Arts and Imagination for Kids With Disabilities and Special Needs (2023)

Arts and Imagination for Kids With Disabilities and Special Needs (1)

Jason Weissbrod, left, co-founder of Spectrum Laboratory, works on a virtual reality film with some of his students. PHOTO COURTESY SPECTRUM LABORATORY

Georgia O’Keeffe, the painter known as the “Mother of American Modernism,” once said, “I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” O’Keeffe’s words say so much about art and what it can mean in one’s life.

In Los Angeles, we celebrate inclusion in arts programs. Many children with disabilities are taking their first dance steps, performing in their first music videos and imagining their first film projects because of the amazing programs available in one of the most creative places on Earth.

Arts and Imagination for Kids With Disabilities and Special Needs (2)

Meet The Girl Inside

We begin with Abbey Romeo Lutes. She is 18 now, but when she was 14 she began a journey to understand her autism. Here’s how Lutes described her brain: “My stupid brain. I want to rip it out and give it to someone else. I want a typical kid’s brain and put it in my head.”

Lutes’ mother, Christine Romeo, says Lutes has been aware that she is different since she was a toddler. “As life became more demanding, she came up with the idea that a little girl lives inside her,” Romeo says. “She is the one with autism who misbehaves, not Abbey. That is what it feels like. So Abbey is fully aware and has the desire to participate, her brain just can’t execute it.”

Then Romeo found a place in Los Angeles that would change everything – the Spectrum Laboratory film and music program. With the help of Spectrum Laboratory, Lutes wrote the lyrics to a song called “The Girl Inside” and sang the song in a music video: I don’t got no control. I ain’t got no control. I can’t let go, this girl inside, this girl inside. It’s not me.

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Abbey Romeo Lutes uses music and video to understand her autism, with the help of Spectrum Laboratory. PHOTO COURTESY CHRISTINE ROMEO

(Video) Helping People with Disabilities Become Working Artists

“In 100 years, I could never imagine she could be capable of this,” says Romeo.

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Jason Weissbrod, who co-founded Spectrum Laboratory two years ago, calls the program “a platform for the autistic community to get their art out there and raise autism awareness. We help them, we guide them and show their talent,” he says.

Since working with Spectrum Laboratory, Romeo says Lutes’ self-awareness has gone “from one to 100,” because seeing herself on video helps Lutes understand how she shows herself to the world.

Spectrum Laboratory is in its infancy, but the founders have big plans. They want to start a conservatory with classes in the arts for anyone on the autism spectrum who wants to be a part of what they call an “experimental place.” Weissbrod is a filmmaker and co-founder Garth Herbeg is a musician and composer. “We teach film, music, animation, writing, editing and song production,” Weissbrod says. “There are a lot of artists with a lot of talent. The side note is that they are people who have autism. The artists have big dreams. ”

Spectrum Laboratory ( empowers artists on the autism spectrum to create original works of film and music. They provide collaboration with professionals and help their student artists learn the skills of their craft. Kids and adults of all ages are welcome and classes are held at Spectrum’s Leo Baeck Campus (1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.) and Music Space Studios – Studio West (14801 Oxnard St., Van Nuys).

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(Video) Art Lessons for Children with Disabilities: Developmental Disabilities

Dance If You Want To

In Santa Monica, Free To Be Me Dance hooks up kids with Down syndrome with a community where friendship, love and ballet collide. Daisy Mercado is limited in her vocabulary, but her older sister, Karina Cruz, says she lets her know Free To Be Me Dance makes her happy. “For Daisy, it’s been really nice because it has helped her socialize and made her more confident,” Cruz says. Mercado attends class once a week and participates in public performances. “It’s great for me, too,” Cruz says. “The community is supportive. It’s like we are a little family.”

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Colleen Perry, founder and director of Free To Be Me Dance, has her dancers focus on self-expression. PHOTO COURTESY FREE To BE ME DANCE

Colleen Perry, founder and director of Free to Be Me Dance, says she sees her students build self-confidence, attention and focus. “It’s all about self-expression for them,” she says. “We don’t focus on the perfection of ballet. It gives them acceptance.”

Perry is now in her eighth season at Free to Be Me Dance ( and had never taught before when she started – though she had studied ballet for 17 years. What is most important for her is seeing her students become part of their community. Perry reports that some of her students are now participating in school life through cheerleading, drill team and school plays. One of her students is even working toward earning a black belt. The dance sessions are fun and filled with joy, but inclusion into the community is the goal.

(Video) Giving Artists With Disabilities a Space to Thrive

Classes for ages 7 and up include hip-hop, ballet and tap and there is a “Moving and Grooving” class for ages 2-7. Free to Be Me has studios in Long Beach and Orange County, and on the Westside.

