Working with Special Needs
Students in Art

Special Education & the Arts

[ What I Need to Know | Classroom Management | Lesson Advice

Instructional Strategies | ADD/ADHD | Visual Impairment | ESL ]


This page was started as a result of Gail's Getty TeacherArtExchange List post - March 2004.

From Gail:

I will be teaching art to 6 classes of special needs students from ages 3-21. Most of these students have multiple handicaps and most come in with an aide for one on one or one aide per three students. Any ideas?


From Sidnie Miller:

Our special needs kids do really well with clay. Depending on their level--some just come in and pound on it -- their aids help them to build projects--some can't build, but can paint on glazes. For some, just being with regular kids and acting appropriately is the goal, so what they do is secondary to being there. Weaving is a good activity if they can do it.


From Sandra Barrick:

This is a wide range but doable and don't be intimidated by their handicaps. Most if not all want to be independent and do things on their own. They are a very determined group as a whole. Last year I worked with deaf children 3-11. A few had other disabilities as well, learning disorders and rare skin diseases (where the fingers were just little nubs and the child actually would bleed and blister if touched or from his own clothes. I also had a special needs child who had a rare form of dwarfism. special educationBesides their disabilities you will be amazed by their spirit and the more severe the handicap the more chances and independence they may want. I also worked for (HC) MRDD, which is the division for our special needs kids, the age was 3-21. Through MRDD, I came in contact with severely handicapped and they really couldn't do anything but lay and look. The most severe had aids but also mentally were no older than a 3 -6 month old. Definitely get catalogs for supplies. If you come in contact with their caretaker/parent ask then what their interests are and if they have any supplies they could keep there. I am not sure how large your class will be but the child I had who didn't not have fingers had his own supply box, all of them did but his had scissors for his hands and crayons which had knobs on the end, etc. I also did a lot of sensory material/lessons with them for fine motor. Coming from Montessori - the punching tools and exercises really helped them. - Sandra


From Maggie White:

Concentrate on what the students CAN do, not on what they can't. Don't accept at face value what their teachers or aides tell you the students can't do; they will always surprise you and especially the people who think they know the kids so well. Don't hesitate to give the students something more challenging. Read the book Exceptional Children, Exceptional Art (from Davis). It provides a lot of insight into the physical, psychological, and emotional needs of a range of disabilities and ages. You can adapt a lot of classroom tools like pencils or brushes by using large foam curlers or the sponge-like foam (not the Styrofoam) that cushions computers and such. You can saw it with a hacksaw blade so it fits their hands comfortably. Stencils work better if they're tracing around the INSIDE of the stencil, rather than the outside. It seems they have a harder time keeping their pencils up against the outside edge rather than the inner edge. Shapes cut from sponges make neat stamps. Also weather stripping foam, which is sticky on one side, can be cut into shapes and stuck to film canisters to make an easy-to-grip stamp.


From Judy Potter:

Checkout at this site as a resource,


From Sue Freeland:

Here are some ideas off the top of my head... Clay projects.. The tactile feel of the clay might be good for dexterity. Model magic... create an animal, blend clays to create new colors. Read them a story then draw the ending or their favorite part. Give them shapes & pieces of stuff (whatever) to glue down in a pattern or face or whatever. With Kinders, I took a large sheet of yellow paper and cut a hole in the top to represent the window on a bus, the kids colored their self portraits and I taped them in the window. All the yellow papers side by side made up the bus. Also a good one is printing in shaving cream or pudding if you think they may eat it. Shaving cream is loved by all, even High school and leaves my counters and tables very clean! I used to teach Autistic kids but they were very low functioning.


From Betty Bowen:

My special needs campers love the beads you make designs with and iron into a solid form - now they come in larger sizes, too. They really loved the camp spin-art machine. I found their bead-stringing patience to be inspiring. They also enjoyed making decorations for their wheelchairs or walkers, like foam-core flames or sparkley things to go on the wheels.


In response to an Art Education List post asking for high school lesson ideas


From Kathy Douglas:

I would not bother too much with themes and subjects... leave that to them. When you look at Outsider Art, sometimes made by artists in this population, it is raw, personal and sometimes amazing.

