Since junior year of high school, I knew I wanted to major in psychology to eventually find a career helping people one way or another. After arriving to college, I decided to add an art major, because it was a passion that I wanted to further pursue. Now as a junior at Franklin College, I am earning my Bachelors of Arts in both Psychology and Studio Art (painting track).
I first learned about Cornerstone Autism Center when a psychology professor reached out to me regarding the art internship. She remembered that my majors are psychology and art, so she thought the internship would be an ideal fit to combine the two subjects I am studying. Until this point, I hadn’t really considered how I wanted to apply my art major to the rest of my life, so the realization that I could combine it with my future psychology degree was a new, exciting thought. I immediately began researching, and I was amazed to find just how rapidly art was growing as a form of psychotherapy.
Once I became aware that I could integrate my love of art with my interest for psychology, the art internship at Cornerstone sounded more and more fitting. I was already fairly familiar with the concept of Applied Behavioral Analysis, since ABA therapists work at my home everyday with my stepbrother, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Because of this, I was able to see firsthand just how beneficial ABA therapy could be in changing someone’s life for the better. I eagerly began thinking about how I could incorporate art into this process. The summer prior to my internship, I devised various art projects that would specifically help kids with autism improve their motor and social skills.
I interned at Cornerstone every Wednesday for 10 weeks. My main duties included preparing art projects for the kids and holding nine different art sessions, which they attended with their therapists; each art session lasted between 15 and 20 minutes. After the projects were completed, I organized and prepared them to be displayed in the art show. Doing the art projects with the kids kept me quite busy throughout the day, but preparing the art projects was definitely the most time-consuming task. Due to the sessions’ limited time frames and the kids’ individual abilities, I had to complete parts of the projects in advance. I spent between 4 and 7 hours a week outside of Cornerstone cutting out shapes or gluing pieces together. For instance, the kids painted panda bears, but used plastic forks instead of ordinary paintbrushes. The forks served to not only create a furry texture, but to facilitate the kids’ use of motor skills. To make this happen, I had pre-cut the pandas’ eyes, noses, mouths, and ears, so the kids could glue them on. This allowed the kids to focus on using the forks to paint, rather than cutting out small shapes. Most people wouldn’t consider cutting out pieces of paper to be so time-consuming, but multiply that by 55+ kids. For the panda project alone, that was around 275 pieces.
I wasn’t anticipating all the hours it took to prepare the art projects, but I also wasn’t expecting the art sessions with the kids to have such a huge impact on me. It was rewarding to see how simple art projects could completely transform the attitude of some kids. Painting was definitely a favorite among them. I remember certain days some of the kids came to the sessions throwing tantrums, but once they started painting, they calmed down. Some even started smiling and humming. One of my most favorite memories is when a boy walked up to all of the finished paintings on a table and said, “Look at all of these masterpieces!” It was sweet how some of the kids prided themselves in their work. Even though I only interned at Cornerstone once a week, I soon began remembering the kids’ names and the unique quirks and characteristics they each had. I often found myself sitting at my desk being able to differentiate between some of the kids’ voices or laughter down the hall behind me.
I not only enjoyed being able to interact with the kids, but to also observe the ABA therapists working with them. I learned so much about appropriate ways to reinforce good behaviors and decrease bad behavior among the kids. It was interesting to see how the therapists used the art to encourage social skills. Learning more about Applied Behavior Analysis made my experience even more worthwhile.
One of the biggest lessons I can take back from this internship experience is the multitude and widespread benefits of art. Even if some kids did not particularly enjoy an art project, I still witnessed how the projects enabled them to talk to their friends sitting next to them, or to utilize paintbrushes and bottles of glue. Art can serve as tool to facilitate social and motor skills, enable self-expression, uplift one’s mood, reduce stress and anxiety, or improve self-observation depending on the individual doing the art. I found it amusing how some of the therapists even confessed they wanted to paint or complete an art project with the kids as well. I’ll admit, I personally felt very relaxed when I was preparing the projects because they gave me time to mentally and emotionally regenerate.
This internship was strenuous in that it challenged me to think independently, hone in on my organizational skills and improve my own social competence. It also brought more fulfillment than I could have imagined. I expect that the knowledge and skills I gained through this internship will follow me for the rest of my life. No matter what field of psychology I end up pursuing, I know that art will always be there as a valuable means of improving one’s quality of life.
November 7, 2016, Abby Finta