Steps Toward Inclusion

Infinite Flow, a dance company in Sherman Oaks, is on a mission to increase access to quality dance instruction for people with disabilities in inclusive environments. Founder Marisa Hamamoto is intent on building a world-class professional dance company that includes dancers with and without disabilities – some who use wheelchairs – as a vehicle to break stereotypes and perceived barriers.

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Infinite Flow Dance Company in Sherman Oaks brings together standing dancers with dancers who use wheelchairs to create a unique, inclusive program. PHOTO COURTESY INFINITE FLOW

Hamamoto believes bringing ambulatory children and children who use wheelchairs together creates lessons for life. “Each person is different,” she says. “Disability is just another trait like short or tall. Infinite Flow values inclusion over disability and everyone is learning from each other.” Standing and wheelchair dancers perform together and function in equal roles whether it’s dance, public speaking or leadership. Hamamoto is working toward a world where inclusion is mainstream.

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Infinite Flow ( classes are currently held inSherman Oaks. Dancers learn ballroom and hip-hop. Members of Infinite Flow Kids are also given the opportunity to propose their own Infinite Flow projects, which have included fundraisers and choreographing their own dances.

Infinite Flow Kids is open to age 7 and up, though younger kids are admitted if they display maturity and ambition. The group is audition-only, and dancers must display rhythm and coordination and ability to take direction and include and cooperate with fellow dancers of varying abilities and backgrounds.

A Few Additional Programs

(Video) The Present - CGI Awarded short film (2014)

The number of Southern California programs that help kids with disabilities connect with their inner artist, dancer, musician or filmmaker is impressive and growing fast. Here are a few more to consider:

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Able ARTS Work: This program – with studios in Long Beach, Gardena and Hawthorne – is dedicated to providing “lifelong learning, community service and vocational opportunities through the creative arts for people with disabilities of all ages in an environment of warmth, encouragement and inclusion.” In addition to day programming for adults with disabilities at its various locations, Able ARTS Work offers accessible arts workshops in schools and through community organizations, a Mobile Arts Program to bring creative arts therapy to people with disabilities who cannot attend a day program, a clinic that employs creative arts therapies for children with a variety of disabilities, and a vintage camper that brings pop-up inclusive arts and music workshops and exhibits to community events. The organization also hosts two community art galleries where artists of all abilities show their work.

The Music Therapy Wellness Clinic at CSUN: The clinic provides individually designed music activities for children and adults with a variety of disabilities, including developmental and learning disabilities, physical disabilities and mental and emotional disorders. The Rising Star Choir, geared toward children with autism, sings music of different styles as well as music that the choir members compose individually and as a group. Non-music goals such as socialization, self-esteem, attention to task and the creative process are also addressed. The Sunshine Singers is a music therapy group for young adults with a wide array of challenges that rehearses and performs as a choir. Learn more by calling 818-677-5663 or emailing

Ballet for All Kids: This organization offers ballet training to all children regardless of ability. All are welcome to come and dance, including children with autism, learning and developmental disabilities, anxiety disorders, behavioral issues and ADHD. They also welcome children who are blind, deaf or non-ambulatory as well as typical children who would like a fun and relaxed way to learn ballet. They have locations in Agoura Hills and Encino.

Christine Romeo, Abbey Lutes’ mom, says a disability can often change your perspective on your child’s progress and what achievement looks like. “It slows you down to the mini miracles, like tying your shoe. But you eventually get to tying your shoe, even if it takes a year and a half,” she says. The arts can provide kids with opportunities for other mini miracles – and even major ones. And our creative community is ready, willing and able to help make them happen.

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(Video) Art Therapy for Children with Disabilities

Donna Tetreault is Parenting Contributor at FOX 11. She is also a contributor for The Insider, the ‘Parents’ Guide’ on CBS and a Huffington Post blogger. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Andrew, and their two young sons.


How does art help kids with special needs? ›

Benefits of Art for Students with Special Needs

Art promotes freedom of creative expression, which helps students to relax and think differently. Anyone can make art, and there are so many different art forms, which helps students with special needs gain independence, confidence, and self-esteem.

What are some easy art projects for kids with disabilities? ›

Slime, Play-Doh, and Foam can be wonderful crafts for kids with motor disabilities, as molding these soft materials can be easy and fun for a child with limited muscle control, and also engages multiple senses, particularly when scented Play-Doh is used.

Why is creativity and imagination important for the development of a child? ›

Why Is Imagination Important in Child Development? Imagination helps boost kids' social, emotional, creative, physical, linguistic and cognitive development — crucial skills children will take into adulthood. Most importantly, playing pretend is an enjoyable activity.

How can art help people with disabilities? ›

Art provides a way to express oneself, a voice to communicate without limitation. It gives a voice to children with language limitations and it provides an excellent way to express their feelings. Art can help improve self-esteem, self-awareness and self-expression.

