YCBA program reaches children on the autism spectrum

YCBA
Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

Last Saturday morning, nine children and their families reenacted “The Three Little Pigs” while they sat in front of a Canaletto oil painting at the Yale Center for British Art.

The activity was part of “Exploring Artism,” a YCBA program for families with children of ages 5-12 whose cognitive abilities place them on the autism spectrum. The program, which takes place on one Saturday each month, features multisensory activities centered around a work of art in the museum’s collection. Director for Education at the YCBA Linda Friedlander said she founded the program last year in compliance with the Center’s mission to make its holdings accessible to a diverse population.

This Saturday’s session centered on a mid-18th century Canaletto painting of Warwick Castle. Friedlander said that for each session, she chooses a work of art that features a large, singular image with an accessible theme, and one that hangs on a wall of its own to minimize confusion and distraction among participants..

“Words are fleeting; objects are static and can be experienced in a multimodal way,” said Leah Booth, an associate research scientist at the Child Study Center who specializes in speech-language pathology and has been involved with the program since its beginning. “They’re finding ways to relate objects to pictures and to tie this experience to the art.”

This month’s session — like most, Friedlander said — began with a drawing activity in the Center’s docent room followed by a brief orientation to remind children of the rules of conduct and introduce them to the painting they would work with. Friedlander and Assistant Curator of Education Jaime Ursic then sat the families in front of the Canaletto. Friedlander pointed out the features of the castle in the painting and used an iPad to display images of other types of buildings for comparison, such as the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower.

Another activity that explored the theme of architecture was the multimedia retelling of “The Three Little Pigs,” which made use of structures built from pipe cleaners, tongue depressors and legos to represent the straw, wood and brick houses in the story. Children were then given paper with the outline of a castle to color as they pleased. Back in the docent room, the children built their own structures out of cardboard and donated Starbucks trays.

Friedlander said that fine motor skills are an issue for many children on the spectrum, adding that the crafts activities allow children of various abilities to create what they can consider finished projects.

Before families arrive at the Center, they receive what Friedlander called a social book, which includes photos of the aspects of the museum that the children will encounter, such as doors, elevators and security guards. She explained that transitions can be especially difficult for children on the autism spectrum even sensory changes like stepping from a brick floor onto a marble one can be upsetting.

Scott Tivey, who attends the program with his family regularly, said that these materials help his 6-year-old son Scott Jr., who is on the autism spectrum, adjust to different environments.

“He’s a visual thinker, and having these social stories that allow him to visualize where he’s going makes his life easier,” Tivey said.

Friedland said that the program is also a way for parents with children on the spectrum to connect with one another, as they often may feel isolated. Professor Jamie McPartland, the director of the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic who attended Saturday’s session, said that it is important for parents to have a space in which they do not feel they need to explain or apologize for their child’s behavior.

Alongside the nine children and their families, Saturday’s session involved four undergraduate volunteers and a number of adults who came to observe the program, including McPartland.

“It’s important that kids get this educational and recreational time,” McPartland said. “The theraputic time is what they’re getting the other six days of the week.”

Friedlander invited Booth to speak with the Center’s security staff about how best to accommodate museum visitors on the spectrum.

Friedlander said visitors from Chapel Haven, a local school that caters to adults on the autism spectrum and those with developmental and social disabilities, inspired her to start the program. She spent almost two years researching and observing programs for children on the spectrum and consulted with faculty at the Child Study Center before launching “Exploring Artism.”

“A museum represents a social space where many parents would not consider bringing their children,” Friedlander said. “It was my desire to bring them in.”

There will not be an “Exploring Artism” session next month.

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