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Pediatric Therapy Corner: – Sensory Art Therapy

By: Pamela Ullmann, ATR-BC, LCAT

copyright 2010. Pamela Ullmann.  This blog post has been reprinted with express permission of the author as it appeared on her Full Spectrum Blog

Creative art making can offer unique ways for children to gain a sense of control and mastery of their environment, grow in self expression, self awareness and self-esteem. This holds true for children with special needs, ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), and other developmental issues as well. However, these children very often have “sensory” issues or sensory integration disorder which can affect their responses to various art materials.

That is why it is important to have a trained and credentialed art therapist or related professional assess the child and create a customized program that can help the child with sensory issues while at the same time engage in creative expression.

Children may experience deficits in one or several sensory areas; the most often observed is visual processing, auditory processing, and “tactile defensiveness” (an aversion to certain textures and touching). Art making with an experienced therapist can often break through these issues in a fun and non-threatening way; enabling the child to experience new and creative expression.

Visual Techniques:
Art making is obviously a visual modality, but those children with visual processing issues may need adaptations, concrete steps, and prompts in order to follow effectively. Sometimes using a page border helps contain the image making. Using dark colors on white paper or white chalk on black paper can create maximum contrast. Utilizing thicker crayons and markers can build a stronger visual focus. Also, the therapist can incorporate dotted lines as a “starter” for the child to trace around lines or shapes. Another processing technique is to present materials in a clock-like manner one by one; avoiding too many materials in the working space.

Helpful Techniques for Auditory Processing Difficulties

  • Combine verbal instructions with sign language or hand motions
  • Make sure the art making activity is presented in a quiet room or area
  • Utilize pictures or “samples” of a particular art project when giving directions
  • Use visual cues when transitioning from one activity to another along with instructions (such as flashing lights on and off in the room)

What is Tactile Defensiveness?
The main cause is neurological disorganization in the midbrain region of the brain which is basically responsible for filtering incoming stimuli, and, may not sufficiently screen out all extraneous tactile stimulation causing the child to perceive the input as extreme and uncomfortable. The central nervous system ability to process tactile sensory input is distorted causing the child great discomfort. Their brain may register subtle sensations as extreme irritation or even painful and he may respond in an abnormally reactive way such as grimacing or pulling away from the stimulus.

Sensory based art making is a fascinating modality that allows children to engage in creative expression with no pressures. Using this approach, an Art Therapist can assess the severity of tactile issues and can help the child build tolerance in this area. Depending on the nature of the tactile defensiveness, the art therapist can use materials within the art making or as a separate activity of just playing with the materials; this starts the process of de-sensitizing the child in a fun and non-threatening manner.

Here are some art and play materials that are often used:

  • Cornstarch and water play (creates a “gooey-like substance)
  • Water-play using food dye and various containers
  • Play dough, putty, and other modeling compounds
  • String, felt, other craft materials
  • Sand –art
  • Shaving cream finger-painting
  • , shredded tissue paper

The list goes on and the therapist can create recipes and projects that are tailored to the child’s interests to encourage engagement. The caution here would be to go slowly and not overwhelm or over stimulate the child with an abundance of tactile materials. Let the child take the lead and if the child responds negatively, make a note and try new materials.I am not sure if this approach would work for all children. I do know that at the end of the session, it appears that both this mom and her child are satisfied and have enjoyed the creative process and activities presented. At times, she becomes so overwhelmed by his accomplishments it is quite emotional to witness. The artwork lines the kitchen counter and both mom and her son gaze together very proud; feeling good about the time spent together making art.

Featured Author: Pamela Ullmann, ATR-BC,LCAT

Many thanks to Pamela Ullmann for providing us with this article for our newsletter and website.

Pamela has worked in a variety of clinical, educational and business settings. Her passion for the arts led her to become an art therapist in 1996.

Pamela works therapeutically with children and families dealing with medical, emotional , behavioral and special needs issues (now specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders). Currently, she is working as an art therapy supervisor for Heartsong, Inc, developing new programming for a new nonprofit organization called Healing Arts Family Connection, Inc and works in her own private practice, Colors of Play, LLC. Please support our contributing authors. Visit Pamela’s Blog, Full Spectrum at and her website at:

In addition to her clinical abilities, Pamela has developed administrative and managerial skills which has enabled her to contribute to all aspects of business planning and development.


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