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I often get calls and emails from prospective art therapy students. And, I love the occasional coffee meeting with an individual who wants to know more about what I do and the field of art therapy. So, here I am with my cup of tea; I’ve compiled a list of common questions that I am asked and I’m including my answers! Take a peak and see what you think. My hope is that this will bring additional clarity to the work that I do and prompt more questions for those interested in art therapy.  Feel free to leave a comment and ask more questions! 

Where did you attend graduate school?

University of Louisville

How long was your program?

2 years

What certificate(s)/degree(s) did you receive? 

I graduated from the University of Louisville with a Masters of Education in Counseling and Personnel Services with an Art Therapy Concentration. In 2010, I qualified and received my credentials for my Art therapy registration (ATR) and in 2012, I passed the National Counselors Exam (NCE) and can now call myself a nationally certified counselor. I am currently under supervision for my License in Professional Counseling (LPC) and plan to take my art therapy board certification (ATR-BC) sometime in the next year. It’s a bit ridiculous, but once I’m fully licensed, I’ll be a “ATR-BC, LPC.” I’d love to tack on a certification in play therapy (LPT) at some point in my career, but I’m working with what I’ve got for now!

What is the most rewarding aspect of art therapy to you?

It is an honor to sit and be a helpful part of the story in a person’s life when they are most vulnerable and in need. I enjoy how art is a common thread no matter what persons’ abilities are. I like how art therapy provides the means for people to communicate and express the things that are hard to say in words. I also love witnessing the creation of art that helps medical staff, the treatment team, family members; schoolteachers, etc see the individual person and not so much their label (ie: autism or other diagnosis). Art gives others the window to see past the disability and into the unique minds of others.

What disability, mental illness, etc. do you think benefits the most from art therapy? Does that differ from the things you most often treat?

I have worked with a wide spectrum of different populations and have seen benefits of art therapy with each. Specifically, I spend a good bit of my time with seniors who have Alzheimer’s and dementia. I also work with pediatric cancer patients/ individuals with chronic illnesses, kids on the autism spectrum, adults with mental illness and cognitive/ developmental delays…

Is art therapy popular in Birmingham and/or the Southeast? Do you think it will be grow in the region over the next 5 years?

Art Therapy is certainly a developing field in Birmingham, AL. At present, I am the only Art Therapist doing private practice work. I know of a few art therapists who work inpatient psych, one that does counseling and art therapy through a local non-profit counseling agency, one that does research and another who has previously worked at an eating disorder clinic but is now enjoying retirement.

In regards to art therapy being popular in the southeast– from my experience it’s definitely not a career that you’ll find ample job openings. The best ways to find employment in the field is networking as most facilities do not post art therapist positions online. I have had to do a lot of educating as to what art therapy is and often when I do this at facilities and schools, opportunities open up. Many times, there are organizations interested in contract-based employment but they rarely have the financial resources to hire someone full-time. (I’ll speak more about this below in regards to insurance)

What is a typical workday like for you?

I started my private practice in October of 2012. Since then, each day varies greatly. Throughout the week I am either at Children’s Hospital, one of two different nursing homes, or at my private practice seeing clients individually. Since this is the first year of my business things are slower and I have spent a good bit of my time networking. So, some days I’m traveling to various facilities to network, educate on art therapy, and meet with directors of other programs. Right now, no two days are alike!

Are art therapy sessions covered by any insurance that you are aware of?

Art Therapy is not covered in the state of Alabama (coverage depends on each state policy). However Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC) and Social Workers (LCSW) are covered which is why I went to a dual program with an emphasis in counseling. If Art Therapy was covered in Alabama, I’m sure many more places would have the funding resources to hire art therapists full-time because they could then bill for those art therapy services. Since I am under supervision for my LPC, I could apply as an LPC at facilities and implement art therapy techniques during my sessions if I wanted to. For counseling state-licensure requirements, please see the following website:  http://www.counselor-license.com/

In what ways can I gain experience while working towards my undergrad and graduate degrees?

I highly recommend the following: go to counseling (maybe try a free service at your school), volunteer at a conference or with organizations that use the arts to impact those in need, intern with an art therapist, play therapist or occupational therapist.

What are some characteristics you find important for an art therapist to possess?

To name a few: adaptability–adapting techniques and media to the needs of the client… Innovation, creativity, empathy, perseverance…

What advice would you give to someone entering the art therapy field?

Visit schools, talk to as many art therapists as you can, read research articles and make time for yourself to make art!! It’s good to know what the process of making art means to you. How do you use art in your life?!

I am just curious about what a normal session would be like with a person diagnosed with autism?

It truly depends on the client, what they are able to do, and what their goals would be for the session—E.g. Is the goal to make art because they enjoy it? / is it to express emotions? / is it to work on social skills? / work creatively to learn classroom curriculum? Etc.…. In any case, I promote the idea that the art therapy time should focus not on the product (what they are making) but rather on the PROCESS (the process of creating).

