An interview with Mike Walker from Woodside in May 2019
What's the aim of this project?
The aim of the exhibition is to celebrate the creativity of our students from across our group of schools and to come to together as a community to share the talents and voices of our young artists. It’s an opportunity build on self esteem and confidence and to develop communication skills.
There is a vast age range of students from 4-19 and an exciting array of work which encompasses , music, poetry and art. The art forms are based from the traditional to the therapeutic to the experimental. Our exhibition reflects not only the diversity of students art work and interests, but also their enjoyment in creating the art itself. We would like to showcase an alternative approach to arts education and reach out to the wider community and perhaps even change some people's perception of autism.
The Woodside Group works with young people on the autistic spectrum. Is creativity treated like a form of therapy?
Therapeutic approaches to the arts is a huge part of what we do and we are in continuous development of this as the school grows, we as professionals are constantly seeking to reflect and grow in our understanding to benefit the students and learn from each other.
Our therapeutic sessions may happen organically due to the students needs or may be planned in advance sometimes taking in students therapy targets. Which may be to build on communication skills or develop fine or gross motor skills. Many individuals on the autistic spectrum have difficulties with motor skills, fine motor skills can be developed through drawing and painting, but also our team members particularly Gemma at the primary school has looked at drawing through sand and through textures such as rice and stones, drawing using light boxes and inks. Gross motor skills are associated with bigger movements such as running or throwing, we have developed this into art with action painting with sessions being developed to throwing paint balls, with one of our art team, Olivia developing paint bombs on canvas, which really brings in the fun and excitement in to therapeutic arts! Vestibular movement considers balance and spatial awareness. it may mean a need to move, swing and think about where you are in space.
A couple of the projects I have developed in this area are Boxing painting, rigging up punch bags and getting students to paint with boxing gloves.
I’ve enjoyed making lots of fun movement games which have featured in our whole school activities, including creating a giant pencil which is controlled by 4 people using handles, who have to communicate and move together to create a drawing! Another area to consider is sensory processing. Many people on the autistic spectrum will find it difficult to process sensory information and any one of the senses can be over or under stimulated, which can lead to anxieties and effect behaviour and even feel physically painful. Our music team Carl, Rich and Sam will look at various ways of regulating this through the use of musical instruments and music software and sound recordings. Other areas we might look at is acclimatising our young artists to different textures and materials and smells, maybe adding scents and aromas to paints.
Is your interaction about engagement & encouraging group work or do you tend to do individual work with the youngsters?
A Lot of our sessions with the students are one to one basis, which helps to build relationships and trust, and to develop specialised interests. We also have sessions with students working in pairs , and sometimes we have group art projects, and group outdoor art games & whole school art activities, which give the opportunity to have fun and communicate with other students. For an example,
I worked with students on learning about outdoor art and we used garden canes to build our own exhibition spaces, where we could define our own rules for how to engage and behave in the space. The only stipulation was the rules must be inclusive and not be at odds with our own school rules!
Whilst we have developed a lot of student led learning , it is also important to introduce them to projects initiated by teachers ,in which we can further build skills and understanding and resilience. Students will often work together on projects, for example the light box used in the exhibition was made almost entirely independently by a group of students who worked incredibly well together! The box will in turn be put to great use in our primary school Stonehurst lodge. Last year a group of students at one of our bases where working towards the John Muir award , understanding nature, we included the arts by creating murals and mosaics and ornaments for the garden, and putting on a play about John Muir, which we also made props for. Our students have also Larger based community projects one of the current projects has been creating signs for the Wicked Hathern festival, and next term we'll make signs for our schools very own footgolf course which is being developed in gardening.
Is there a misconception that autism is associated with rigid thinking, restricted interests & literal interpretations and this doesn't translate to creativity? Do you find that imagination / creativity is impaired or improved?
So to help put this question in context, we look at what is called the triad of impairments, which was established in the 1970’s by Researchers Lorna Wing and Judith Gould, who pioneered much of our modern understanding of the autistic spectrum. The impairments are Social interaction which is difficulty understanding social conventions and rules, relationships and behaviours. So maybe difficulty taking turns or seeming indifferent to others.
Social communication - is a difficulty understanding both verbal and non verbal communication, which could be from not recognising tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures or sayings, some people on the autistic spectrum will take a phrase literally, for example “ Get your skates on!” might create a lot of confusion!
Rigidity of thought and imagination. so some examples of this could range from not being able to understand other people’s points of view, to not not being able to cope with changes, to having very specialist interests, a limited range in imaginative games and activities which are sometimes copied or repetitive. So individuals on the autistic spectrum will have elements of all three of these impairments, but will vastly differ from person to person, A group of autistic people can be just as diverse as a group Neurotypical people. Think of any Five people who are not autistic, and you will notice how different they are, different interests, levels of confidence, humour, empathy. Compassion.
So now you have some understanding of the impairments , I can get on with answering your questions! I'm constantly excited and inspired by some of the imaginative ideas my students come up with, it’s often the specialist interests which we use to inspire what we do. I’m very passionate about student led learning, which puts the student in the role of an artist. It’s from there we can generate an interest in creating art and learning about artists which in turn can inspire further interest and imagination.
So, for example, if a student is interested in Star Wars, we can create stencils of their favourite characters and learn how to spray paint planet and space scenes using the aerosol graphia style. Both are relatively simple techniques that yield realistic and exciting images. From here this can generate an interest in developing skills in spray painting techniques and maybe street art, which can lead onto drawing or making stickers, they could decide that there interest in star wars takes them on to develop a project in clay or wood. It might mean that they use their new skills in other lessons or community projects, such as signs for the garden. Through building on communication and relationships we might be able to encourage to create images or sculptures for friends and family, thinking about other people's interests and hobbies as well as their own
Another great example is one student interest in ghosts and mysterious conspiracies, led us to develop faked photographs using a haunting mannequin figure which we jointly constructed, developing this project of a mysterious Victorian horror character led to learning about jewellery making and the history of Whitby jet, hat making, experimental photography, using projectors to develop the pepper’s ghost technique to fake ghostly photos. At each stage we were developing skills and confidence in communication and problem solving skills. When figuring out problems to a creative project that a student has a particular passion for, a young person's imagination and creative mind are on overdrive coming up with amazing ideas and solutions.
There is more scope for our students to be flexible to our ideas and opinions as teachers , if they can see that the end result will work. Use of the internet and youtube guides from artists will also serve to inspire ,if you encourage them to find out for themselves through their own research
I feel that autistic artists can be easily as creative and imaginative as any other artists when their interest is piqued and their inspiration can be ignited. It’s amazing when students tell you that they are making and creating in their own time for fun! To be a part of that process is both joyful and rewarding.
Similarly we have a growing number of talented young musicians in the school, inspired not only by our dedicated music staff , but other staff members with a love of music. it's amazing to See that this love of music is passed on from student to student who then learn to play together or teach each other, in this way they gain new interests and hobbies , someone else's passion for music becomes their passion and the world begins to open up a little bit more.
To take it back full circle to the triad of impairments, think how many famous artists (and indeed ones you know,) where outsiders who struggled with social conventions, worked obsessively often painting variations of the same theme, who’s stuck to their beliefs and ideas even if they were seen as unconventional, and where ahead of their time.
Andy Warhol for example displayed many of the traits of Aspergers, both in his approach to art and in his social interactions.
One of my pupils had an interesting thought when he was studying Van Gogh and wondered if Vincent had Aspergers. Van Gogh struggled with many of his social interactions, but was also ahead of his time and saw the world in a very beautiful way. Who knows? But I personally I feel our young artist may have hit upon something here!