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Q&A: How Can Pediatric Therapists Incorporate Art Therapy to Help Advance Speech, Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy Goals?

By: Susan Lau, Licensed Creative Art Therapist
What is Art Therapy?
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as:
“Employing the creative process of art-making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages with the aim of resolving conflicts and problems, developing interpersonal skills, managing behavior, reducing stress and increasing self-esteem and awareness”.
Art Therapy is a profession that emerged in the 1940’s.The use of visual expression for healing has been used for thousands of years. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that psychiatrists first began to recognize the significance of visual expression in patients with mental illness. Concurrently, educators began to recognize that children’s art expression reflected developmental, emotional and cognitive growth (American Art Therapy Association, 2011). It was from this point on that art therapy as a profession began to grow and form.
An art therapist is trained in both art and therapy. They provide services in settings that include mental health, rehabilitation, medical institutions, community outreach programs, wellness centers, schools, nursing homes, open studios and independent practices. Art therapy integrates the fields of human development, visual art (drawing, paining, sculpture and other art forms) and the creative process with models of counseling and psychotherapy (AATA, 2011).
Who can benefit from Art Therapy?
Everyone can benefit from art therapy. The growth opportunity it provides for all individuals can be life changing. Specific research has shown that persons suffering from traumatic brain injury, stroke, cancer and individuals with disabilities can all gain emotional as well as physical benefits from art. An art therapist can work with rehabilitative therapists, helping them design exercises through art that can assist them in obtaining their treatment goals. Simultaneously addressing the emotional needs patients and their families might experience while going through rehabilitation.
How can Art Therapy contribute to Rehabilitative Therapy?
The variety of modalities and the versatility that art therapy offers is an asset to all models of therapeutic assessment and treatment. Some key contributions art therapy can make to rehabilitation include:

  • Sensory experiences
  • Symbolic expression
  • Emotional expression
  • Life enhancement
  • Cognitive development
  • Social connectedness

How can Art Therapy be used in conjunction with Speech Therapy?
An art therapist can support and reinforce speech therapy goals. Speech and art therapy goals are communication related. A speech therapist is language specific. Components of language include: understanding/verbal expression, facial/manual gestures, tone of voice, and body orientation. Art therapy is a form of communication development that allows individuals to express themselves through the use of visual mediums. Individuals are encouraged to talk about their artwork. An individual may be asked to describe what they are making, to sequence the steps to complete an art project or to tell a story about their artwork. The completion of an art project helps build self-esteem and confidence. This confidence building is essential for goal attainment.
How can Art Therapy enhance Occupational Therapy?
Art Therapy and Occupational Therapy are interrelated. The most obvious connection is fine motor skill development. The building (or rebuilding) of fine motor skills enables individuals to perform a variety of important functional tasks. Some of these functional tasks are:

  • Writing legibly
  • Drawing, painting and coloring
  • Manipulating small objects
  • Developing and maintaining a proper pencil grip
  • Holding and using utensils properly and effectively
  • Using scissors
  • Doing crafts

In both Art Therapy and Occupational Therapy the effective use of the small muscles in hands is crucial. An art therapist can design a program to support specific Occupational Therapy fine motor skill goals and hand-eye coordination.
Sensory Integration Skills are another area where an art therapist can integrate specific occupational therapy goals. Sensory integration involves an individual’s ability to incorporate sensory information into purposeful and successful interaction with the environment. Art making is a sensory experience. From squeezing a piece of clay, to smearing paint on a paper, art stimulates all of the senses.
Visual-Perceptual Motor Skills refer to a physical response to visual stimulation. Visual perceptual skills include visual memory, visual discrimination, and spatial relationships (how objects are oriented to each other and to you). An art therapist can design projects in collaboration with an occupational therapist to address an individual’s visual-perceptual goals. For example visual perception can be evaluated by asking an individual to paint a simple still-life setup.
How is Art Therapy connected with Physical Therapy?
Basic physical therapy goals are to work to restore function, improve mobility and decrease pain through the use of exercise, mobilization and manipulation. Art therapy exercises the mind as well as the body. Some examples of art that require muscle strength are working with clay (pounding and rolling) or standing at an easel and painting to music.
The physical benefits of art therapy are still undergoing research. There has been research supporting the belief that art therapy can reduce pain in cancer patients. A recent article on cancer and art therapy in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management stated:
“Art therapy may be preferential to some cancer patients who may be uncomfortable with conventional psychotherapy or those who find verbal expression difficult. Art therapy can be effective in ameliorating symptoms associated with cancer both in children and adults. Art therapy could be useful in an oncology setting by helping patients reinforce positive coping behavior and increasing their self-esteem and their sense of control.” ( Nainis, N., Paice, J., Ratner, J., Wirth, J., Lai, J., & Shott, S. (2006). Relieving Symptoms in Cancer: Innovative Use of Art Therapy. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 162-163.)
The mind/body connection plays an important role in rehabilitation. Individuals who have good emotional health are aware of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Your body responds to how you think, feel and act. Poor emotional health can weaken your immune system. (Family Doctor.Org. (2010). Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health.
Art therapy gives an individual insight into emotional and cognitive needs. Addressing these needs through art therapy can give a sense of empowerment. This sense of empowerment increases self-esteem. It can give a sense of control in a situation where an individual might otherwise feel helpless. This boost of confidence, and feeling of control can rejuvenate and motivate individuals to work hard to achieve their rehabilitative goals.
American Art Therapy Association. (2011).,
Nainis, N., Paice, J., Ratner, J., Wirth, J., Lai, J., & Shott, S. (2006). Relieving Symptoms in Cancer: Innovative Use of Art Therapy. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 162-16 Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health.
This Month’s Featured Author: Susan Lau, Licensed Creative Art Therapist
Susan has a Master of Science in Education from Hofstra University. She graduated with a degree in Art Therapy and Special Education in 1996.
Her background includes nine years of teaching experience and six years working as an art therapist in a private practice setting.
Susan is a NYS Licensed Creative Arts Therapist as well as a NYS Certified Art and Special Educator.
Her office is located in Port Jefferson, NY.
Please support our contributing authors and visit Susan’s website

PediaStaff hires pediatric and school-based professionals nationwide for contract assignments of 2 to 12 months. We also help clinics, hospitals, schools, and home health agencies to find and hire these professionals directly. We work with Speech-Language Pathologists, Occupational and Physical Therapists, School Psychologists, and others in pediatric therapy and education.


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