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Nicole Martin

Look at Me: Assessing Portrait Drawings Made by Children with Autism

       The ability to attend to the human face is a striking, and possibly characteristic, deficit for individuals with autism.  Research suggests that people with autism may view faces in a more iconic, or concrete, manner as opposed to the symbolic way that most children seem to orient toward faces from birth.  The concrete, visual way in which children with autism interact with the world implicates art therapy as a prime intervention, and yet to date, very little attention has been given to this topic in the literature. The current study attempts to determine whether or not iconic thinking is implicated in portrait drawings made by children with autism as well as amass a body of data that could contribute to the field’s understanding of how people with autism represent faces and approach drawing in general.             

        The Portrait Drawing Assessment (developed by the author) was administered to 25 children and adolescents with autism and 15 typical children living in the Chicago area and the drawings were collected.  One feature of the assessment is that the facilitator draws the participant’s portrait as well, modeling good attention skills and sharing how the participant is viewed in return.  Results of this study indicate that iconic skills, if present, do not appear to influence the drawings made by children with autism.  However, participants with autism were rated as more engaged and conversational during the task than were their typical counterparts, contradicting widespread characterization of people with autism as asocial.  The facilitator’s role as artist turned out to be an important part of the data collection and embodies possibilities of art therapy as a way to work on theory of mind deficits.  Portrait drawing was successful as a structured, concrete way to engage in relationship that holds potential as a therapeutic task designed to develop face processing and recognition skills.


          Nicole Martin received a BA in Art and Art History with a focus in Applied Psychology and earned highest honors from DePaul University (Chicago) in 2003.  She has five years experience using applied behavioral therapy with children with autism.  She has practiced art therapy with adults with chronic mental illness and developmental disabilities, dually diagnosed women and their children, and adolescent offenders.


Thesis Advisor: Thesis Advisor: Randy M. Vick, Associate Professor, Chair, Art Therapy

Thesis Reader: Anne Maxwell




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