Art as meaning, not a clinical means to an end


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.

Avnish’s first painting that won a contest with the Mississauga Humane Society

“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.”

– Yojna

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.”

– Ian

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.

Artwork by Avnish created using spray paint

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.

Ian’s technique is to use bright colours and intricate detail

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:


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  3. Perruzza N, Kinsella EA. Creative arts occupations in therapeutic practice: a review of the literature. British Journal of Occupational Therapy. 2010;73.
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