The aim of this research was to investigate the way in which severely autistic children interacted with sculpture, and to consider the therapeutic and educational implications of this. The research was conducted in a special, residential school that had recently acquired some sculptures. These were placed in a wood, and the researcher noticed that the children engaged with sculpture in a way that was qualitatively different to their response to other structures, for example, playground equipment. Their reaction to the sculptures appeared to indicate that the sculptures offered an opportunity for the children to express themselves in a non-directed situation.
The participants were nineteen of the twenty children attending the school, the parents of three of the children, and the staff at the school.
The research involved filming the children over the course of a year. Filming was done by the researcher using a small handheld camera, and standing at some distance from the children. Their behaviour was then analysed from different perspectives, for example, psychodynamic, and other approaches used with autistic behaviour. At this point the researcher’s findings were shared with the staff at the school, and also with the children’s parents, who were shown the film. The parents of three of the children were subsequently interviewed in depth.
The researcher concluded that the children were meaningfully engaging with the sculptures, and that their behaviour in this context was different to the stereotypical, repetitive behaviours normally associated with autism. These behaviours are often considered to be meaningless, and staff at the school had previously assumed that this was also the case with the sculptures.
These findings question the established views of autism, and have implications for the therapeutic care of autistic children. A major outcome of the research was a number of recommendations for the development of more productive approaches to the use of the sculpture wood. Suggestions were based on the work of art therapists, and would initially involve further observation, looking at the children’s interaction with greater empathy as meaningful behaviour. It would also involve training for staff.