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How can art therapy benefit clients with ADHD?

Updated: May 13

Welcome! My name is Natalie V. Bochenska and I’m a neurodivergent art psychotherapist on the Creative Psych team powered by MIYA Creative Care. Today, I’ll explain my approach to working with adults with a late ADHD diagnosis, as well as how art therapy can be a helpful tool for self-discovery.

What is ADHD?

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, which is a neurodevelopmental disorder most often characterized by low attention span, impulsivity, daydreaming, forgetting or losing things, fidgeting, hard time sitting still, as well as difficulty making friends, self-regulating, or completing tasks. Clients with ADHD might find the world, people, lights, and noises overstimulating and often need quiet time to recharge.

ADHD brains are dopamine-driven, which means that they choose to spend their time on tasks that are “interesting” and “stimulating” over tasks that are “technically important.” ADHD presents differently in males and females.

Clients with ADHD are categorized as neurodivergent along with clients with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), BPD (borderline personality disorder), CPTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), and ASD (autism spectrum disorder) traits, any of which can be concurrent with ADHD.

An illustration of a face with blue squiggle lines coming from the head and the acronym "ADHD" written on top to represent art therapy for ADHD.

Another aspect of living with ADHD is masking. Masking is a behavioural response to internalized societal judgment that develops early on in childhood. Many children who are now late-diagnosed adults were always told to “stay quiet,” “keep it together,” and “act normal.”

In order to survive and adapt, they unconsciously developed masking techniques to blend in with the crowd, becoming modern-age shapeshifters and losing their own sense of self in the process. This explains why so many adults with ADHD who come to me speak of not really knowing who they are.

The good news is that an unmasked therapist can be a role model of permission for unmasking for their clients. This means showing up exactly as you are and not having to hide emotions or stimming to complete the cycle of regulation. The therapeutic space can be a place where you can finally show your emotions and no one will think that “you’re too much.”

An illustration of a person, drawn in red, holding a black mask away from their face to showcase the concept of masking when it comes to art therapy for adhd

Why art therapy for ADHD?

If you’re an adult with a late ADHD diagnosis, you may choose to explore creative psychotherapies over traditional talk therapy. Many clients with ADHD are inherently right-brain dominant, visual in nature, and prefer to learn experientially. They most often process the world through visual stimuli both internally and externally, while words and numbers of the cognitive, left hemisphere, tend to get jumbled and are not as easily retained in short-term memory.

The experiential aspect of ADHD processing is perfectly aligned with creative therapies such as art, music, and dance-movement therapies. Physical movement and gestural experiments are an important element of my therapeutic approach as they bring release to the nervous system when combined with visual elements.

An illustration of a character with 3 different coloured balls in front of them (red, yellow, and blue) to showcase art therapy for adhd

Art therapy allows you to spend time with your artwork between discussions, which offers a stimulus break for the overstimulated brain. Instead of focusing on maintaining eye contact and being verbally engaged with another person for 1 hour straight, we make space for frequent pauses, art-making, and meditative exercises, all of which put less pressure on the nervous system and allow it to settle.

An illustration of a person sitting and drawing on a blank piece of paper as their thoughts are jumbled and the illustration beside it shows the jumbled thoughts on paper as their mind is calm to showcase the benefits of art therapy for adhd

Slowing down

Most of my clients share their therapeutic goal of finding inner peace. That's possible with the right therapeutic fit. Art-making in therapy sessions provides a space for a purposeful pause, connecting with the body, grounding yourself, and experiencing the unfamiliar contrast to the societal pressure of the “go-go-go” mentality.

I believe that learning how to notice moments of the scattered mind and slowing down are two essential aspects of ADHD treatment. This means that in session, I might interrupt you often, and you may experience discomfort in this process before you find the inner calm within you. Slowness allows for stillness of the heart and mind, which in turn allows you to connect to yourself on a level that is otherwise inaccessible.

An illustration of a calm woman on a circular, yellow background looking at piece after an art therapy for adhd session

Parts work in art therapy for ADHD

I like to use the metaphor of an adventure game when working with my clients. Therapeutic tasks become quests, which work as a dopamine-inducing strategy that generates excitement through storytelling. Turning potentially boring tasks into a visual game helps the clients retain information and practice task analysis and priority setting. Parts work lends itself well to the game-like aspect of therapy. My understanding of parts work is based on Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family System (IFS) model.

