Thank you to the mother and daughter artist team from Italy who created the beautiful painting in today’s blog post photo which reads, “All is good. All will be good.”

This week we have two guests to discuss DIR/Floortime and art. Donnie Welch is a teaching artist who runs inclusive and accessible writing workshops. We had him on the podcast before discussing the poetry workshops he did at the Rebecca School. Donnie has started running virtual classes with colleagues from Rebecca School. One of these classes is a free/pay-what-you-can, virtual art class for people of all ages and all abilities called Open Studio for All where they play music in the background, and offer a space for creative people of all ages and abilities to draw, write, or just hang out and be part of a community (on zoom). At the end of the group they will offer a space for anyone who wants to share their work, but it is completely optional.

Also joining us today is Tanya Shteinfeld who is an Art Teacher and an Art Therapist at Rebecca School and an Advanced Floortime Provider currently training to be an Expert in the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) Model. The idea for Open Studio stems from work she was doing at Rebecca already that they then adapted for a broader audience. According to Donnie, she is a brilliant facilitator who has been teaching art through a DIR/Floortime lens for years!

Art with Heart: An Open Studio Approach to DIR/Floortime

by Affect Autism |

The Genesis of the Open Art Studio

Donnie says the idea for the art open studio started when everything shut down in March. He had a lot of partnerships with the Rebecca School and the Bronx Museum of the Arts that were transitioning to virtual learning. As he began producing videos for his partnerships, he thought about how to take art and poetry more into the virtual space–especially how to meet the needs of those who, like him, can’t participate in virtual or in-person programs due to health reasons. 

While he was teaching virtually at Rebecca, he was working with Tanya (with whom he has worked for two years now). They presented together at a college in the Bronx for the New York Writing Project on a studio class they were doing based on a creative game called Exquisite Corpse.

As they moved into the virtual space, they collaborated on an art appreciation group and then Donnie audited the group chat for a sensory art group Tanya was doing. It was a calm space where students and family entered, TA and teachers entered doing art with music in the background.

Donnie was so inspired by this as he thought of taking his work independent. They ended up putting together an art appreciation group that runs Wednesday nights for young adults and adults. But he also wanted to create a free group and space for those who cannot pay and who may be hurting during the pandemic–emotionally or financially. 

Donnie figured he would just be drawing or creating on the weekend anyway, so they thought of Tanya’s sensory group and offered it as a pay-what-you-can. What Donnie likes about it is that he can use the space to get better at art including digital and physical illustration. He’s working on perspective, light and shade right now, for instance. He appreciates learning in a group space.

Open Art Studio Format

Every class at the Rebecca School has their own individual art time but Tanya also wanted to offer more since some of the students can’t see their peers in the classroom or at all. She wanted to lower the expectations, let students do what they want, and for it to be predictable and simple where students can share their talents and interests if they want to. Tanya and Donnie introduce themselves and say that this is a space for us to be creative together and that you can keep your cameras on or off. 

It’s so regulating to be part of a community where you’re told it’s ok to do what you want to do and we just want to be with you. No matter what is happening in the world, they know that on Saturdays between 1:00 and 2:00 she gets to make art and see some familiar people. They say they’re going to play some music and you can feel free to mute it. You can write, make art, or just hang out.

A Level of Trust

Donnie says they have built a level of respect and trust among the group. They haven’t required censorship or anything inappropriate for children. Donnie says that if there are children they do remind everyone and if anyone had anything to share that was not child-appropriate, they would ask them to share it privately if they wished, but this hasn’t come up yet. The youngest person they’ve had was six so far up into old age. 

DIR and Art

Tanya majored in Fine Arts and studied Art Therapy. She started learning about autism and realized this was where she wanted to be. She started at Rebecca School as a Teaching Assistant and a few years in became the art teacher. They have expanded their mental health services and now offer art therapy in those services. She was drawn to Rebecca School because of the DIR Model. Tanya has taken the DIR certificate courses from the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning and embraces the model, but to date, there is little research about art therapy used within the DIR model. She hopes to change that.

Art fits in to the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model so perfectly. We’ve covered poetry and music before, and next week we cover the Media aspect with Chris Hernandez. First, Donnie says, art can be regulating and there’s something about the process of art making–even if it’s virtual–that allows everyone to co-regulate with each other. Rhythm is an integral component of the work Donnie does. Since rhythm is hard to do together over Zoom, playing the light music in the background was the solution.

