Understanding Artability

Müller, E., Nutting, D., & Keddell, K. (forthcoming). Understanding ArtAbility: Using qualitative methods to assess the impact of a multi-genre arts education program on middle-school students with autism and their neurotypical teen mentors. Youth Theater Journal.

This paper provides both a detailed description of ArtAbility, a multi-genre arts education program designed to meet the unique needs of middle-school students on the autism spectrum; and the results of a qualitative pilot study of the impact of ArtAbility on participants and their neurotypical teen mentors. A few prior studies have attempted to quantify outcomes of arts-based interventions for youth on the autism spectrum—especially drama education programs and music interventions—but our study is one of the first to use qualitative methods to generate a nuanced picture of how and why arts-based interventions can be so beneficial for this population. We argue that qualitative and quantitative approaches should be seen as complementary and mutually reinforcing. Our results validate findings from earlier quantitative studies in terms of the positive social and emotional learning outcomes that appear to accrue from participation in programs like ArtAbility. However, unlike earlier studies, we were also able to identify a number of reasons why ArtAbility was so successful. Chief among them were (1) the seamless interweaving of arts instruction with social and emotional learning instruction—the two combining to build a vibrant (albeit transient) experience of arts community; and (2) the role of neurotypical teen mentors in facilitating participants’ learning experiences in order to help them access program content, participate in multi-genre arts activities, and build meaningful relationships. We also found that effects of the program were bi-directional, and that teen mentors—recruited as volunteers support staff to facilitate learning for participants with autism—were also positively impacted by their experience mentoring participants.  

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