Intersecting art and science to support children with autism

The Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) at La Trobe University and the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) have collaborated to develop the free online resource, which introduces autistic children to art.

Bringing together science and art, a new art-making resource has been created by experts to support children with autism.

Cheryl Dissanayake, Director and Chair of OTARC and a Developmental Psychologist with a particular focus on early childhood development and autism, said the resource was developed to be engaging and fun.

“Art is central in our lives, and nurturing children's artistic talents is important in their development. We all rely on resources to scaffold our knowledge and activity, so having an art resource that children have access to can inspire them and be helpful for parents and teachers,” Cheryl said.

Cheryl and Susan Hayward, a post-doctoral fellow at OTARC, worked closely with Andrea Stahel, Community and Access Programs Manager at NGV to create the resource.

Andrea said that since the NGV had to temporarily close its doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve been looking for new and innovative ways to serve their audience, with a focus on social connection and wellbeing.

“Art-making can be incredibly meditative and in difficult times, a source of solace. This year has brought new challenges for children as they adapt to changes in their education, family and social lives. Children can often find disruptions to their daily routine challenging, but for autistic children this can be especially distressing,” Andrea said.

The NGV team discussed what a resource for autistic children might look like and agreed that it could benefit from guidance from specialists.

“We were fortunate that we had the opportunity to collaborate with OTARC through our partnership with La Trobe University, who provided evidence-based advice on the content and language,” Andrea said.

The art resource, which focuses on patterns, consists of activity sheets that encourage children to identify patterns, describe repetition in colours and create their own patterns using found objects and drawing materials.

“A lot of art relies on pattern making, and many autistic people also have a keen interest in patterns. So it was a matter of bringing these two foci into an art resource for autistic children,” said Cheryl.

The illustrated resource uses Harp, 2019, by contemporary textile artist Tammy Kanat, as the inspiration. The visually striking work conveys one way in which patterns can be used in art.

This new resource, which is suitable children aged 5 to 12 years, is a great addition to La Trobe’s long-standing learning partnership with the NGV – which has been in play since 2013.

“This collaboration sits at the intersection of science and art and demonstrates the powerful possibilities that art can have in supporting wellbeing. We are excited about the future opportunities this partnership can bring and look forward to working with OTARC again in the future,” said Andrea.

Cheryl added that having online access to resources such as this can help families to stay connected and engaged with the community.

“Right now, we are stuck at home - especially in Victoria. The NGV, like many organisations and institutions, are increasingly developing online access so that the community can engage virtually - in this instance with their wonderful public collection of art.

“Using this art as a source of inspiration for children, and focusing on patterns in art in a way that is attractive for autistic children, is a wonderful endeavour and why we at OTARC decided to engage in this collaboration,” she said.

Find out more about the art-making resource to support autistic children.