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Developing Cognitive and Creative Skills Through Art, Programs for children with communication disorders or learning disabilities

Excerpts from “Review of the Month,” Rehabilitation Literature, Vol. 40, No.10, pp 312-314, by Martin Engel, Ph.D., arts and humanities advisor to the National Institute of Education in Washington, D.C.

“For many years, common folk wisdom held that the use of language and the functioning of the mind were one and the same. Schooling has been based upon this belief. The negative implications of this mistaken notion were made manifest in the treatment of the deaf, the language-impaired, the learning-disabled, dyslexics, and the host of handicapped children and adults who were treated as if they were less bright, less capable, less creative, less thoughtful, and indeed, less than human. Students who had language difficulties of one sort or another did not test well - what could one expect on purely verbal tests - and were graded on the standardized instruments as less than normal intelligence.

It was commonly assumed that the capacity to think, to conceptualize, and to process information was primarily, if not exclusively, a linguistic skill. In our vernacular lexicon, “dummy” means both not being able to speak, and not being able to think. The consequences of these attitudes have been tragic. Second-rate education, diminished vocational opportunities, misunderstood and untreated secondary symptoms, such as emotional stress and thwarted socialization, have been some of the penalties of language-impairment.

At the same time that the emphasis upon the symbiotic dependence of language and the ability to think was aggressively promoted in the schools, culminating in the obsession with “Basic Skills” (reading, writing, and numeration) the arts (that is nonverbal symbolization and communication) ware deprecated as peripheral, trivial, and at best, enriching to that basic curriculum stressing verbal and mathematical skills. The arts had always found a place in the schools but, at the same time, were never taken seriously as anything but a pleasurable, relaxing, manual/physical adjunct to those teaching and learning activities that require skills with language and were taught daily, in the mornings, required homework, and were continually tested…

This, then, sets the scene for the arrival of empirical research in a field where most common assumptions run counter to the work described in Rawley Silver’s book, Developing Cognitive and Creative Skills Through Art. The appropriateness of this review to Rehabilitation Literature is apparent in Silver’s subtitle, Programs for Children with Communication Disorders or Learning Disabilities…..

Her point is that selecting, combining, representing, conserving, classifying, ordering, etc. are all cognitive skills that do not depend upon language for their development or expression. Silver’s research identifies discrimination skills, recall skills, and the ability to process spatial information. Children with language impairment not only develop such skills no less than “normal” children, but often have stronger visualization powers or can learn such visual/cognitive abilities more quickly and with superior competence…

Other studies consist of juried works prepared by both hearing and deaf children and adults. Judges rated these works on the basis of sensitivity, expressiveness, and originality. The judges either did not know that the works were produced by deaf children or, in the case of comparative studies, could not associate the work with the artists, except by age. Generally speaking, the hearing-impaired did as well as or better than their hearing counterparts…

The drawings, many of which Silver organized into a traveling exhibition called “Shout in Silence: Visual Arts and the Deaf” (circulated by the Smithsonian Institution) provide potent insights, even with the low levels of artistic/drawing skills among some children. The images are highly expressive. Silver calls them “clues to assessing a child’s development.”…

What is becoming better understood in the field of cognitive science, and has yet to be appreciated in the schools in learning and language impairment therapy, is the importance of the arts. Silver puts it this way, “A child’s drawing is a pictorial device that can represent reality vicariously and economically and thus reflect his thinking.”