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Create Awesome Art with your Students with Autism, part 2

This is part 2 of guest bloggers Elementary Art teachers Leela Payne and Ron Kohler's blog post. See part 1.

Challenge Yourself

We continuously challenge each other to seek new methods to improve our approach to reaching and teaching students with special needs.

Get Them Moving: Kinesthetic Art

We've incorporated full-body movement in the process of making massive kinesthetic drawings. We watched video of New Orleans based artist Heather Hansen creating large floor drawings that bring together drawing, dance and performance art. Students were encouraged sit or lay on the floor and use full arm movements to create drawings on large sheets of paper.

Leela: I borrowed scooters from the PE teacher and students were pushed and pulled while holding crayons to the paper recording the movements of the scooter while experiencing the sensation of movement. Students created layers of pattern over their initial motion drawings, using gadget printing techniques, and then stood over the drawings, with paintbrushes attached to long dowel rods, to create colorful gestural marks.

Try Traditional Drawing Approaches

Ron: I decided to introduce my students to cave drawings. We watched a video exploration of a cave in France. Many students were at the scribbling stage of drawing in their artistic development and had not had much experience drawing from observation. I asked our paraeducators to guide them as they traced around the plastic animal models to discover their shapes. They were delighted with this and made some beautiful contour drawings with a paintbrush. After several drawing exercises, many of these students were able to independently draw from observation. I realized nobody had ever required them to draw. While the paraeducators had sometimes guided students who require hand-over-hand interventions, they were all learning that they were creating a representation of the object they were looking at.

Create with Natural Materials

We are both inspired by artists who work with natural materials such as Andy Goldsworthy and Deborah Butterfield. We have introduced our students to artists who work with the environment and create without a preconceived plan with the materials on hand. As teachers we have no problem changing the direction of our plan for the day because the children lead us in a different direction. If you are willing to be flexible and let creativity happen, the experience of creating art will be more joyful for you and your students.

Leela: One winter day, I was planning to make puppets, it had just snowed, and the students were excited. I asked if they played outside in the snow and what they had made. Some students said they didn’t go out in the snow. I was so disappointed and thought about how to provide them with this sensory experience. Since they weren’t dressed to go outside, I grabbed a bucket and went to the courtyard and scooped up some snow. I laid towels over the tables and found whatever tools that could be used to mold snow. I demonstrated ways to use snow to make sculptures, as if it were clay. My pre-k visually impaired students were screaming with joy. One mom came to pick up her child early and her daughter did not want to leave. She realized she needed to let her daughter play in the snow. Art is play; play is an important part of the art process. These students were creating temporary artwork and thinking like artists. Snow is another material to create and explore. After this experiment with spontaneous play, I tried it with all of my pre-k, kindergarten and Learning Center classes. We looked at photographs of Andy Goldsworthy working with ice and snow. I added other elements, color and gadgets. We were lucky that the snow lasted so long and was heavy and workable.

Ron: I had students work with natural materials by arranging leaves, twigs and stones. I asked them to notice and describe their characteristics: color, shape, texture, size. I watched as each student explored and arranged their materials. I documented their temporal works with photographs. These are most certainly artistic behaviors and I realized that many of my students were capable of consciously creating art. I spoke with them about their work and encouraged them to talk about what they had created.

Transform your teaching by taking risks; your students deserve to fully experience the joyful process of creating art.

Leela Payne and MAEA member Ron Kohler are elementary art teachers in Montgomery County, MD. They have developed strategies to provide authentic art experiences and inspire creativity in your students with Autism and other special needs. They discovered numerous approaches to this challenge by attending and presenting at conferences and workshops as well as engaging in discussions with our general education colleagues and other art teachers. MAEA thanks them for sharing their work with us in observance of Autism Awareness Month. All photos are by Leela Payne and Ron Kohler. This article is part 2 of 2 (part 1)

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