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Learning Disability Special Edition of International Journal of Art Therapy

17 March 2019

Editorial by Simon Hackett



This important special edition on art therapy with people who have learning disabilities includes a case study, two opinion pieces, a project report and national practice-based guidelines. This work reflects a snapshot of the thinking, theory building, innovation and development of a clinical consensus for art therapists working in the UK. The work reported in these articles takes place within a wider context of policy change and transforming care for people with learning disabilities that has been a focus for the NHS in recent years...

Central features of the work written about in this edition are the images made by people with learning disabilities in art therapy; however, the front cover image is a painting by an art therapist of his client. Take a look at this picture. The man stands in front of a whiteboard and holds in his hand an outline of a shopping basket. The whiteboard was used by Kevin O’Farrell at the start of art therapy to help the man identify what he thought he needed. The man wanted his old life back, before two traumatic events that had happened to him. In the art therapy sessions that followed, the man continued to make images of himself on the whiteboard and repeated this session after session. Because his pictures had to be wiped from the board each week, the therapist started thinking about making a portrait of the man so that he could take it away.

This became a collaborative process, with the painting being made by the therapist and the man giving guidance about what he wanted in the picture. An example of this collaboration in the picture is the deliberately unfinished shopping basket that the man is holding. The man initially wanted items painted in it to symbolise his desire to become more independent, but then he decided he would leave it empty because he thought that what he needed in the future might change. Kevin O’Farrell’s image is important for us to consider as it encapsulates four themes emerging from the work of art therapists included in this special edition.

Firstly, themes of supporting people with learning disabilities to make sense of their past and the sometimes extremely difficult events they have lived through that have brought them to need art therapy. Siobhan Burns and Roseanne O’Shea provide an in-depth case study of a woman with a history of abuse by a member of her family and demonstrate, with the addition of retrospectively collected data and reports from support staff, a positive change over time.

Secondly, working collaboratively in a way that jointly enables the person to have a stronger voice and say what they need in their present situation. Art therapy can be an empowering encounter with the potential for a rehabilitation of self-image and self-efficacy. Simon Marshall explores the challenges of articulating and describing the subtleties of change that can take place in therapy ‘in the moment’ and often in non-verbal ways. These moments can be extremely important for some individuals with learning disabilities and they cannot be captured through standard methods like post-therapy questionnaires. Kevin O’Farrell discusses art therapy approaches that include giving feedback and using art therapy to empower self-identity.

Thirdly, there is space for innovation, potential and new possibilities. Therapists work flexibly to connect with their clients in a way that allows them to make best use of the learning about themselves and others that takes place. The images we make can teach us a lot about ourselves, especially if we are limited in our ability to speak or find the right words at the time. I am delighted that Penny Hallas and Lydia Cleaves are extending the palette of traditional materials available for art therapists to work with. They report on a project using digital and gesture-based technology across the spectrum of arts engagement and art therapy. This work extends the therapeutic reach of art-based therapies and gives potential for these approaches to become increasingly accessible to a wider range of people, including those with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

Fourthly, we must consider the wider context that our clients live in. In a changing health and social care landscape, art therapists are developing holistic ways of working with children and adults who have learning disabilities. This special edition includes the ‘UK Art Therapy practice-based guidelines for children and adults with learning disabilities’, which it has been my pleasure to develop with colleagues Liz Ashby, Karen Parker, Sandra Goody, Nicki Power and the Art Therapy and Learning Disability Special Interest Group in the British Association of Art Therapists.


I would like to thank all of the authors for their contributions and the editorial board for their support for this important special edition on art therapy with people who have learning disabilities.


This issue has been made FREE ACCESS until 30th August 2019

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