Art with Friends

Art1st + Arunima – A project of Autism

A collaboration between Art1st Foundation and Arunima: A project of Autism led to an arts-based workshop for young people on the autism spectrum living at Arunima’s Assisted Living cum Training Program in Dehardun. Traveling to the magical Garhwal hills, Art1st Mentor Priyam Mehta interacted with Arunima’s ‘Friends’ to bring them the sublime joy of expressive arts. Sharing an excerpt from her experiences:


Our Friends (a special moniker for those on the spectrum) were initially hesitant to participate in the sessions, but they gradually opened up and enjoyed themselves – with magical results.

They were divided into three groups and the art exercises were tailored to cater to their needs and levels of understanding. Oftentimes the Arunima staff and Friends were both involved in the sessions.

First, the Introductions!

As always, I began the workshop with an ice-breaker activity. Such activities often help break down social walls and warms the group to each other. With Friends, this allowed me insight into each person and helped me understand the level of sensitivity I must bring to each unique interaction with them.

Everyone had to introduce themselves as, “My name is _____” and then enact a quality, a hobby or a passion which you think lies within you, “I am _______.” Their enacted hobby or passion would be guessed by the group. The group enjoyed this exercise, and a lot of Friends were delighted to learn new things about the staff they saw every day.

I divided the larger projects into two segments: Drawing and Colour Exploration. Both included fun-filled interactive activities. With each day, my goal was to open up our Friends’ minds & bodies to the infinite possibilities of art- through mindful observations, creative explorations and free-flowing expressions.

Drawing: ‘Doodle Buddy’, ‘Dot Hunt’ and ‘Lines’

The Doodle Buddy exercise involved a shared roll of paper for everyone in Group 1 to scribble onto, forming one big tapestry. Once they were familiar with how to go about it, they moved from one end of the sheet to the other, lines overlapping and crisscrossing.

When they were done, they had to locate objects from within the room that they could incorporate into their scribbles. The Friends were intuitive with their creations and by the end of it, we had a massive collection of scribbles and objects.

Friends recreating the dotty objects they found

Next was ‘Dot Hunt’. With the help of a magnifying glass, Friends all set out to discover objects in the room that were made of or looked like a dot. Once they found the respective objects, they were encouraged to represent those objects on a sheet as big as possible- with, you guessed it, dots! With this, we accomplished 2 things- greater awareness of our surroundings, as well as a deeper understanding of objects we drew through the process of visual magnification.

The ‘Lines’ exercise was a little different: Make a lot of random dots on the paper and then join them with a series of lines. Once they were all done, they were asked to share what they thought they had made. This observation-based exercise seemed to help them make connections between dots and lines in meaningful ways.

Group 2 had an interesting experience – they listened to a Paul Klee story and were asked to represent what they heard in the form of lines! Sentence by sentence, they had to build their own visual representations with various types of lines. This exercise turned out to be a bit difficult for the Friends, so to simplify it, we turned it into a mapping game – they had to map their route from their home to Arunima.

They seemed much more comfortable to this as it became personal for them. They began retracing their steps and remembering all the sights and sounds they would experience on their way to Arunima. Their line expressions became increasingly vibrant and full of life.

Next up, colours!

Friends mapping their way from Home to Arunima through lines

Colour Exploration:  ‘Colours in my Garden’ and ‘Inky Strings’

For Colours in my Garden, I asked Group 1 to list down the different things they would normally see in a garden, and then finger paint them onto a blank sheet. Through rough finger painting, it’s easy to see that representations of things don’t always have to be realistic and detailed. It is all about the essence of what you wish to put on paper. A single red dot in a field of green dots could represent a blooming flower of Spring!

While Group 1 Friends were on their garden walk, Groups 2 and 3 were asked to imagine – What are the different colours we see in our garden?

Through imagination and observation, Friends felt the essence of their garden inside them and then let the essence flow through their fingers. Needless to say, they enjoyed playing with the colours, mixing and matching them up to fill up the garden on their sheets. They focused on the shape and colour of the flowers, instead of the intricate details. I was amazed by how unique each one’s inner garden grew to be.

The second Project in the colour segment was called “Inky Strings”
Friends from Group 1 were instructed:
1. Fold the paper into two halves.
2. Dip the thread in the paint and move it around on one fold of the paper for impression,
3. Fold the paper, and pull the thread!

On unfolding the paper, Friends observed the impression of the inky string- except it’s no longer a string. It leaves behind a marvellous shape, a mixture of lines and oblong curves.

A lot of the Friends enjoyed this particular segment, as the colours and shapes fascinated them – they couldn’t believe they made something so mesmerizing.

Meanwhile, Group 2 was doing things a little differently. Dipping the thread in paint was step one, but no one was folding any papers here. Instead, Friends from Group 2 were allowed to use as many colours as they wanted, and were told to let the string flow all over the paper – This formed a series of random impression lines on the paper. An interesting observation this time round was that when a Friend found the instructions difficult to follow, another Friend volunteered to help and they all worked collaboratively.

And finally, Group 3 played around with paints and Q-tips. The exercise was a throwback to Dots activity. Except this time, the dots were much bigger. They created a fascinating maze-like series of figures.

Friends with their own versions of colourful gardens

The workshop flew by faster than we thought it would and before I knew it, it was over. I hope our time together inspired Friends to explore their naturally artistic selves. My experience with Arunima was a great learning for me as well. With patience, sensitivity and joy, it is possible to reach out to children and young adults living with autism and help them explore their rich inner world of imagination through art.

I would like to thank the staff of Arunima with whose warm cooperation, I was able to interact and work with Friends on their turf.

I am looking forward to meeting them again soon.

By Priyam Mehta, Artist Mentor


The Art1st Foundation welcomes a chance to work with differently-abled children and young adults through arts-based engagements. We believe that art provides us a way to understand our self deeply and through that healing can occur. If you’re interested in working with us to bring the life-altering experience of art to someone, please write to us at art1stindia@art1stindia.co.in

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