5 Smart Supports for Special Artists


Art students with special needs hold a very special place in my heart.  In the past, I have worked during the summer as a skilled need provider and respite provider to students with a special needs. I even held a day camp with art activities for special needs students. It was such a learning experience, and I learned so much about life and about art strategies for special needs kids through my work.

I want to provide the optimum experience for all students in my art room.  I care they get the skills they need and the projects are tailored to the level that is appropriate for each student. We are a school of full inclusion, so student with special needs come to art with all of the other students, or with an associate if their IEP states they need that support.  Here are some tips to help you support special needs art students in your room.

Support #1: You are the Teacher

One of the most profound things I have learned over my years of teaching is to keep your hopes for all students at the forefront of your classroom.  Some students come in with a 1:1 associate.  In the past, I would hesitate to correct the associate when they were instructing the student in a way I disagreed with.  As art educators we need to realize that we are the experts in this field, and all who enter our rooms are looking for advice from US! We are in the driver’s seat. I now have the confidence to speak up, offer suggestions and recommend the modifications that I think are best for the student. After all, I am the teacher!

Support #2: Be Creative with Choices

What works for one student may not work for all students. I have found that multiple solutions can work for a group of students. For example, recently we did clay in the art room. One of my autistic students had a lot of sensory issues with using the clay.  I offered him a pair of latex gloves. (ok, these were non-latex because of allergies, but you get the picture) This simple solution made clay manageable for him and was a quick fix. I did not press the issue. I just offered choices.

Support #3: Visuals

Many Special Education teachers have a program on their computers with picture systems they can download and make for students. I requested a set of art pics to make my own picture schedule to keep in the art room. I laminated and Velcroed them to file folders for easy access.  I can pull off the pictures that match the activity we are doing.  A picture schedule helps students know what comes first and next. It helps them know what to expect and maps out the art class for students. I have thought this system would even be helpful for all students to know what processes to expect in the art room.  Maybe I will blow these up even larger on my whiteboard as a schedule for the whole class.  I use a lot of the First-Then method. First draw, Then crayons. It helps students understand what to expect out of their art time.  I love the clay pictures. SQUISH with the thumb! So funny!

My mom is an expert when it comes to working with special needs kids. She has devoted her life’s work to it.  I found this image she drew for a student from awhile back and it made me laugh. Yet another way to show a student what is expected. I particularly love the little car at the end. Yay! We get to go home!

Support #4: Be a Team Player

Mrs. Balsley (me) is on SO MANY behavior charts. What? you may ask… So many students in my school are too creative for their own good.  They have some behavior issues, but also love art. As the art teacher, I ask: “How can I help”… So, as a reward for students meeting their daily goal in the classroom, some of them get to come in and “help the art teacher.”  This can take only 10 minutes during my prep, but means the absolute world to the student. I have also assembled “Art Kits” at the end of the week for students who meet their weekly goal. They get to take home a kit to make an art project over the weekend.  The small amount of time it takes me to devote to these projects is extra special and helpful for the students, parents and teachers, so I really don’t mind! I feel so good that art is important enough to the students to motivate them.

Support #5: Do Your Research

Keeping updated on resources and publications relating to artists with special needs is important.  The learning you take part in will come to you at just the right time to implement when a student is in need.

The following book is one I have used as a resource over the years, but there are so many more out there… Sometimes you are your best resource! You know your students and you may have the best strategies to best meet their needs.

Please share something you do to meet the needs of all of the artists you teach!

I look forward to reading your ideas.

pssst…. There is still time to enter to win Tuesday’s Giveaway – a Crayola Class-pack of Triangular Crayons right here!

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Twice a week I teach our self-contained autism cluster. These are awesome tips for working with awesome kiddoes!

  • What a lot of great information – I appreciate your sharing these ideas! Although I have very few special needs students at my current site, we have many other schools/art teachers in our district that have several self-contained special needs classes on site. I’ll be sure to pass on your thoughts….

  • I love your picture chart. . . wish it was a download I’d use it! Most of our paras are fantastic BUT I agree that you have to set your expectation with them. What if they don’t comply? What if they keep on touching the kids work? I think it might be best to send them on errands. . . this is an idea I will work with. I am going to ask the classroom teacher if there is any errand this one particular person can do during art time so I can let the child do her own work. No para is better then a bad para right!

    On a completely random note. . . there is a lot of talk about how great China’s education system is and how our students aren’t measuring up. Our superintendent even visited China (she was particularly impressed at how 50+ kids in a classroom listen to direction and follow ). We even have an exchange program with China. However, it is my understanding (PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong) that China doesn’t have to enroll special needs children in their schools (and doesn’t) There are many countries like this. When the students come to the states and come to our school they’ve never been to school! I just have to say I believe we live in the most progressive and inclusive places in the world for education! I think we are doing a great job especially servicing students with special needs.

  • Joe

    I was on your website and was going to call but thought this would be a better way to contact you.

    If you email to promote your website or are considering doing so. DO NOT pay more than $20 per million.

    WE can prove to you how you can OWN better quality opt-in email data and have it emailed at 90% less than for what our competitors RENT IT!

    Stay away from the email vendor con artists that tell you that they only ‘rent’ data, i.e. you can’t take possession of the data and they have to send it!
    Your company should not take the chance of having its name in an email going out without your company having possession of the data that proves how that data was opt-ed in.
    Additionally, you will never even know how many emails bounced. Many of these con artist emailer ‘renters’ would never give you the email because almost all of it will bounce!

    For complete information go to


  • I wanted to bring a new art resource to your attention that may be of interest. My book, Making Art Special – A Curriculum for Special Education Art, is filled with tips for designing lessons as well as 50 illustrated, step-by-step lessons applicable for parents and teachers. For more info, please visit my facebook page.

    Kudos to you and your great work!

  • Rebecca

    Thank you SO much. I am always looking for ways to do crafty things with my son, who has cerebral palsy.

  • Shmamy

    I am currently working as a para with a group of kids, many who struggle with hand-eye coordination. In our daily art class, the students are working on gesture drawings and figure drawings. Not only is the idea of looking at something and then trying to draw it intimidating for many of them, they struggle with the physical aspect of maneuvering the pencil. They also do not fully understand how to draw the figure as it appears. Do you have any suggestions for what I could try to simplify the process for them or explain it in a way that they may better understand?

    • Thanks for your question! One suggestion I would say is to help them break what they are seeing down into basic shapes. Maybe you could draw or show them how a horse (for example) can be drawn using ovals and circles and then outline the shapes they draw to form the figure.
      I would think the classroom teacher would have modifications for these students, too. Maybe drawing something more simple??? You could ask.
      I hope this helps a little.

  • Art on my hands

    I have that book in my collection as well. Aside of that, thank goodness for the internet. When I had a blind student for a few years, I found a multitude of resources and ideas through searching the internet. One quick and easy tool that I created was to cover a heavy cardboard rectangle with simple window screening. I folded it to the back and taped it well with duck tape. Anytime we drew or colored, the board went under my student’s work. She could actually feel what she was doing since everything became textured. I’ve stored it away for “just in case” in the future. With the one on ones, I totally agree with you, we have to understand that we are the teachers and they are there to assist. Many times they do not know the expectations and if we don’t communicate with them, we can’t expect them to follow through in the role we are looking for. I always make sure to let them know that I am looking for the student’s work regardless to the outcome. It is process first, project last.