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Art Therapy for Special Needs People

Updated on August 21, 2019
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

Teaching Watercolor To Senior Citizens


Art Therapy For All

I had a standing (free) watercolor class for senior citizens at several sites in my town, when a group arrived and asked if they could join the watercolor group. I could tell that they were special needs people by the way the caregivers were protective of them. Some had experienced head trauma due to accidents, some had suffered a stroke or other ailments, and others were born with disabilities. Not all were elderly but some were. There was a wide range of problems but they all looked forward to painting in my watercolor classes.

The papers I brought had drawings already provided so that the senior citizens could just sit down and enjoy the process of painting without worrying about learning how to draw. This also worked perfectly for people with disabilities. However, there were a few hurdles to overcome.


Art Therapy for the Elderly

Stencils To Draw The Pictures

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Geese flying south.Yellow Rose.Water Lilies.
Geese flying south.
Geese flying south. | Source
Yellow Rose.
Yellow Rose. | Source
Water Lilies.
Water Lilies. | Source


I brought a sample of the finished painting to place on each table so that the painters could see what I intended the finished product to look like. My normal routine was to give a few instructions and step-by-step instructions to help them achieve the desired finished product. However, my special needs friends really didn’t want or listen to any instruction.

One of my favorite people was Debra. She was an adult born with Down’s syndrome and she loved painting. As a matter of fact, she hated for me to clean up and take my brushes back to go to the next site. Debra would look at the sample and just begin painting. It didn’t matter that I suggested painting the sky first; if she wanted to start with the trees, she started with the trees. Often her caregiver had to distract her to get the brushes away from her so I could go. It broke my heart to deceive her and leave with the paints. I hoped that someone at her home bought her paints and brushes because she loved painting so much.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”



Debra (not her real name) and many of the others got joy for the colors and the mere experience of petting the paper with the brush. Some tried to scoop the paint out of the wells to smear onto the paper pure instead of using water, but still it was the experience that gave them such peace and calm. I know they loved it from the many times they returned to participate in the program.

My suggestion if you are starting your own special needs art therapy group is to set up a sample but don’t bother trying to redirect their creativity. Part of the fun is exploring the colors for yourself. Forcing anyone to do it your way only mars the joy of the discovery.


Special Needs

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Don't feed the Artists.

Buy their work.

They can feed themselves.

Music Is Art Too

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A Yellow Day!

One older man, I will call Joel, never noticed or cared about the lines or drawing already provided on the paper. Week after week, he painted the paper all one color. After a while, I noticed that he didn’t use the same color every week. It wasn’t about him painting with his favorite color or anything like that. He was painting his mood.

I looked into his face and saw a real calm and peace the day he painted the paper all blue. So I told his caregiver that it was a “blue day”. After that, we noticed what color the day was for him, and I began just bringing blank paper for him to color. One day he painted the paper entirely yellow and as he was finishing, I remarked, “Joel, is it a yellow day?” He never spoke but sometimes grunted. He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and reached for the orange with his brush. He painted one corner of the paper orange over the yellow. So I said, “Ahhh, it’s a golden yellow day!” He smiled so big at that and grunted for another piece of paper. He was such a joy to watch. Sometimes we miss the joy in simplicity.

“Most smiles start with another smile.”

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Blind Can Paint Too

One of my more complicated challenges was the blind girl, (I will call Cindy). As you may or may not know, blindness is a matter of degrees. Someone who is legally blind may be able to see a little: movement, color, sometimes images around the edges of vision but black in the middle, etc. Cindy could not see black lines on the paper but she could see color. She enjoyed applying color to the paper but really wanted to follow the picture I supplied if only she could see it. One day as I watched her try to feel for the lines, I thought of Braille. If only I could make the drawing raised she could feel it. She told me she could see colors so I thought about putting blue watercolor in an Elmer’s glue bottle and mixing it up. Then I could “draw” the lines with blue Elmer’s glue and when the glue dried it would be not only blue but also raised so she could see and feel it. When I tried this for her she was overjoyed. It worked out wonderfully and she began painting some really nice rich paintings. A blind girl painting paintings! Wonders will never cease.


Dancing is fun exercise for the elderly.
Dancing is fun exercise for the elderly. | Source

A Villain

Several of my senior citizens suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia diseases. It robs them of their memories but usually not of their joy in participating in the simplest things like cooking or painting. One dear lady, in particular, was the last living member of her family. Gratefully she didn’t remember that. She would tell me of her dear husband and how they met, their business together and the love they had. She didn’t really remember that he was gone, or that she had told me that story last time she painted… and the time before that… and the time before that. I didn’t mind. I listened each time as if it were the first time hearing the story. She was such a charming personage and worthy of my time and attention. She loved her time painting every week and always went away happy. Isn’t that what life is all about?

Eventually, her caregiver stopped bringing her. I heard she had a bad cold. Then the following week she was in the hospital with pneumonia. Before I could go see her she was gone. I really will miss her.

Yo Yo Ma

"Passion is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you're passionate about something, then you're more willing to take risks."

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Express Yourself

Art therapy is a growing method of dealing with anxieties, phobias, and pain by using the joy of color and drawing to express what you are feeling. There is something really calming and enjoyable about petting paper with a paintbrush. It is no wonder that everyone loves painting even if they feel they have no talent or drawing ability. For art therapy, you don’t really need drawing skill. It is more about expressing oneself with color.

To do this, I created stencils that could then be used to draw the same picture over and over again. This way all the students and participants have the same drawing and can paint it any way they please. I do like to create a finished watercolor piece so they can see what I intended for the finished painting but no one has to follow that if they don’t want to. Let them paint trees blue if they want blue trees. Why not? It is, after all, art and not math or history. There are no wrong answers in art. Isn’t that freeing?

I find it fascinating that I have been painting for years, teaching whenever I can and now I discover I’m a therapist! I encourage others to express themselves and they go away happier than when they came. It is magical.

2 Stepping


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