If your students are not tactile defensive they might enjoy using plaster gauze over an armature of half a gallon spring water jug to create masks. You can help them create great 3D effects and then they can use their paint knowledge to add color. Also beads, feathers, etc for decoration. I would have examples of Mardi Gras, theater and cultural masks. What they often have in common is exaggeration of features. They could also choose animal masks. But I would let them decide what sort of mask they want to make, from a list of options.

I have had some younger students on the Autism spectrum who were very uncomfortable touching certain wet things... if that is the case in your class I would strongly suggest an alternate project available, so that they can find their comfort level. And one of my students overcame his discomfort when he saw his friends using the plaster. Because he was able to decide when he was ready to use it, he felt in control and was proud of himself when it was done.


From Terri Noell:

I teach at a Special Needs Magnet school... With the Autistic students, I find that adding scents and textures to the paint will very much interest these students... I have some students that touch and feel everything and some that taste everything so these were very exciting for them... I use finger cover tip brushes with my younger students since a lot of them have trouble holding paint brushes effectively... also great for other students with coordination issues... I would advise a lot of lessons that effect their other senses besides just the 2-D art...


From Sandy:

I teach in a magnet school for Cognitively Impaired kids, pre-school to 6th grade. I have found that these kids are often fabulous painters. I do limit all black & brown paint though! More abstract work seems to work best for most of them. Printmaking works well, perhaps with pre-cut stamps, Styrofoam or found objects, at least something that they don't have to cut themselves. 3D constructions are great, and what I offer may be more suitable for Elementary. But we use clay, wood scraps, cardboard, (tubes & flat pieces). Old puzzle pieces for jewelry, etc. I do papier mache sculpture or masks etc with them even though some are tactile defensive and hate to touch the paste. I offer plastic gloves if they need them. We've done basic weavings, & simple sewing with big needles. Some of the kids love to draw, others not, but it is good to let them try and they tell great stories about their work! This is the first year that I have tried a TAB (Teaching for Artistic Behavior - Choice Based) approach with these kids and it has been wonderfully successful. The kids just love it.

See Resources compiled by Bernie Poole  and Yvonne Singer [Archive]
Includes resources for elementary and secondary education.


Sax Arts and Crafts Catalog has a section for special needs students and has a separate catalog available. Adaptive Product index is on page 588 in the main catalog. 1-800-588-6696.

From Pam Whisenhunt - Working with LD Students


Lesson Plans:

Lesson Plan tips for LD Students - from Pam Whisenhunt
P. Buckley Moss Foundation lessons [Archive] "For Special Learners: Growing Through the Arts" P. Buckley Moss Foundation Find out more about P. Buckley Moss


Art for Children and Adults with Disabilities:


Some Helpful Links:

IAD's Special Education page

Great Ideas for Special Artists - for clay, drawing and painting (Archive)
Easy to follow directions for clay bowl and other clay projects.
Special Needs Supplies from Dick Blick

Links for children with Autism:

Activities for Teaching About Disabilities:

Keystone Arts Education Network (home page) [Archive]

Special Education - Disability Links:

Special Education Links:

Teaching Art to Students With Special Needs - page by Sara Green

National Arts and Disability Center:
ArtExpress - Lessons Adaptable to children with disabilities:

Adapting Art Materials for Children with Disabilities:

Special Education and the Arts [Archive]
On this site is an extensive list of resources: [Archive]

Organizations: [Archive]

Teaching Art Safely to the Disabled

VSA arts:

Teaching Special Needs Kids - Online Resources from Education World:

Arts & Activities article: Making art activities work for students with special needs by Anne Vize (Archive)

Creativity Explored - nonprofit visual arts center where artists with developmental disabilities create, exhibit, and sell art.


Artists with Disabilities

Dan Keplinger - He calls himself King Gimp. Visit the Virtual Gallery and be awed.

Brett Eastburn - He was my art student when he was in 4th grade. He is now a motivational speaker.


Exceptional Children: Exceptional Art : Teaching Art to Special Needs.
by Authors: David R. Henley
The Power of the Arts: Creative Strategies for Teaching Exceptional Learners.

By Sally L. Smith



Flag House is an organization and a catalog for activities and supplies for disabled student/people.

Another resource



Flag House



Greystone Educational Materials


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Scandia, MN 55073

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