Making art brings neurodivergent Ukrainian teenagers peace in times of war
As a Ukrainian researcher doing a rotation at the SPI lab, the home of Inspire the Mind, I can’t help but wonder what the impact of war on mental health is and how can we even start processing this topic.
In my second blog in this series about mental health projects in Ukraine, I interviewed Olga Shyshlova, a pioneer in inclusive education using art therapy practices in Ukraine. In a collaboration with PinchukArtCentre, the biggest hub of contemporary art in Ukraine, she created multiple successful projects for children and young adults with autism, Down’s Syndrome, impeded psycho-verbal development, and learning difficulties.
I started by asking how did she start in the field of inclusive education, how did the project develop, and what has happened since the war. This is her account.
How did you start in the field of inclusive education?
So interesting to go back in time and remember those events at times of war — feels like I was on a different planet back then! For me this is a personal story — I have a daughter on the autistic spectrum. People with autism often have problems with social interaction. After her diagnosis, I became very active seeking any opportunities for her development: meeting other parents, organizations, and psychologists. At the time, in 2011, there was almost nothing around. As this journey progressed, I decided to become a specialist in autism myself — started a degree in Applied Psychology and dedicated my thesis to the effectiveness of museum pedagogy in the support of children on the autistic spectrum. It took me a year to conduct my research. I initially worked with 25 children, from 3 to 11 years old, with different autism severity. After the research was over, parents were very happy and the museum I collaborated with, PinchukArtCentre, agreed to fund free, inclusive art-based classes regularly.
What exactly is museum pedagogy?
Museum pedagogy is a method of using the safe space of the museum to assist children on the spectrum to socialize. In Ukraine, or the whole post-Soviet space, art therapy practices were almost non-existent so I got in touch with specialists internationally, researched similar programs in big international museums like MOMA, and finally approached PinchukArtCentre to create a similar project. In a museum, there is space for creativity but also for learning social rules and limits. The rules are very clear — no touching the objects, no loud behavior, sticking to the group. Our sessions always happened on Sundays — the busiest day in the museum.
I wanted to help parents get rid of their social embarrassment; when kids throw themselves on the floor and start screaming, the first instinct is to run away and never leave the house again. I am a mother too and I understand that the main goal is creating the conditions for this person to grow and develop to be able to retain autonomy.
And how did those sessions look? Were they just regular art classes?
No, each session had a precise structure, as ritualization is important for people with autism. We used art as an engaging medium but the focus was on teaching social adaptation. For kids on the spectrum that have learning disabilities, one and a half hour sessions is a lot of time to sustain the focus, so the activities have to be diverse.
We always started with a greeting, then went on a little quest around the museum’s current exhibition with the task of finding some artwork. Afterwards, we created our own art related to the topic of the exhibition. Topics were always very simple and connected to everyday life, and materials were matched to the level of sensory development. We had huge canvases and all kinds of paint, play dough and clay, dried leaves, grains, stones, crayons, coal, textiles, and cotton balls. Even napkins can become an art form with the right attitude! It was important to create an art object that kids could later play with together and take home.
And does this project still exist now?
No, the format changed with time. Kids became teens and some were very passionate about art and wanted to develop it as a craft. I gathered young contemporary artists and started a Workshop of Possibilities — a place where young adults with learning disabilities can collaborate artistically with young contemporary artists: Katya Buchatska, Nikita Kadan, Katya Lisovenko, David Chichkan, and others.
In this project, the focus was on artistic expression. It was magical — so different from the children’s sessions: we discussed topics related to our identity and made creative decisions together: what is art, which color to choose, when is the next exhibition… After 4 years of work, we had an exhibition called “Dot, Line, Possibilities”. Then Covid hit, and we moved online. Some people have dropped out because online sessions need a lot more parent engagement. We just got back offline, started planning the next exhibition and then the war happened…
What has happened since the beginning of the war?
For the first three weeks after the invasion, we met online every day because it felt of utmost importance to stay connected under those circumstances. Everything was changing, and the only source of stability was our group sessions. There was a lot of anxiety, air raid sirens went off all the time, and we had to spend nights in the bomb shelter.
Together we would discuss what scares us and find a sense of safety in the familiar things surrounding us — our moms (since dads had left for war), the food we eat, brushing teeth — simple rituals.
Most of us have left Kyiv by now and are in the West of Ukraine or abroad. My daughter and I are in Belgium, it was too exhausting to listen to sirens daily and worry about her safety. I did not know how to explain our fleeing to my daughter. Then I showed her the house of our friend in Bucha, where she spent a lot of time before. The house is in ruins and she understood everything.
We always have our sessions in the morning to motivate ourselves to wake up with a smile. Right now the topic is the change of seasons. Nature is blooming, changing… I know, the change will soon come to us too!
Olga Shyshlova is gathering donations for temporarily displaced teenagers with developmental disabilities from the Workshop of Possibilities. If you would like to support these young adults, please send donations to her Paypal: Shishlova.firstname.lastname@example.org