Process art has changed me as a teacher and as a professional artist. When an artist is in the studio, no one tells them what to do. As Chuck Close once said, “We just show up.” Just start creating something and see what happens—even if it fails. It may develop into something wonderful or it may indeed fail and that’s okay as long as everybody is enjoying the process and learning and reflecting on what has been done. These experiments in my classroom have often surprised me when the children are able to relate and articulate their experience much more clearly than when we have a preconceived plan. Children who don’t usually say much are talking non-stop and their use of art vocabulary impresses me. Sometimes their speech is not completely comprehensible, but we can tell it’s about the experience and their excitement about what they are doing is evident.

While it is nice to send home artwork that parents can hang on the refrigerator on occasion, it is far more import for your students to have authentic artmaking experiences. Let go of your preconceived notion for a product and enjoy the process.

Exploration and Play

"Make the art room the center for discovery and innovation."

George Szekely

We believe it is important to allow for materials exploration, rather than expecting a finished product every class. Watch and learn what the students are capable of and inclined to pursue, scribbling is more authentic than students using a pre-made teacher-created template. Help students develop their skills in working with different art materials, their self-regulation with tools, and their workspace. Have faith that students will become more conscious art makers if they have many opportunities to explore and play with materials.

Make Collections

Some students are fixated on a particular subject (e.g., power lines, black holes). Rather than resist or redirect their tendencies, let them explore their interest and make a collection of artworks on this topic in different media.

Try Something Unexpected

Ron: My students walked into the room with a monster truck extravaganza video playing. I demonstrated an unexpected printing technique by rolling a large toy truck through a pool of paint and then across two tables to make long colorful tire tracks. The students took turns printing tire tracks with small cars and large trucks. I altered the paint by adding white to create tints of the color, changed the colors, mixed primary color to create secondary. The students were highly engaged and playfully experimented with the media.


This is part 1 of 2 posts from Leela Payne and Ron Kohler. We thank them for sharing their work with us. All photos are by Leela Payne and Ron Kohler. Here is part 2.


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