Today someone found my blog through the search “creative autistic child”. This pleases me greatly, after I was diagnosed, I was shoved into an environment where it was common “fact”* that autistic people were not creative individuals, and relied on repetition of patterns for learning, preferred “uncreative” fields like science and maths** and had overly literal minds that were unresponsive to flights of fancy and imagination. This prejudice was reflected, unchallenged, in the literature about Asperger Syndrome.
Here I was, a very creative fourteen year old who loved writing her own stories, had won local prizes for her fiction and poetry, didn’t have a head for science and mathematics, who spent many an afternoon fashioning dolls and jewellery out of clay, seeds, ribbons, fabric scraps, and flowers, who loved reading fantasy novels, historical fiction, and and dreaming up scenarios which ranged from science fiction-oriented to fantastically impossible, freshly diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. How do you think that unquestioned bias made me feel? Not very good about myself, that’s for certain, and it often left me second-guessing myself and my diagnosis for not being the “right” kind of autistic person who appeared in the literature on Asperger’s.
Now I am past that, thankfully, and I’ve shed the majority of the baggage associated with stereotypes surrounding autism. I want to make sure, however, that young people on the spectrum don’t suffer needlessly because of these limitations placed on them because of somebody else’s idea of what autism is.
Therefore, I encourage parents and caretakers of autistic children who may be reading my blog to consider the following ways of fostering creativity in an autistic youngster, if they seem like a budding creative type:
1.) Figure out what kind of learner/thinker they are and adapt accordingly. The categories of different types can sometimes be oversimplified, and there are a lot of overlaps between them, such as visual/auditory/tactile/verbal, but once you figure out what their strengths are, cater to that. If they are a mix of auditory/tactile thinker, a musical instrument like the cello or the piano might be the best way to bring out their creative side. If they are visual and tactile, then painting and oil pastels are wonderful ways to express oneself. Just make sure you let the child pick their art tools, in case ones you choose for them cause sensory issues, when I was little, I couldn’t handle sidewalk chalk unless it was soaked wet to reduce the powdery, chalky sensation. Auditory and verbal? Spoken word poetry or singing! There are so many ways to release creativity.
2.) If an autistic youngster shows a special interest of any kind, then you can find ways to nurture it creatively. When I was a wee one of nine, my school took a field trip to Mt. Haleakala, a dormant volcano which also hosts a national park home to some of the most rare and beautiful birds on earth, including my personal favourite, the Scarlet Hawaiian Honeycreeper, or ‘i’iwi. After the trip, I became fascinated with Hawaiian indigenous bird species. As part of that interest, I taught myself everything I could about the birds and their history in Hawaii, including their significance to Hawaiian people.
The birds were used in the creation of beautiful cloaks and helmets for members of the Ali’i (Chieftain class) so I took many visits to both the craft store and museums to learn everything I could about the creation of feather cloaks, and made my own costumes, portraits of the birds, dolls and other small crafts from the craft store feathers. Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had just been released on the N64, so there was a brief craze for ocarinas (the instrument) at my school. I picked up one from a friend, and learned some basic bird calls on it. Any other special interest can be nurtured creatively as well, if you as a parent think outside of the box.
3.) Consider alternatives to the usual toys. When I was a young young child, I hated colouring books. I had problems with manual dexterity and fine motor skills, so all of my attempts to colour inside of the lines of an image were a disaster. This being the nineties, however, I was lucky, because my parents were able to find me an “alternative” colouring book, which instead offered quasi-blank to completely blank pages with ideas to draw/colour in, such as a drawing of a tipped-over purse, asking you to draw the contents. Small exercises in creative thinking helped me develop my imagination and didn’t frustrate me, because I was allowed greater freedom and didn’t worry as much about colouring in the lines.
4.) Let them have their own free time. When I’m working with autistic youth, I am not surprised at how regimented their schedules are, since I myself tend to have a very rigorous schedule for day-to-day activities, for the sake of my executive functioning. Occupational therapy tends to call for regimented schedules too. But I also always make sure to allow myself time to wander, daydream, and just space out. It feels good to let me think about whatever crosses my mind, without having to tie it to an activity, task, or goal of mine, and it helps foster some of my best creative moments.
These are good for just about any child, but since I’m all about combating stereotypes, give autistic children a chance to prove their creative side.
* As it was once common “fact” that autism was caused by refrigerator mothers, that casein/gluten-free diets would curb autistic traits, that autism was a byproduct of a hyper-male brain and that mercury was the cause of autism.
** If you think this is true, then you’ve almost definitely never met a scientist or a mathematician.