By Denise DuBois
The meaning artists attribute to art and the role it plays in daily life is something that occupational science research has begun to explore. Sometimes within clinical settings, art may be used by clinicians as a means to an end–that is, to motivate clients to engage in therapeutic goals. For example, more than 60 per cent of occupational therapists (n=198) reported using arts-based activities to motivate, assess, and strengthen clients in relation to their functional goals across a wide range of clinical populations (1).
Two artists with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who showcased their work at the Geneva Centre for Autism’s International Symposium, Avnish and Ian, talked about how their art has helped them reach functional and therapeutic goals. To them, however, art extends beyond a motivator used in a clinical setting. For Avnish, art is a means of productivity, a way to make money.
“I like making and selling my art for money because I am sick and tired of my iPhone 6,” said the 21-year-old. Avnish has been sketching and working with pastels, acrylic paints, and spray paint since he was in grade nine. His mother, Yojna views Avnish’s art, which he has continued to do weekly since high school graduation, as a way of making other people aware of his strengths.
“The artwork is what brings him out and noticed. We have done great things with art as a family… When you have a child with autism, everyone underestimates them, that they are not going to do anything in life, so our mission has always been autism awareness.”
The family has encouraged Avnish to donate some of the proceeds from his art sales to autism-based charities, including one the family started themselves.
Ian, a graduate from Sheridan College’s Visual Creative Arts program, described making art as as absorbing experience, which is sometimes referred to as flow. A term coined by Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi (2), flow is the notion of deep immersion in a “just-right” challenge. Such immersion can act to deflect negative thoughts or experiences of illness or disability (3).
“Well, even throughout my childhood, every time the bright colours would always grab me. It kind of helps me relax there. It’s almost like going through a meditative process or something. Every time I paint, I go through that same relaxation.”
Creative art occupations, such as painting, drawing, creative writing, music, textile artistry, and crafting, evoke a creative process in an individual (3). Historically, occupational therapists used art as a medium to engage clients in therapy, particularly in mental health practice settings (1). Although there are still examples of art programs established by occupational therapists (such as the Creative Works Studio in downtown Toronto), the use of art in occupational therapy practice has declined over the years in Canada (1,3,4).
Exploring creativity and engaging in art, for the sake of the occupational experience, the meaning, or the flow it provides, may no longer be viewed as a necessary element of occupational therapy. Tessa Perrin, an occupational therapy researcher, has argued that the profession has turned away from one of its core values of creativity (4). Instead she suggests it has shifted towards an increasingly scientific paradigm focused on functional outcomes rather than the experience of pleasurable or creative occupations. So, when art is used in practice, it is often seen as way to improve function or motivate clients to participate in therapeutic goals.
Despite this turn in practice, occupational science–which is the study of humans as occupational beings (5)–has provided some guidance pertaining to the role of creative arts occupations in daily life. For example, according to a systematic review by Perruzza and Kinsella (3), creative arts occupations can enhance perceived control, build a sense of self, act as a form of expression, transform the illness experience, provide a sense of purpose, and build social support when employed in therapeutic practice. These themes were also evident when speaking to Avnish and Ian.
Being viewed by others as a successful artist and winning art awards has contributed to Avnish’s sense of self. It has also allowed for non-verbal self-expression. When Avnish first began art class, he did not tell his mother about his success. It was not until a grade nine report card came home saying he had won an art contest that she became aware of his talents.
“I was actually shocked. I did not know,” she said. “So, when this came about he kind of got annoyed with me, because I was like, ‘You did this all by yourself, with no help?’ But I was like, ‘Okay, I am just asking. I have never seen this side of you.’”
Since then, Avnish’s achievements have also transferred to other areas of his life, such as his creativity in food preparation and his comfort in public speaking, according to his mother.
For Ian, engaging in art has provided similar benefits as Avnish. But it has also transformed his experience of disability and how he views himself. Realizing he had special talents in still life painting increased Ian’s self-competence and self-esteem, he said. He now works as an art instructor in a program for neurodiverse adults like himself, and he also sells his art online. He seems to view both making art and sharing it with the world as an existential experience that transcends his artistic talents.
“Art in my life, it gives me a way to be more creative with my talents there, and really help spread that talent,” he said. “My art is done in the spirit of an artist, and then my creations are being spread around the world.”
I would like to acknowledge Mikaela Stiver for her support with interviewing and photography.
To refer to this article, it can be cited as:
DuBois D. Art as meaning, not a clinical means to an end. rehabINK. 2019;6. Available from: https://rehabinkmag.com
- Müllersdorf M, Ivarsson AB. What, why, how – creative activities in occupational therapy practice in Sweden. Occupational Therapy International. 2016;23:369–78.
- Csikszentimihalyi M. Finding flow: the psychology of engagement with everyday life. 1st ed. New York: BasicBooks; 1997.
- Perruzza N, Kinsella EA. Creative arts occupations in therapeutic practice: a review of the literature. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2010;73.
- Perrin T. Don’t despise the fluffy bunny: a reflection from practice. Br J Occup Ther. 2001;64:129–34.
- Zemke R, Clark F, editors. Occupational science: the evolving discipline. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis; 1996.
- Gordon A. Not all parents see IBI as the best way. The Toronto Star. 2016;A4.
- Gordon A. Autism plan not in keeping with advice, experts wrote. The Toronto Star. 2016;A1,A4.