How arts therapists can help improve the lives and wellbeing of individuals with SEN
Rachel* has profound and multiple learning disabilities and is 16 years old. She is blind, suffers frequent seizures and requires a high level of care. Rachel is at her most responsive when listening to music, and two years ago she was referred to music therapist Anita Vaz. These sessions provided her with an outlet for self-expression and an opportunity to interact and communicate non-verbally.
From the beginning of her work with Rachel, Anita used her breathing to set the tempo of the music. Rachel realised this very quickly, showing how much she enjoyed the control and empowerment. Whilst they were playing “the breathing game”, as it became known, Anita would play the flute or sing while Rachel used her breathing as an instrument and a tool for communication. Whilst Rachel held her breath, Anita held her note, resuming once Rachel began to breathe again. Rachel would often smile at these moments, delighted that she was influencing the music. As time went on, Rachel would often vocalise with Anita; the more she used her voice, the more confident she appeared to become.
Rachel has now moved up to sixth form. Music therapy has allowed her to experience the freedom to communicate, interact and express herself. Her teachers have also noted how it has impacted her interaction, as they realise how cognitively aware she is, and how much she is able to interact when given the appropriate medium to do so.
Rachel’s story highlights how a registered arts therapist can improve the lives of those with SEN. But what exactly is an arts therapist and what do they do?
What is an arts therapist?
An arts therapist is a psychological therapist who has arts-based experience plus training in psychological interventions using drama, music or art as their primary mode of communication.
This group of professionals is statutory regulated and fully accountable to the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC): an independent regulator of 16 heath and care professions, including social workers in England, paramedics and occupational therapists. Anybody calling themselves an arts therapist or using the legally protected titles of music therapist, dramatherapist, art therapist or art psychotherapist, must meet HCPC standards for their training, professional skills, continuing professional development (CPD) and health. There are currently more than 3,600 arts therapists on the HCPC Register, with a significant proportion employed in mainstream health, education and social care services.
Arts therapists provide unique psychological and therapeutic interventions, supporting service users of all ages facing a range of issues, disabilities or diagnoses. This can include emotional or mental health problems, learning or physical disabilities and developmental disorders.
Donald Wetherick, of the British Association for Music Therapists (BAMT), explains: “Psychological interventions aim to improve a person’s state of mind and wellbeing, for example, to reduce symptoms such as anxiety, confusion, pain and depression. An arts therapist does this by helping the individual to experience themselves and others in different ways through an arts-based activity with therapeutic support.”
Smart, energetic, witty and considerate, Louis* also exhibited high levels of anxiety, demonstrated by obsessive behaviour, sleeplessness and increased worry about everyday activities.
During his first session with art therapist Jessie Fuller, Louis created an intensely colourful, layered painting, which was quickly and dramatically covered up with sweeping brushstrokes of black paint, leaving only glimmers of red and yellow shining through. He stuck a tiny fish sticker at the centre of the image, announcing its title as “Mucky Fish”. Jessie was struck by the daunting black dominating the painting, whilst amongst it all a surviving fish struggled in the midst of darkness, coping as best it could.
As time went on, Louis shared snippets of his nightmares, which seemed to reflect gripping feelings of responsibility, guilt and helplessness. His creations became increasingly powerful. They included a clay model of a man with a detachable head called “Mr Think Forgetful”, who spat out thoughts, and from time to time his head literally fell off because he had so many things to think about.
After ten weeks of sessions, Louis said his nightmares had stopped. He could sleep more easily and felt less worried about the trials and tribulations of everyday life. He showed less need to step into Jessie’s personal space, and was content making his creations on his own, thus reinforcing a kind of peace with himself which had previously been hard to reach.
Arts therapists can transform the lives and wellbeing of service users, with the benefits extending well beyond therapy sessions, according to Val Huet of the British Association of Arts Therapists (BAAT): “Arts therapists are skilled at engaging hard-to-reach service users of all ages, regardless of their conditions. Outcomes can include improved social and communication skills, as well as increased confidence and self-esteem.”
Joshua’s story is an excellent example of how the positive impact of arts therapy can continue long after sessions have concluded.
Joshua* was getting very anxious at school. Every little problem had become overwhelming in his eyes, and he was repeatedly vomiting every morning before leaving the house.
During his first session with a dramatherapist, Joshua mentioned his intense anxiety about being told off in class. He also confided his great interest in the Second World War, which triggered an opportunity to introduce dramatic themes of anxiety and bravery, relevant to Joshua’s predicament.
Joshua enthusiastically agreed to create a story from the Second World War with his dramatherapist. During the enactment of the story – which involved the D-Day invasion – Joshua’s character was an unhesitatingly brave lieutenant in the US army. The dramatherapist decided to become his fearful comrade.
Joshua had to give reassuring talks about bravery and fear to his comrade, explaining how he himself also felt afraid, but knew that he had to carry on. They parachuted out of a plane, marched across country, and attacked a gun emplacement. During a quiet moment in a village church, Joshua (whilst still playing the role of the brave soldier) explained to his incredulous comrade about his difficulties at school when he was a boy.
During the enactment, Joshua seemed able to become a different, more confident sort of person. Afterwards, the dramatherapist complimented him on his creativity and his intelligence. Joshua showed surprise at this, saying that he had thought of himself as unintelligent. They also discussed how being told off by a teacher might not a disaster.
After six weeks of sessions, Joshua revealed that the vomiting had stopped. His anxiety episodes before school also petered out. According to his school, this positive change has since continued.
Rebekah Tailor is from The Health and Care Professions Council. For more information about arts therapists, visit:
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of service users.