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20 tips for working with kids on the spectrum

GUEST POST by Cindy Trusty

I’m a mom of a child on the autism spectrum. While to most at a quick glance he’d seem like your average kid, he definitely isn’t. :) He’s awesome. :) Because of this wonderful addition to our lives, we’ve started working with a lot of autism groups. Here are the “suggestions for face painters, realizing that now something like 1 in 58 kids is diagnosed with autism.” I wrote these up several years ago.

(from several face painting moms who have kids on the spectrum):

1. Skip the director’s chair. You’ll find a lot of them may have other disabilities, too, or the height of the chair is scary for them. As much as it hurts my back, I do the “two low chairs” routine for our “specifically autism” gigs.

2. Have designs that are NOT full-face available. LOTS of fast cheek art, and designs that avoid the eyes. Arm designs go over really, really well!

3. Have pre-cut sponges for quickie designs, like butterfly sponges. Or have stamps available.

4. Be happy even when it looks terrible. Understand that they made progress even coming over to you…getting in the chair…letting you touch them. If it looks like nothing you’re proud of this year, that’s OK. Next year, they’ll remember you. It’ll be better.

5. Be prepared to work fast if necessary. You might be working with someone with a short time of being able to be good, or with sensory issues that cause being touched to be uncomfortable.

6. Have LOTS and LOTS of mirrors all around your table! They will want to look even more, and for longer, than the average kids.

7. Offer to start with arms. Let them hold the brush. Let them squish a sponge. Let them stroke the brush on their arm. (Regular rules don’t apply at these events!) Once they are comfortable with that, then ask if you can paint their face.

8. While making the designs half as complicated as you normally do, allow for twice as much time to paint them. You may not need it, but it allows you to slow down and be more accommodating and friendly with the kids.

9. Avoid loud noises and bright lights whenever possible.

10. Paint something small on your face — not a big design or full face.

11. Try and make arrangements for them to come to you in small groups of 2-3 kids. Waiting in line is really hard for them. Work with the event organizer to have other activities for them to do while they wait, and helpers to bring them over in batches.

12. Have one sign with big photos, and not too many designs. I prefer to keep it to one sign, maybe 15-20 designs. Have a couple versions of the signs so they can put them up in different parts of the room so the kids don’t have to crowd around to look at them.

13. Tell them what you are doing as you do it. Describe it in detail. “I’m going to put white paint on this sponge for your nose. Now I’m painting your nose white, so you can be a kitty cat! Now I’m putting that down and getting the blue, because you said you wanted to be a blue kitty! Don’t worry, I won’t put it by your eyes. I’m just going to put a little blue triangle up here for one ear, and now on this side for the other…then I’ll come down and make this cheek blue and now this one. Now for a bit of black on the tip of your nose, some whiskers, and you are a beautiful blue cat!”

14. Tell them that, if any time while you are painting they don’t like it, they just have to say stop or somehow let you know that they are done, and you promise you will stop. I’ve been hit by kids during painting…and I’ll say, “Does that mean you want me to stop?” They nod yes, and no matter how awful it looks, I show them the mirror and say, “Look how good you look!” If I think they can handle it, I’ll say, “Your cat looks cute right now, but it could be even more cute with a nose. Could I just touch your nose with black sponge to finish the nose?” By doing it step-by-step like that, showing them the mirror as I go, I can often finish a face they thought they couldn’t handle having finished!

15. Make sure the child isn’t so nervous they are holding their breath. If they are, pause and remind them to breathe (and remind yourself to, too!). (Thanks, MJ Matthews, for this suggestion!)

16. Talk and joke with the kids. They are just regular kids with some special needs. Don’t get caught up in feeling bad for what they go through – feel good about what you are sharing with them, and let that joy shine through. (Thank you, CJ Benware, for this addition!)

17. Have a tactile thing for the kids with sensory processing disorder to hold on to.
They won’t tell you they have SPD….they’ll be hugely ticklish or they can’t stand to have the brush touch their face. (Thanks, Heather Yanyo! Great tip!)

18. Make sure some of the “more particular” kids understand that it might not look EXACTLY like the picture. The child who keeps saying “is that the blue? Are you doing the blue now? Don’t forget the blue” might expect the design to be EXACTLY like the photo and be real upset if it’s not. (Thanks again, Heather Yanyo!)

19. Here that kid in line who is too old to be fussing like that? He might be on the spectrum, and waiting in this line is PAINFUL to him. Between the crowd, the noise, and the general overwhelming stimulation of the whole event, not breaking down can be nearly impossible. So when they get in your chair, don’t think “What a BRAT!” Think, “I wonder if this child could be on the spectrum?” That change in attitude can put you back in the mood to be a gentle, kind, wonderful painter, instead of a stressed out mess who thinks this kid needs a good spanking because “he’s spoiled rotten.”

20. If a child doesn’t want to look at you, doesn’t want to (or can’t) talk to you, seems very uncomfortable with the whole process…they MAY be on the spectrum. Use these tips to try and help make it a more successful time for everyone involved. :)

I hope these all help you have a more successful and happy time working with these wonderful kids!! Cindy

ABOUT the Author: Cindy Trusty

Cindy Trusty

Cindy Trusty

I’ve been a face painter in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota for 10 years, and run a small entertainment company that offers face painting, henna, balloon twisting, and other family-friendly entertainment. We are blessed to have a wonderful daughter and terrific son, and since finding out he has Aspergers when he was 7, we’ve been involved with autism groups and events to help bring comfortable, low-stress, understanding fun to kids on the spectrum.

Visit Cindy’s website here

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What are your tips to help make face painting for kids with special needs more enjoyable for both the child and the face painter? Share your experiences and your comments below.

for great results, start with great face paint supplies from Face Paint Shop Australia

for great results, start with great face paint supplies from Face Paint Shop Australia


One comment on “20 tips for working with kids on the spectrum

  1. Tanya
    July 15, 2013

    Brilliant tips, thanks so much – as a Mum of a daughter with ASD and a face painter I really appreciate it!!!!

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This entry was posted on July 12, 2013 by in better business and tagged .
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