There’s no active Floortime interaction going on during the virtual art sessions as everyone is muted while they do their art, but they use their knowledge of DIR during the sharing portion, supporting people’s Individual differences–including allowing people to keep their camera on or off. And the sense of community is the ‘R‘. They’ve built a relationship with those in the community. It’s a relaxing activity to help get a better understanding of yourself, and in turn, get a better understanding of others in the world. Dave Nelson also shared some of the similar techniques they’ve used at the Threshold Community Program during their move to online services.

I think of art as being creative with new materials.

Tanya Shteinfeld, Art Teacher at the Rebecca School

Doing Less

Donnie focuses on the environment. He recalls Dr. Gil Tippy giving a lecture about doing less when education tends to focus on doing more, more, more. Sometimes you just need to be. Sometimes you just need to keep it simple and focus on your skills of being a good facilitator, Donnie says. Canadian psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld talks about the importance of rest and play (in this case, the art). If you are bombarded by screens and media your brain doesn’t have time to be bored, which is exactly when your creativity comes.

Tanya had to make a transition when Rebecca School went virtual. She couldn’t expect parents to have art supplies on hand so she had to think of what could be made with a toilet paper roll, for example. There’s more participation when it’s more simple and people can expand on it, she says. I asked if they ever promote dialogue during the Open Studio session. Tanya says they can use the chat function and Donnie says that when they share their work at the end, for those who wish to, they let each artist express the process they used in making their art and what they thought about.

Sharing and Collaboration

Telling participants that there’s no pressure to share or even have their camera on makes people open up so much more, Tanya says, after I mentioned that there might be a tendency to want to watch others present first before having the courage to share someone’s own work. 

Donnie and Tanya always share with their cameras what they are working on. People get ideas from each other. If they see someone drawing a pumpkin, someone might grab an orange crayon. Donnie also notices that the music can influence the art people produce. They might include lyrics from one of the songs, for instance. 

When Tanya was in art school her teacher said if you’re stuck, just start drawing circles, so above you can see one piece Tanya made in an open studio session. Donnie has been thinking a lot about visual poetry and will be presenting about this at the virtual ICDL 2020 Conference on Monday, November 9th and again on Monday, November 23rd (do check it out!). He shared some pieces with us in the video podcast above, including a visual haiku. Donnie loves to model poetry.

Art Classes at Rebecca School

The Rebecca School was fully virtual during the shut down until the end of the summer and now they are doing a hybrid model with two cohorts. Everyone teaches in person two days each week, and home three days each week. The students are doing great and adapting really well to wearing a mask and respecting personal space, Tanya says. The school is keeping the space safe. There are materials they aren’t using right now–no bubbles and there is not singing, but for those who benefit from being in person are the ones she sees in person. If students were doing well virtually, then they kept them in virtual art.

Tanya sees all of the students at the school ranging in age from three to twenty-one years old. I asked how she does art with younger children. I was thinking of my eleven-year-old son who has only started drawing a little bit, but it’s brief: a happy face with some lines for a body. He also likes to scribble over faces on photographs, perhaps because looking at faces is complex and difficult for him. Tanya says that art doesn’t look like that at Rebecca School: drawing, painting, sculpting. With younger children is more about sensory play. 

They might make dough, look at books about colour mixing, mix different inks, squish plates together with paint on them. She is not so interested in the finished product, but the process. If they’re not interested in holding a crayon, she’ll do something different. She thinks of art as being creative with new materials. If someone is making a sculpture out of toilet paper rolls or boxes, someone else could be drumming on the box which is sharing the space and enjoying themselves. 

Since going virtual, the kids who wouldn’t do organized crafts before are doing them with parents at home, although it’s not a requirement. She likes to do tie dye and colour dipping, scavenger hunts where they’ll go look for something that is red, or a dance that is freeze draw: move then freeze and draw a circle, for instance. There’s no prerequisite to being artistic. If students only want to watch, that’s ok–they’re sharing space and engaging. 

Thank you to Donnie and Tanya for spending time with us today and letting us in to their wonderful creative world! Please consider sharing this podcast on Facebook for Twitter and it would be great to hear your relevant experiences, comments or questions in the Comments section below. Next week we have Donnie and Tanya’s colleague, the Media Specialist at the Rebecca School, Chris Hernandez who will share incredible knowledge with us about online applications during Covid and media instruction with kids on the spectrum. 

Until next week, here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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