The power of self expression for autistic youth by seeing their experiences, people like them and their stories through arts and culture, finding the freedom to express themselves, their way, is magical.

Every child and teenager on the autism spectrum is unique, with different interests, passions and abilities.

It is true that many neuro-diverse kids find social situations challenging, particularly in neuro-typical settings where the effort to ‘fit in’ can be exhausting and stressful.

The pressure for the Autistic child in these situations can escalate when there is no ‘focal point’ such as an activity or game to alleviate the pressure of conversation and interacting.

I’m a big believer in creating social situations that work for all kids, neuro-diverse and neuro-typical. Small adjustments can make a difference to the quality of interactions and connections experienced.

I am biased when it comes to arts and culture because that’s my passion and I had a long career in the arts prior to moving into this sector.

There is a misconception that Autistic kids do not express themselves in creative ways and display more logical thinking. However, I have seen arts and culture play a phenomenal role in the lives of Autistic children, for a number of reasons.

Communicating through arts

Artistic expression is a powerful outlet for people to communicate how they are feeling, their views, thoughts and to share their emotions. For Autistic kids who may struggle to convey feelings and thoughts – or may communicate in non-traditional ways – arts and culture provides an alternative outlet for communicating.

It allows the painter, dancer, drawer or actor to use certain colours, strokes or expressions to convey their inner world, helping people around them to better understand how they feel and think.

For parents, carers and therapists this form of communication can be particularly insightful in seeing the world through that person’s eyes, knowing how to respond, support or love their child.

Regulating emotions

Many Autistic children find it difficult to regulate emotions, particularly in environments that pose sensory challenges, which in truth is almost anywhere in a public space.

A major benefit of participating in arts and cultural activities is the ability to help one self-soothe.

Playing a musical instrument, listening to music, taking photographs, colouring or painting, dancing, playing another character are activities that can absorb and comfort, often requiring repetitive actions that can bring focus and soothe an over-stimulated mind.

While this is beneficial for all, it provides Autistic individuals who are feeling overwhelmed or anxious, an outlet to help navigate difficult situations with greater ease.

Boosting individuality

Many Autistic people are proud to celebrate their individuality and, the arts give them an opportunity to tell their stories, their way.

Being able to authentically express who you are through creative output is powerful. It’s a wonderful thing to discover a hidden talent or passion and then explore your world through creativity.

And it’s not only about creating art, it’s about being among it. Visiting an exhibition that motivates or calms you, or seeing a play that inspires you, is also a way of embracing your individuality and creativity.

Building confidence

Participation in arts and culture can significantly boost an individual’s confidence and self-esteem, as it provides an ability to showcase talents and achievements.

I have seen first-hand the boost in self-esteem when recognition is received for a piece of work or a stage performance.

And it’s not just about recognition. Overcoming fear, nerves and apprehension about a stage performance, or displaying a piece of art or photography, is character building and naturally helps to build confidence, leading to personal growth.  It is especially empowering when they begin to see that their stories and expressions are valued and matter.

Forming connections

During our Social Hubs, I have seen connections built and friendships form over a common activity or interest.  Recently, a teenager who was suffering severe bullying at school discovered that one of the ‘Social Hubbers’ loved drawing and they bonded immediately over this shared interest.  I have seen the ‘quietest person in the room’ light up at the opportunity to tell a story, make their own book, play or dance to music.

Regular participation in artistic and cultural pursuits – whether it’s taking an art or craft class or attending theatre performances and plays – deepens connections, friendships and bonding. In turn, this boosts self-esteem and a sense of belonging.

Best of all, the breadth of activities that fall under the ‘arts and culture’ banner appeals to a wide range of individuals, providing many opportunities for connection.

I am an advocate for increasing an Autistic child’s exposure to arts and culture, in ways that work for them. Many cultural centres such as museums and galleries are increasingly creating autism friendly spaces that better support and accommodate the needs of Autistic children, ensuring the experience is fun and beneficial. I have witnessed the heartfelt gratitude of parents and carers who are able to enjoy cultural experiences – which have previously been out of reach – with their Autistic child.

I am excited to live in a decade where diversity and inclusion is being discussed and acted upon. I know there is magic when our community is in an environment allowing self expression for autistic youth, when they can see themselves in art and culture.

There is still a way to go but ‘Autism-friendly’ is being prioritised as more organisations than ever look to create positive experiences for all.

I’ll leave you with some beautiful words by artist and researcher Dawn-Joy Leong.

Contrary to the erroneous neurotypical belief that autism is a barren landscape of isolation, the autistic mind is a thriving ecology teeming with abundant detail, nuances, texture, tastes, sounds, images, smells, profound thought and imagination.”

There are many artistic activities on this site, here is just one of them. Young Theatre Company.

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