The importance of creativity for people with learning disabilities and/or autism

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

When we think about our health and wellbeing, we naturally relate it to a good diet and exercise because of the proven long-term benefits.

However, a report from the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing (APPG) suggests that having a creative hobby can benefit our mental and emotional health too. A creative hobby can easily be incorporated into our everyday lives without realising it. Research suggests that art can keep us well, aid recovery and support people to live longer and healthier lives whilst having fun along the way.

People with learning disabilities and/or autism can experience high amounts of anxiety daily. We should try to support them by implementing activities that are enjoyable and engaging. By incorporating art and creativity into people’s lives, we can give them the opportunity to express themselves, be engaged in what they are doing and give them a meaningful focus.


How do creative activities affect us mentally and physically?

Creativity comes in many forms, whether it be painting, puzzles, dancing or writing, whatever way you welcome creativity into your life, you will notice many benefits to your mental and physical health.

Artistic or creative activities can be done alone or alongside others. Carrying out creative activities with others can often lead to greater community inclusion, something that people with a learning disability and/or autism struggle to have or maintain. It can also enable people to open their mind and be creative in a way that they may not naturally be whilst using fine motor skills to create paintings, drawings, sculptures or something unique to that person.

Being creative can help focus the mind and has even been compared to meditation due to its calming effects on the brain and body, helping people deal with different kinds of trauma and negative feelings. Even gardening or sewing releases dopamine, which is a natural anti-depressant and can make people feel better.

Art and creativity can also be a way for people to express their feelings, especially if this is an area of deficit. When we are being creative, our minds typically enter a state of flow; essentially, we become absorbed by what we are doing, and the creative act takes over our mind. Being in flow boosts our mental state and even slows the heart rate down.


Our top 10 tips for developing access to arts and creativity for people with learning disabilities and/or autism.

When working with people with learning disabilities and/or autism, having access to various means of creativity remains crucial for supporting their mental health and wellbeing. It's important to consider the client's home environment, their ability to make and communicate their choices and the sensory components of the activity.

To help address this, we have compiled a list of the top 10 tips to try for developing access to arts and creativity for people with learning disabilities and/or autism.


1. Communicate regularly and clearly

Communication doesn't have to be just verbal. It can be through hand signing, pictures, drawings and gestures. It's important to communicate to the client about what is about to happen and explain this to them in a way they can understand. Sometimes in the care we provide, we deliver information to our clients through a method called 'chunking'. This means we deliver information in bite-sized pieces so the brain can easily digest new information. Following a 'now and next' approach helps with the 'chunking' delivery of information.


2. Build and maintain relationships

A trusting relationship is key when supporting someone with a learning disability and/or autism. When trying something, or continuing activities with a client, there needs to be trust between the client and healthcare professional. Relationship building takes many forms, but being there and understanding what is important and needed for the person is crucial. Person-centred care is at the heart of supporting anyone with a learning disability and/or autism. The relationship needs to be solid before trying something new.


3. Build the clients engagement over time

Engagement is something that is built over time. If we can engage a client in an activity for two minutes or more, this is a huge achievement and provides a starting point for us to build on over time.

If the client doesn't engage at all, or only slightly, support staff can immediately tell the client isn't enjoying the activity. Engagement can grow by doing the creative activity in the same room each time, with the same healthcare professional/professionals, and over a period of time. This may eventually intrigue the client, and over time they will want to engage in the activity.


4. Try again

No matter what happens, it's always a good idea to give things another try. If the individual doesn't seem engaged or if we notice a change in their behaviour, we will still give the activity another try. It's important to reflect on what went well, what didn't and what can be done better next time. Reflecting on what you've tried previously can help you to move forward and continue with engaging the client in the activity.


5. Teamwork

For any activity to be successful, it requires teamwork. From the development of new ideas to the setting up of the activity and the delivery and reflection following the activity, the team must work together to support the client.


 6. Let the client become independent

It's important to support the individual so they can do as much as possible. One day, that individual may be able to stir their own bowl of cake mix or paint a picture without any support.

Healthcare professionals should support the development of such skills while being aware of the daily struggles and challenges that may impact the client when trying to carry out the activity.


7. Provide the client with variety

Making sure we offer the client a variety of activities to capture their interest is so important. Sometimes people with learning disabilities and/or autism lack the opportunities to try new things due to their complex needs. Offering a variety of activities allows for broadening life experiences. So, trying cooking, baking, painting, dancing, or singing can help develop a passion for a way of expressing their hopes and dreams.


8. Tailor the activity to the individual   

Adapting activities to ensure the individual can complete them is often needed. This could be using built-up cooking spoons to support cooking and baking, making an environment quieter or darker to allow the person to focus on the activity, or ensuring there is a plan to do something else straight after the activity finishes.


9. Encompass themes in the creative activities

Developing activities around a theme can help raise awareness of an event, such as Christmas or Easter. It can also enhance the focus on the activity and minimise any overwhelms by promoting predictability and reducing choices.


10. Make yes or no choices

Yes or no choices are imperative in life. The ability to make choices should not be taken away from anyone. However, offering manageable choices is better than increasing worries by having too many options to choose from. It is also important to allow a client to decline an activity but remember to still offer it again in case they change their mind.

In a nutshell, getting to know the person and developing a “let’s give it a try” approach to arts and creativity can promote meaning and purpose in the individual's life, with the long-term goal of increasing self-esteem and developing a greater quality of life.


If you are interested in joining the team at Thornbury Community Services as a learning disabilities nurse or support worker, and want to make a difference in our clients' lives whilst empowering them to be as independent as possible, register with us here. Or contact our team on 0333 323 3762.