How Students with Autism Benefit from Art, Music, and Recreational Therapy

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Art therapyMulti-disciplinary sessions appeal to students’ creativity, are relevant to their everyday lives, and help them acquire important skills. These therapies are often used independently to treat individuals on the autism spectrum. In “Art, Music & Recreational Therapy: Incorporating Creative Approaches for Students with Autism,” experts presented on how these types of therapies are used to support individuals with autism by focusing on specific needs of younger and older students and targeting a variety of goals.

Art therapy helps students with autism target imagination and abstract thinking, sensory integration and regulation, emotion and self-expression, developmental growth, visual-spatial skills, and recreation and leisure skills. “As an art therapist, you don’t have to be an artist, but you must appreciate, enjoy, and actually experience the art,” said Courtney Carnes, MS, ATR-BC, Art Therapist. She recommends using visuals like charts with different colors to determine the individual’s mood, or icons and photos to symbolize the class schedule for the day. During sessions, she commonly uses colored bubbles or shaving cream art with younger kids for sensory lessons, while using sketchbook or step-by-step drawing with older kids for leisure skills. The main goal with these lessons is to have students independent in their art sessions.

“Music therapists use music to target non-musical goals,” Julie Hopkins, MT-BC, Music Therapist, explained, “Those goals can really vary depending on the population.” Julie likes to read Music therapysingable stories, songs in the form of a book, to target goals in young students like reading comprehension, reading pace, and sustained attention. Since her older students like to share songs with each other through platforms like YouTube, she makes lessons out of song-sharing that involve writing and presentation skills, and how to appropriately comment on songs. She also uses instrument playing to teach elements of music like tempo, dynamics, pitch, tonality and mood. The students can learn to identify these different elements and then attempt to replicate them with instruments.

Recreational therapyRecreational therapy can be used to focus on promoting motor function and leisure skills. Erin Witschey, CTRS, Recreational Therapist, works with younger students on providing motor development, sensory input, and an introduction to sports skills, while working with older students on sports skill development, exercise skills, and working as a team. Activities involved in her sessions include throwing and catching, kicking, climbing, going through obstacle courses, and for the older students, team activities. Erin added that the students should also be learning everyday skills like how to stay active and healthy. Every individual with autism is different, and using art, music, and recreational therapy can address students’ needs and build skills in a variety of creative ways.

This broadcast was hosted by and sponsored by Monarch Center for Autism, STAR Autism Support, and VizZle.

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This article was modified and published by eSchool News.

About the Presenters

Courtney Carnes, MS, ATR-BC, holds a master’s degree in art therapy with a concentration in counseling from Mount Mary University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a Bachelor of Science in pre-art therapy with a minor in leadership from Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana. While in graduate school, Courtney held internships at a local children’s hospital and an adult transitional housing facility. Courtney joined the staff at Monarch Center for Autism in August 2014. Since then, she has continued to build the art therapy program for ages 3 through 21.

Julie Hopkins, MT-BC, graduated with honors from Ohio University with a Bachelor of Music in music therapy. Following graduation, she completed her clinical internship at Monroe #1 BOCES in Rochester, New York. She provided related service music therapy to students with a variety of diagnoses in both center-based and district-based school settings. She also worked as the summer music therapist at Creekside School in Fairport, New York. Julie came to Monarch Center for Autism in 2014. She continues to grow the music therapy program, providing both group and individual sessions to target a variety of goal areas such as socialization, academic goals, emotional/behavioral goals, and sensory input.

Erin Witschey, CTRS, graduated with honors from Ashland University in Ashland, Ohio with a Bachelor of Science in recreation with a concentration in therapeutic recreation. Post-graduation, she worked full-time in summer camps, including time at an Easterseals camp for children and adults with disabilities, where she adapted programming to be accessible for all participants. Erin came to Monarch Center for Autism in 2013 as the gross motor instructor and has developed a program that provides needed sensory inputs while practicing a variety of motor skills.

Join the Community

Teaching Students with Autism is a free professional learning community that provides ideas and resources for teachers working with students with autism, particularly advances in technology that can lead to significant breakthroughs in communication and learning. This is a collaborative community where educators can share information to help support the needs of students with autism.

About the Sponsors

monarch center for autismMonarch Center for Autism, a division of Bellefaire JCB, is located in Cleveland, Ohio. Monarch offers a comprehensive array of programs and services for individuals ages three through adulthood with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Highlights, which incorporate Monarch’s visual language treatment model, include a preschool; day school for children, adolescents & young adults; transition education program; summer & extended school year programs; therapeutic residential treatment program; adult vocational & supported living programs; and community training.

star autismSTAR Autism Support (SAS) provides curriculum materials, workshops and training to school and agency staff who work with students with autism. Our mission is to help others successfully implement research-based applied behavior analysis (ABA) techniques. We want every child with autism to receive effective instruction!


vizzle autismVizZle provides a library of more than 14,000 lessons and the tools and media to customize them or create your own from scratch. The lessons can be tailored to any grade level, assigned to any student, and played on iPad or Android tablets, laptop or desktop computers. Data is tracked automatically. This award-winning software is developed collaboratively with educators.