What is the role of art therapy in disability and creativity? ›

It can stimulate new behaviours, skills, expressions and emotions, which can then be transferred into everyday life (Hayes, 2016). Arts-based interventions provide a rich platform for self-expression and invite people who are unable to express themselves verbally, to do so through a creative medium (Got & Cheng, 2008).

What are 5 benefits of encouraging a child's imagination? ›

5 Benefits of Encouraging Your Child's Imagination
  • Develop social skills. As children play pretend, they explore relationships between family members, friends and co-workers and learn more about how people interact. ...
  • Build self-confidence. ...
  • Practice language skills. ...
  • Work out fears.
Jun 20, 2006

What are the best ways to improve a child's imagination? ›

Here are 10 of our favorite tips from the experts!
  1. Read, Talk, and Tell Stories. ...
  2. Unstructured Time, Unstructured Play. ...
  3. Offer Open-Ended Materials, Toys, and Activities. ...
  4. Turn Off the Screen. ...
  5. Go Outside and Wander like Wordsworth. ...
  6. Let Kids Figure Things Out for Themselves. ...
  7. Model Creativity and Imaginative Thinking.
Dec 9, 2020

What are four ways to encourage the development of a child's imagination? ›

Here are some ways to encourage your kid's imagination:
  • Let Your Kids Be Creative at All Times. ...
  • Let Kids Tell Stories. ...
  • Encourage Kid's Pretend Play. ...
  • Let Kids Make a Mess. ...
  • Talk with Them and Tell Stories- Kids Love Learning. ...
  • Give Them Junk.
Feb 5, 2022

What are special programs activities best for children with learning disabilities? ›

There are umpteen extracurricular and out-of-school activities that can help children with learning disabilities succeed beyond the regular learning environment.
  • Theatre/drama. ...
  • Learn by doing. ...
  • Interactive learning. ...
  • Personalised learning. ...
  • Voluntary work:
Oct 30, 2018

How do you include children with disabilities in activities? ›

Here's a list of 10 ways to include a child with special needs in the new year.
  1. Fulfill sensory needs at all group activities. ...
  2. Theater. ...
  3. Lunchtime at school. ...
  4. Extracurricular activities. ...
  5. Birthday party. ...
  6. Bring along a buddy on your next field trip. ...
  7. Teach a skill. ...
  8. Religious inclusion.
Jan 3, 2013

What are some activities that can be performed by children with disability? ›

15 Fun Activities for Children with Special Needs
  • SEN Activity #1 – Going to the park. ...
  • SEN Activity #2 – Visiting a zoo or aquarium. ...
  • SEN Activity #3 – Playing in a playground. ...
  • SEN Activity #4 – Going for a walk or ride. ...
  • SEN Activity #5 – Playing games. ...
  • SEN Activity #6 – Building with toys. ...
  • SEN Activity #7 – Doing puzzles.
Feb 10, 2022

How does imaginative play help development? ›

It provides an opportunity for kids to practice and develop their language and social skills by merely being with and talking to other children. It boosts the development of problem-solving and self-regulation skills. Imaginative play with peers can create situations in which not everyone gets what they want.

How does imaginative play help children develop? ›

Through imaginative play children learn critical thinking skills, how to follow simple directions, build expressive and receptive language, increase social skills and learn how manage their emotions.

What role does imagination play in art? ›

In short, imagination is essential to art because it allows artists to conceptualize their ideas and then bring them to life. Without imagination, art would be little more than random marks on a page or random assemblages of materials. It is the ability to imagine that makes art truly beautiful.

How does art therapy help learning disabilities? ›

It works in a similar way to psychotherapy, in that it is used to explore state of mind, and offers ways to communicate and discover thoughts and feelings, whilst working towards solutions. It also offers a completely alternate form of independent expression for those with multiple or severe learning disabilities.

How does art help children with autism? ›

Just some of the ways in which art therapy is useful to children on the autism spectrum include: Enhanced communication through creative expression. Improved imagination and greater abstract thinking. The ability to build stronger relationships while encouraging children with autism to see other people's perspectives.

How can art therapy be applied to students with disabilities? ›

With the help of paint and colours, a therapist can guide children to communicate their feelings and thoughts. Art therapy helps a child with special needs work through issues that trouble their development, like physical, emotional, mental and behavioural conditions.

Why is art an important element of disability culture? ›

Disability art can explicitly expose the marginalization and societal mistreatment of disabled people. Because of that tendency, disability art often finds audiences at events such as activist gatherings and conferences, and it is therefore considered an important part of the disability rights movement.


1. Artists with Disabilities
2. Billy Samuel Mwape: An innovative way to support children with special needs | TED
3. "Following Imagination: Bringing Creativity to Life for Artists with Disabilities" by CATA
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4. Learning Disabilities and Art
(Fixers UK)
5. Bubble art Ideas to engage the children with Severe Intellectual Disability || at home-create (#18)
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6. Best Art Therapy Activity for Autism ꟾ Special education ꟾ Fun Learning
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