Ultimately, the work we do together promotes being engaged socially and to shift from being passive to being embodied/ playful (connecting the body and mind to work together). The benefit of art therapy with this population could be entirely in the moment. Depending on where the person is on the autism spectrum, creating art could also create a sense of empowerment and stronger sense of self– an effect that could last a lifetime.

Have you previously worked with anyone non-verbal?

Yes, I have worked with at least one child, teen, and several adults who were non-verbal. I’ve also worked with adults who communicate using sign language

How exactly does art therapy allow you to communicate? (specifically with non-verbal clients)

Depending on the client, I may focus less on concrete verbal communication and more on expression. For example, several years ago, I worked with a non-verbal female in her 20’s. She would become extremely agitated throughout the day and would often need sensory experiences to calm her (i.e.: using the OT body bag/ implementing body pressure/ going to the dark room, etc). During one session, this client was visibly angry (evident by physical aggression and self-harm). In an effort to calm her and allow her an outlet to express creatively, I put shaving cream on a large fold-out table and encouraged her to rub the shaving cream around on the surface. As she became engaged in the medium, her whole demeanor soothed; her body became more fluid and less rigid and she eventually started smiling. With this particular client, I was part of a treatment team and worked often with the client’s OT (Occupational Therapist). 

In regards to communication in general, the focus may be on giving the client opportunity to make choices and have control over the process of making art. It could be as simple as holding up two colored markers and saying “pick one: red, or yellow”… by limiting options, you are leaving room for the ABILITY to make a choice while preventing the overwhelming confrontation of 30 different color options. This structure is extremely helpful. During the process of creating, I make efforts to engage the senses (sight, touch, smell, sound). Sometimes, I play calming music as background noise. I focus on the atmosphere–maybe the fluorescent lights would be off and the table lamps on; I may seek to incorporate a spice (cinnamon?) into the activity (sense of smell is powerful and works well with patients who do not have vision or hearing, have Alzheimer’s/ dementia, or are on the autism spectrum). As age and ability indicate, I encourage clients to feel different textures during the process and possibly have them make continued choices such as “pick one: do you want the ‘scratchy or soft'” object? As an art therapist, I’m considering everything the client may be experiencing from the moment they walk into the door.

Ultimately, I want to provide a comfortable and safe experience for them so that they can communicate what they need to. One thing I remind myself of is that when I’m working with children and adults who are non-verbal, one way of meeting them where they are is to use few words. Since their vocabulary is small, use short sentences. For example: rather than saying ‘Bob, please come sit down so we can work together’ it would be more appropriate to say ‘Bob: sit’. (once Bob finishes the first command, then say ‘lets work!’). It’s important to give directives one at a time. It may also be important to have rewards when working with this population. If I’m working with a client who focuses on a food item, let’s say m&m’s, I might use the following directive: ‘first paint, then eat.’ By using this simple directive, the client knows that if they paint, they’ll get a reward.

Do you personally feel art therapy works better for special needs population (mainly autistic and not verbal) than clinical counseling does?

What I love about art therapy is its adaptability. I have seen and experienced art therapy with so many populations and I do not feel that it works better for one client group or another. The great thing about art therapy is that art is the common denominator no matter what the population is. I can truly meet a person (a client) where he or she is as I adapt the media and activity. Meaning, that if the individual I am working with has a disability– maybe arthritis or communicates non-verbally—I can adapt to meet the needs of the client. For example, rather than using scissors to cut fabric (an agitate to arthritis) I may have individuals work together to rip fabric (each working together to pull one end of the same fabric to make the tear). With this adaption, I now have the opportunity to discuss teamwork and the stress-relieving qualities of ripping fabric.

How long you have been practicing?

I graduated in May 2009 and have been working since that time. I have worked at Brookwood Hospital with adults who have a mental illness in an inpatient psych setting. I have also worked at VSA of Alabama, the state organization on arts and disabilities (as their art therapist, program manager and now as a contract employee). More recently in my private practice–Art Stories Studio (www.artstoriesstudio.com), I have been meeting with clients individually and contracting services at various hospitals and community settings throughout Birmingham. 

Do you use art therapy or art as therapy?           

I use both. I have worked as a contract-employee at Children’s Hospital of Alabama (with pediatric cancer patients) as well as several nursing homes with senior adults with Alzheimer’s/ dementia. I find that my therapeutic technique depends on the client and where they are at mentally, physically, and emotionally. With some clients I may do both (one session focus on more cognitive processing through art, another session focus more on the art process). For example, maybe one week the patient is newly admitted and feels ‘normal’ and a few weeks later has begun chemo and as a result is physically very sick and unable to do and mentally process the things they did a month prior. I would meet the patient where he/ she is at and focus on what they are able to do. Art as therapy may be more appropriate in this case.

What type of mediums you use?

Some of the typical mediums that I use in sessions are canvas, acrylic paints, chalk pastels, paper, and magazine collage. However, when budget allows, I enjoy bringing out some clay (esp. Crayola Air-Dry clay as it does not leave residue on hands), I’ve also done several group murals using fabric, which have been very rewarding.

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