Here’s how it works: we are all made of many parts that live in our unconscious. The team that makes you who you are might consist of the angry teen, the sad child, the manager, the carefree one, the wise one, or the sassy one. Each person’s team is unique based on their life experiences. Technically speaking, “parts” are “us” from the past but stuck in a time due to traumatic events, born to fulfill a specific role for survival of the system.

An illustration of a head with 3 outlines of people in it. The outlines are yellow, blue, and red.  This showcases the segmentation of different "parts" of ourselves that art therapy for adhd helps us work through and make peace with.

In daily life, parts show themselves at different times, depending on the situation. For some, these subtle shifts are hard to pinpoint, but if you pay close attention to your reactions, tone of voice, and thought patterns at any given moment, you may start to notice your own parts.

E.g. “When I had to present in class, my sad child part took over and I started shaking and couldn’t speak” or “When I’m at a party, my sassy part comes out after a few drinks,” or “When he yelled at you, my protector part gave him a lecture.”

An illustration of a blue, red, and yellow human figure to showcase different "parts" of ourselves that show up when we experience trauma and how art therapy for adhd helps make sense of those parts.

E.g. someone who experienced childhood trauma (parent’s divorce or abuse) at the age of 12 might continue to view the world through the prism of that child, despite time passing by. In response to that 12-year-old's trauma, a protective 13-year-old part might have been created to ensure the hurt doesn’t happen again. Both of them are stuck in time and uncertain of their real roles. Oftentimes, parts are stuck in a repetitive loop of core beliefs with one another, which correlates to the internal conflict within the client.

Illustration of a blue and red figure pulling apart a sheet of paper to exemplify how "parts" work against each other in relation to trauma and how art therapy for adhd can help.

Imagine that trauma puts your parts through a blender and spins it very fast. In the end, no one knows who they are and there’s a lot of confusion about feelings and responsibilities. In therapy, parts work focuses on “unblending” your parts, finding out about their individual voices, needs, and roles in order to eventually create harmony on the inside.

Illustration of a blender with the word trauma at the bottom beside a red button.  Inside the blender is a series of squiggles of various colours. Art therapy for ADHD works to "unblend" the different "parts" present within us.

This means that during the therapeutic process, we focus not only on what you say but how you say it, and what you feel in your body when saying it, linking it to one of your parts. In my approach, focusing on visually understanding your inner parts makes therapy easier to comprehend.

Illustration of the "trauma blender" now being open and the colourful squiggles are now separated and leaving the blender to showcase the positive effects art therapy for adhd has.

Many neurodivergent clients strive to deeply understand the therapeutic modality they’re committing to and wish to know why things happen the way they do in their treatment. Hence I find it important to combine both cognitive and experiential exercises to create an embodied approach. By making space to create certainty, lessen worry, and work with the protective, logical part of the client, we create trust. If this part is not on board in the process, you'll experience resistance to treatment.

Put it into practice

Illustration of a red figure looking at a wall with a blue and yellow figure behind them to showcase the positive impact of art therapy for adhd,

Exercise: Close your eyes and envision your inner parts. Draw symbols to represent them on index cards. Pay attention to the colours, shapes, and energy of each of the drawings. Don’t think about it too long! How do they interact with one another in your case? Write a story or a comic.

What art supplies do I need?

I usually ask that you get a designated art therapy sketchbook and your favourite art media; that could be pencil crayons, markers, or watercolour paint. Trust yourself in this selection. It’s important to keep your therapeutic work stored in one safe place.

What will we do in session?

In my particular approach, I offer a good balance between multiple short art-making invitations, journaling to connect to the stream of your consciousness, mindfulness, somatic sensing into the body, and talking about your observations. Each session is a little bit different depending on your needs. Homework may be included for those clients who are open to it.

Illustration  of a book that says "art therapy" with different coloured markers coming out of it through squiggly lines. Art therapy can be used to treat adhd in adults and children.

What does art therapy for ADHD homework look like?

Homework can include invitations such as:

  • Visual: “Imagine a house for your inner parts”

  • Experiential: “Connect to the earth barefoot for 10 mins this week”

  • Relational: “Start noticing the situations when you say ‘I’m sorry’.”

The reality is that we do 10% of the work in session, and the remaining 90% happens as you go about your week. That might include thinking about the process, using coping strategies, and completing art-based or relational homework.

Want to learn more? You can book your free consultation today.

Thank you so much for reading and I hope to connect with you soon!

Finding a music or art psychotherapist can help you achieve your goals in a fun, effective way.

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