Art Is Therapy For Special Needs Children

Molly Beir concentrates on combining her words into art as other members of the class discuss and formulate their own art.

Photo by Andy Towle. |

Molly Beir concentrates on combining her words into art as other members of the class discuss and formulate their own art.



John Agent shows off his cool jumping bean using the scratchboard technique of scratching away the black to reveal the art you create as you go.

A frightening mask, a splash of colors, an insightful teacher and a chance to create helped John Agent connect to an ancient heritage — and find joy in school.

But he’s just one of the Payson School District’s group of special needs kids who have found that art helps them fit into a group, while standing out creatively.

As a result, the district has established a room dedicated to special needs children right next door to George Conley’s high school art classroom. Here, students gather with their teachers and aides to learn academic subjects, create art projects, and celebrate birthdays. Paintings and pictures cover the walls. Even some recent graduates return to the colorful room to do more art projects or celebrate birthdays.

On this day, Ryan St. John, the high school community-based teacher, brings in a cake and juice to celebrate birthdays.

While everyone waits for the party, John Agent, a quiet young man with features clearly influenced by his Native American heritage, shyly displays and discusses a plaster mask he made. The mask expresses elements from his cultural background.

“Yellow, red, black and blue, ‘screamed my name,’” said John in response to prompting from his teacher Jessica Roberts.

Roberts believes that art offers special needs kids a unique outlet.

Without knowing the term, Roberts has hit upon the ideology of sublimation: the ability to take socially unacceptable impulses and transform them into more socially acceptable behaviors. Psychologists identify art as one possible outlet for sublimation.


Rae Diller is working on her second scratch board piece. When asked about making mistakes, she just said; "Don't make any."

Through art, a child can draw a picture of a dragon breathing fire onto their sibling, but instead of meaning the child wishes to start their brother or sister on fire, the picture allows them to express their frustration over a lack of inevitable issues of power or control that spawns normal sibling rivalries (

St. John, Conley and Roberts have witnessed astonishing changes in special needs children through art. Some no longer need a physical outlet for their frustration; others feel empowered, such as Agent.

When Roberts discovered Conley had a plaster mask mold. She decided to make this project with Agent because of his cultural background.

Preparing for the project also taught practical lessons. To start, Roberts and Agent did an Internet search, which taught Agent the concepts behind research.

As they learned the history of Native American masks, they explored the deeper cultural meaning behind the art of mask making. The information helped Agent connect with his heritage.

Agent wondered why the masks looked so scary. Roberts found Web sites that explained many cultures made masks for war in order to psyche out the enemy.

Next, Agent and Roberts found out that symbols, such as drawing a straight line under the eye represented clear vision, or inner powers. Then they discovered that each color embodied a different meaning.

Using the information they gathered, Roberts guided Agent to create a mask that expressed his inner voice.

“I asked him what colors ‘screamed his name.’ I asked him what shapes he wanted to add to the mask. Then I had him mimic what I did to understand the techniques,” said Roberts.

The result of their collaboration forged a bold piece with a rich brown background, a blue stripe from forehead to chin and white dots, red and yellow slashes on the checks and under the eyes.

Agent has pride in his mask.

“Art is my favorite class. This mask is my favorite project,” said Agent. He plans on hanging it on the wall of his bedroom.


Art Instructor George Conley listens intently as a student asks a question about making art out of words.

Conley guides Roberts and the other special needs instructors by tailoring art projects according to the abilities of each child. Some, such as Savannah Legassi, use art to enhance their reading and writing skills.

“Savannah is creating an alphabet book by cutting out pictures from magazines of things that start with each letter,” said Amy Henderson, Legassi’s aide.

Not only do the special needs children work in their room, but Conley brings them into his classroom, integrating them with his students.

All the teachers have found the special needs kids affect the students.

“They really add a happy environment to the classroom when special needs kids are in here. They seem to brighten the room in the mornings and also help us smile throughout the day. None of us find them to be any different than us, and they’re seen the same way we all are.

“Since none of us treat them any different, it gives them creativity freedom and it sometimes lets them create some awesome artwork. They aren’t scared in class at all, they seem completely at ease,” said Kalynn Roggenstien and Jaden Brunson.


Jamie Hill is oblivious to those around her as the class chatter ebbs and flows according to how successful her fellow students are while working on their various art projects.

Micaela Croy sat next to Coleman last year. When she talked about him, her voice lilted in appreciation, “It was just so wonderful to have him sit next to me. He was always so happy. It was hard to not be happy when he was around,” she said.

Roberts offers another story of how a special needs child changed Conley’s students.

A group of Conley’s students sat together and talked about tough subjects. Other students in the class didn’t appreciate the conversation. To control the situation, Conley threatened to move the kids to other seats. Roberts decided she and Agent would sit with them. As she worked with him, she played a word association game to stimulate ideas. The students sat watching the two of them in fascination.

“Wow. What a cool game,” they said, forgetting their conversations.

As the group focused on the interplay between Roberts and Agent they observed how her games inspired him to create; they returned to their work with renewed enthusiasm. They finished the semester sitting next to each other, no longer talking about things that made others uncomfortable, while creating beautiful pieces.

“It’s a win-win situation for special needs and the regular education students. I learn more from them than I feel they learn from me,” said Conley.


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