Art Therapy as a Coping Mechanism by Patrick Samuel
Written on 27th Sep 2017 by Alex Lowery
Hello everyone. Today we have a guest article by Patrick Samuel who is an artist on the autistic spectrum. I had the privilege of meeting him last Saturday at the ‘About Autism’ exhibition. He has a very interesting story about how art therapy has helped him. Feel free to read below. Here is a link to his website. Enjoy!
Although my diagnosis for Asperger’s is relatively recent, it was an 8-year long fight to obtain it through the NHS. It took the help of my MP to finally get things moving. Signs of my Asperger’s were always there, even if the support wasn’t. As a child, my behaviour was already challenging. Prone to violent outbursts that accompanied my meltdowns, I was also withdrawn in social situations and was even altogether removed from kindergarten when I couldn’t connect with my peers or take part in activities. I was a frequent biter and runner too.
As I got older it only got harder and harder to manage myself. I didn’t interview well for jobs because I didn’t hold eye contact, I couldn’t stay on topic and found it difficult to pick up conversation cues. When I did get temp jobs, they didn’t last long and I struggled with travelling on public transport during rush hour times. Socially, it was hard to maintain friendships as my interests were limited and focused. Anxiety, depression and bouts of migraines lasting for days, and despite all of this, I still couldn’t get my GP to make the referral for my autism diagnosis so I could access support, care and medication specific to my needs.
Following a suicide attempt and losing my job as a trainee teacher, I got into art therapy with the help of my good friend who has since become my full-time carer. During that time, my local MP got involved in my case and helped things along with my referral for diagnosis. Since the diagnosis I’ve finally been able to access ASD specific therapies, medication and treatment with Enfield Complex Care, as well as further referrals back to the Maudsley for my ADHD, PTSD and CBT.
That’s all been really great but what’s made the biggest impact in my life is Art Therapy. It’s given me a way to communicate and express my emotions and thoughts as I’d become non-verbal and was regularly self-harming when I got overwhelmed. Up until then my condition was quite challenging and complex, but art has reduced a lot of that stress.
On that first day my carer placed an A3 pad in front of me and told me “Draw what you feel” and I drew a self-portrait. It was quite a morbid one. Half of my face with rotting flesh and bone protruding. It said everything. I was dead on the inside and fed up of trying to hide it. It was everything I couldn’t say. In that moment, I felt something. A little feeling of release. And I was done for the day.
The next day I drew again. And so it went. Day after day. Slowly at first. Each day I’d complete a picture. Eventually they weren’t self-portraits anymore as I started to look beyond myself. I started to draw my dog and other animals. Forests. Then other portraits. Then the moon, the stars, planets, galaxies, other universes, dimensions, portals. I was traveling, exploring…
As a person with Asperger’s, Art Therapy has many benefits. People notice I’m calmer, more focused and less distracted. It’s given me a tool to communicate both ways. It’s helping me to build social skills as well. Art Therapy is a chance to use my Asperger’s for good, rather than the harm I’d been causing to myself and others.
But how does Art Therapy work? I didn’t really understand it at first, and to be honest, when I got started I didn’t even realise I was doing it. Whether I use pencils, pastels, paints or charcoal depends on my mood and what I’m feeling compelled to explore that morning.
Sometimes I draw family portraits with graphite pencils, they’re moody, reflective pieces and I tend to feel sad when doing them because I was never really close to them when growing up, and these are emotions and memories I work through when doing art. I gravitate toward colour with acrylic paints and pastels when I’m feeling more adventurous, a bit more of a risk taker. Working on large scale pieces can be daunting at first. I usually don’t know how to start, where do I make the first mark on the canvas?
Once I do get started, something takes over but there’s usually a point in the early stages of a painting where it just looks like a mess. I have to fight the urge to trash it and to keep working at it, as that’s usually just the first layer when it doesn’t look like anything. By the end of the day I’m exhausted and covered in paint. Sometimes my dog has a few splashes of colour too, but it’s ok, it’s all part of the process. And then I look at what I did, I listen to what it says and I feel the emotion of it. And I can’t believe it came from me. It’s usually something I didn’t know was there all along. And that’s my therapy.
That’s how it worked for me and how it’s been working since December 2016.
People ask me what they should do and how they can get started because they don’t have the skills and abilities to create anything that can compare to other people’s work. I tell them what my carer said to me, “Draw what you feel”. Abilities, skills, technical know-how, none of this matters in that moment. It’s ok to get mad at your art. Smear the paint. Rip up the paper. Do what you need to do to express yourself. Stick it back together if you want. Use pencils, use old newspapers, envelopes, macaroni, glue, shoe polish. Use whatever you have. Art and art therapy is about expression and release, and it’s about you, no one else.
With Art Therapy, I’ve managed to turn my life around, engaging with others, speaking about my experiences and sharing my work at group exhibitions, art fairs, festivals and autism shows around the country since June this year.
Coming up, I have my first solo exhibition ‘Escape and Return’, following a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund art materials for it. The exhibition, at the Dugdale Centre in Enfield from November 7th to December 2nd, will feature paintings that dig deep down to show what it’s like living with Asperger’s, focusing on sensory issues, relationships, family and employment, as well as more abstract themes such as sensory issues such as synesthesia and visually representing what that phenomenon is like. This will be followed by another exhibition at Genesis Cinema in London from December through to January, with a third to be confirmed soon.
There have been a few published interviews online, including one with Enfield Independent and a BBC feature. My journey has been turbulent, but over these past 8 months I’ve found much peace in myself through Art Therapy. My aim now is to talk openly about these struggles and triumphs with the hope of inspiring and motivating others toward positive and rewarding challenges in life, in whatever form that might take.
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