A Story of Paint & Taste: Autism, Pica & Expressive Arts

Saying that I love my job is an understatement, I get to run Expressive Arts Sessions for a range of people and so often witness them moving from fatigue, low mood, lack of motivation and low confidence to fully engaging, radiating smiles & laughter and heaps of confidence to go around. Overall, offering activities that improve quality of life and enable growth & development by focusing on what individuals can do, rather than what they can’t.

One particular example comes to mind is Al (name changed to protect identity), a young autistic person that I work with with a condition called Pica. This is a condition in which a person typically puts non-edible objects in their mouths and/or eats it. In a session, a potential object could be anything from glue to paint, to glitter, all typically essentials in my world of Expressive Arts.

So how do I make my session accessible & safe?

A very good question. So first & foremost, as a practitioner I have developed trust & understanding with Al as I find this to be a good solid foundation for all following work. I make all efforts to source materials that are non-toxic and often edible. I use a range of non-verbal communication methods to discourage them from consuming non-edible objects if the situation does arise.

My top tips for discouraging the consumption of non-edible objects:

  • Stay calm
  • Be gentle
  • Make every effort not to shame them
  • Reduce demands and pressure which may cause panic & stress
  • Use body language such as putting your palm out or role model taking an object out of your own mouth to demonstrate the ideal behaviour
  • Give lots of praise & encouragement throughout
  • Be patient

In my experience, there is a balance between responding promptly & consistently but also remaining light hearted and relaxed. This has proven successful but each person is different, so I mostly recommend patience – this never gets old, do not give up!

Favourite Activities so far…

Playdough Art

I used non-toxic homemade play dough and used food colouring for the paint and pulses & herbs for natural decorations. I have also tried making my own paint from natural sources too – this went down a treat (figuratively speaking!) though not all colour were as strong. This way if they were to try any of the materials, they would be safe too although not encouraged.


Autumn Tree Sillouettes

This is such a simple concept but it brought so much joy, which I could tell by their smiles throughout and eagerness to work on. The tree outlines were pre-drawn beforehand and the leaf shapes were cut out ready too. This works best if I alternate guiding them with the glue (which they often prompt me to do throughout) and leaving space for them to try for themselves to build up confidence. The next step with this activity would be for them to use the glue without my guidance.


What Next?

I’d love to keep experimenting with making our own paints which we could make together before using. They seem to love sticking & puzzles, so I will also incorporate more work with alternate backgrounds and collaging I think – so lots to potentially experiment with!


Big Love,

Em Desouza,

Expressive Arts Facilitator & Intuitive Energy Worker

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Did you find this useful? What works for you? Feel free to leave any questions, comments and share your thoughts & recommendations too!

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