Research Sought to Evaluate Art Therapy Those with Autism Benefit, Some Say

By Hamill, Sean D | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), December 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

Research Sought to Evaluate Art Therapy Those with Autism Benefit, Some Say


Hamill, Sean D, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Ryan Messner knows that his art therapy class at Wesley Spectrum High School has helped him.

"It helped me mature and better express my emotions," said Ryan, 15, a sophomore with autism spectrum disorder who has been in the once- or twice-weekly class for several years at the school in Whitehall.

Ryan's art teacher, Lynda Braff, also has seen that it has helped him and his classmates.

From the very first year of Wesley's art program in 2009, "we noticed all of the sudden these kids didn't have tunnel vision; they weren't isolated in their own world," Ms. Braff said.

Ryan and several of his classmates attended an "Art & Autism" discussion and exhibit of their work Dec. 10 at Duquesne University. The event featured the students' doll-making, photography, silk-screening and multi-medium work and was an outgrowth of a professional art exhibit - "Mindful: Exploring Mental Illness Through Art" - that continues through March 16 at the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.

Testimonials similar to Ms. Braff's and anecdotal journal articles of the benefits of art therapy for those with autism spectrum disorder and other neurologically based conditions can be found about thousands of programs around the world.

But despite the half-century of defined use of art therapy, experts say there is no scientifically rigorous proof with large cohort studies - the standard in scientific research - that such practice benefits people, or why.

"There are many studies that show the benefits of art therapy. And many claim to have some success," said Giovanni Mirabella, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Rome in Italy, who published an overview of art therapy research this year. "But when we look carefully at these studies, you find they don't have any convincing scientific evidence of their effectiveness."

That fact has frustrated even art therapy's most ardent proponents: art therapists themselves.

The American Art Therapy Association is spending $5,000 to get eight researchers around the country to create their own groups of up to 30 subjects - along with control groups - to study the effectiveness of art therapy, said Donna Betts, association president.

"This would be the first organized effort to get to the bottom of it," said Ms. Betts, an assistant professor of art therapy at George Washington University.

One driving reason to do the research, she said, is "to convince states to fund art therapy classes. The states [that don't currently fund the classes] often ask to see the research before they fund it. …

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