Müller, E., Nutting, D., Keddell, K. “ArtAbility: Using Multi-Genre Arts Programming to Support Creative Engagement and Social and Emotional Learning in Middle-School Students With Autism.” The Journal of the Arts and Special Education, 1(1) (2019): 25-48.


This report focuses on ArtAbility, a multi-genre arts program for middle school students with autism. The evaluation of program outcomes used behavioral checklists; interviews with program staff (including teaching artists, administrators and neurotypical teen mentors); parent surveys; and interviews with participants. Findings indicate that the program positively impacted participants’ creative engagement, as well as their social and emotional learning. ArtAbility was a collaborative arts education endeavor involving local arts organizations and Ivymount School — a special education school in Maryland. ArtAbility was launched eight years ago with the aim of offering a multi-genre arts program for middle school students with autism. Researchers hypothesized that a multi-genre arts program would not only provide an opportunity for students with autism to experiment with a wide range of artistic genres — including drama, music, puppetry, visual arts and movement — but also to develop social and emotional skills in the context of a safe and highly-motivating learning environment.

Key Findings:

  • Participant observations: Based on baseline and end-of-program checklists completed by program administrators for the eight focus participants, it appeared that, on average, focus participants demonstrated growth in all nine domains. Areas of most significant growth included advocating for needed supports, offering to help peers and demonstrating self-confidence.
  • Staff and parent interviews: Data strongly supported the notion that participation in ArtAbility:
    • Increased creative engagement.
    • Improved social and emotional skills, including self-advocacy, social interactions, friendships, emotion regulation, flexibility, showing support for others and self-confidence.

Significance of the Findings:

Findings from the third-year program evaluation suggest that participation in ArtAbility relates to improved creative engagement and social and emotional learning. Although researchers did not conduct a randomized, controlled experiment — and therefore outcomes cannot be conclusively linked to ArtAbility — stakeholders believed there was evidence of a causal connection.


Participants: Twenty-one students (10-14 years old) participated in ArtAbility during the third year of the program. Based on reports from the students’ parents, participants were diagnosed with autism and represented all points along the spectrum in terms of both cognitive functioning and language/communication skills. All participants experienced challenges related to social cognition. Of the participants, eight focus participants were selected for observation based on the fact that this was their first year in the program. Another group of eight participants with increased verbal and cognitive skills was chosen to participate in brief interviews at the end of the program. Some participants engaged in both groups.

Data Collection: Researchers gathered four types of data in order to measure program effectiveness and impact on participants.

  • Participant observations. Eight program participants were observed for one day at baseline and again for one day at the end of the program. A behavioral checklist was completed by two program staff for each focus participant in order to track the frequency of social and emotional behaviors, such as self-advocacy, interacting with peers, self-calming, transitioning, helping and encouraging others, and demonstrating self-confidence. Staff rated participants’ behaviors using a 4-point Likert-type scale.
  • Teaching artists and program administrator interviews. At the end of the program, four TAs and two program administrators participated in 45-60-minute phone interviews that included questions about changes in participants’ performance across a variety of social and emotional domains.
  • Parent surveys. Fourteen of the 21 parents completed the online survey regarding whether they observed improvements in their children’s social and emotional skills. Questions included both 4-point Likert-type scales and open-ended questions.

Data Analysis:

  • In terms of quantitative data, analysis of observational data was conducted to calculate frequencies of behaviors across participants at baseline and end-of-program, and to measure any observed changes over time. Researchers also analyzed Likert-type responses from TAs/administrators and parents. In each of these cases, means were calculated across respondents.
  • In terms of quantitative data, open-ended interview and survey responses from TAs/administrators, parents and participants were analyzed thematically.

Limitations of the Research:

  • Because this was not a controlled randomized experiment, it was not possible to determine causal link between the ArtAbility program and participant outcomes.
  • Sample sizes were too small to calculate statistical significance.
  • Improved behaviors could be due to the acclimatization of participants rather than just the programming.


Questions to Guide New Research:

  • How do we measure the impact of a short-term program like ArtAbility on students’ social and emotional learning (something which usually requires intervention of longer duration in order to demonstrate measurable gains)?
  • How does the experience of collaborative art making impact participants’ sense of agency?