I can hear Kumiko rushing down the hallway.
She pushes her way into the art room and tosses her fleece onto a countertop, nearly toppling several hot glue guns. She sits at her preferred table, the same one she has sat at for the past three years, and stares at me, waiting. “Good morning Kumiko!” I say. “Where’s Jill? Did you lose her in the parking lot?” Jill is Kumiko’s caregiver; she takes her to the Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center and assists her with the art process when needed. Kumiko doesn’t wait for Jill; I imagine she gets out of the car while it is still moving. One of our goals in art class is to slow down—to wait for things and to notice things. Art has great potential to teach us how to do this.
Kumiko opens up a bin of Mr Sketch© scented markers. She selects the hot-pink watermelon one and sticks it in her nostril, taking a deep inhale. She then writes her name on a piece of paper and says “K-U-M-I-K-O, Kumiko!” She quickly scribbles on top of her signature, obliterating the letters. She repeats this ritual with a half a dozen colors: purple, blue, green, red and so on. Once Jill arrives, we can begin the assigned project.
I try to choose directives that will incite creativity while also challenging the students to overcome potential deficits. Some participants struggle with sensory integration: touching glue and glitter is aversive and the smells emitting from Kumiko’s Mr. Sketch© is abhorrent. Others might need to build motor skills. We have made charm bracelets and tiny dioramas to hone these abilities. Kumiko seems to over-indulge in her sensory experiences. It has gotten to the point where Jill has to help her wash her face after each art session. After smelling a few markers, she ends up with an ink mustache that resembles a notorious dictator. She is also quite dexterous. When she isn’t smelling markers, she likes to make collages with stickers. She will even request them when she needs a break from my assigned project. I’ll hand her a page with forty tiny dots and watch as Kumiko peels them off, one at a time, and places them on a sheet of black construction paper. Lately, she has been making what Jill and I call “sticker mountains”: piles of small stickers, one on top of the other, surrounded by vast amounts of negative space.
I try to help Kumiko slow down. I want her to be able to enjoy the process and not rush to create some final product. The sticker breaks, and even the markers, are a strategy we use to pause and engage with art materials and the art process. We use a similar approach with her bigger projects.
Today we are making a box of chocolates. Not real chocolates but clay ones. Complete with a heart-shaped box. Kumiko begins to decoupage the tag-board heart. I give her a few squares of tissue paper at a time. She would prefer to just get it done and wrap the whole darn thing with one large sheet. Instead, she takes a small square of gold paper and glues it to her masterpiece. She then grabs a matching yellow Mr Sketch© and takes a whiff. “Yellllow!” she says. This becomes her ritual. Her dance, if you will. Other colors are added. Her inked mustache is becoming more pronounced. She smiles. She is happy today; she likes this Valentines-themed art. Sometimes, she does not want to partake in the art directive. In these instances, she always lets me know. “All finished,” she’ll say. She often turns to Jill and asks, “Ice cream?” That’s their ritual: after Kumiko finishes her class they take a trip to t he local Burger King for a soft-serve. Jill will gently remind her, “No. First we do art. Then ice cream.” She has not mentioned the “reward” in this session. Perhaps I have won her over with my faux food theme.
“Now we’re going to make chocolates,” I tell her. These are not real chocolates (although the Burnett Center does have a baking class with many parallels to art therapy). We make our own chocolate scented clay in the art room. It’s a mix of flour, water, cocoa powder, corn starch, paint and glycerin. Kumiko will benefit because she has to read a recipe and add the ingredients one at a time. Her peers, by contrast, are being exposed to different sensory stimuli. Typical truffles are topped with ganache, white chocolate, and cocoa beans. Kumiko uses tempera paint glazes and acrylic jewels. “Beautiful!” I tell her. She smiles, looking at her work. She then looks at me and says, “Stickers?”
Kumiko has moved on, and is now creating terrains with dot-shaped stickers. I think she was proud of her creation, even if it was only for a brief moment. She liked the kinesthetic and sensory aspects of the clay: kneading it with her hands and smelling the cocoa. She also liked adding the glitter adjournments (“bling,” I tell her). She sets down her stickers and picks up the heart-shaped box. She puts to her nose and inhales. She looks at me again and grins.
My training as an art therapist was focused heavily on the use of metaphors. The art becomes the client and a person can find deeper truths, and greater meaning, by viewing their creations. This gets unpredictable when you’re working with someone who is nonverbal (with or without the added diagnosis of autism). When I do art at the Alyssa Burnett Center, I don’t avoid metaphors—the box of chocolates being a prime example. Instead, I de-emphasize the loaded symbology that these metaphors might have. We focus instead on the art process. It has helped Kumiko, teaching her to stop and reflect and to be present with her art, with me, and with Jill. It has also helped me—I too let go of expectations and ideas of how my students will create, what they create and I am able to just be with them, as they are.