(cited in BAE 2015, 2016, 2020, 2022); PUSHCART poetry finalist

Neurodiverse Students Need Creative Arts

Managing Editor’s Note: “To deny students with disabilities access to arts education is to de-humanize them,” writes today’s guest author Donnie Welch. Welch teaches poetry to students with developmental disabilities, and knows first-hand the power creativity holds for structuring and living everyday life. If we are to empower these students to live and work in a “neurotypical” world, Welch says, then we should offer them the same access to writing, music, painting, and all of the creative arts.         –Amy


Activities for Daily Living

by Donnie Welch

I run poetry workshops for students with developmental disabilities. Every week I meet with thirty-six students to work on the writing of original poetry. By and large, creative work and arts education is met with skepticism in neurodiverse education. It can be cute to do the occasional, holiday art project, but researchers can’t track data from it, school districts can’t quantify the results of it, and, as a result, schools can’t fund it.

A large portion of the school day is often focused on fundamental hygiene and social skills called Activities for Daily Living (or ADLs). This curriculum helps students prepare for independent living after they age out of the system, usually at 21. These activities range from eating and bathrooming to traveling outside the home and getting a job.

There’s a quote in Dead Poet’s Society that always sticks with me when I talk about the workshops I run. It comes in the scene where Robin Williams has had his students tear out the introductions to their text books. After the chaos, Williams’ character huddles his class together and tells them, “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute, we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race.”

To deny students with disabilities access to arts education is to de-humanize them. It is to deny them the very thing that education promises them, equal access to society.

Creativity is an activity for daily living.

Creativity is problem solving when the bus line you normally take home is delayed and you need to develop an alternative route.

Creativity is advocating for a raise at a job, not just getting something entry level and staying there.

Creativity is adapting a recipe to make it healthier, not just eating the same meal over and over because it’s part an ingrained diet.

In asking students with disabilities to prepare for daily life without providing opportunities to practice creative thinking, the education system is denying them the ability to live a rich, complex life. It’s imperative that the creative impulses of these students are given as much time, attention, and funding as that of their neurotypical peers.

While there are art and music classes for students with disabilities, in following with standards for inclusion, if students in a school are offered creative writing, theater, or dance then their neurodiverse peers must be offered the same. These sessions might look different from what practitioners and educators are used to, but that’s no excuse for not developing the spaces.

Students with disabilities are just as creative as any other student, as any other member of the human race. They might require settings or workshop models different from the ones neurotypical writers and artists are familiar with, but when given adequate space and support these students are as profound and prolific as any other creative learners. Without providing adequate arts education to students with disabilities, the education system is denying them the right to self-expression and with that the right to a truly independent life.

Photo credit: hepingting

DONNIE WELCH teaches creative writing at the Rebecca School for Autism. His writing has appeared in Gravel, Passages North, The Emerson Review, War, Literature, & the Arts, and elsewhere. He has a micro-chapbook, The Post Atomic Sonnets (Origami Poems Project 2016), and a collection of children’s poetry, Who Gave These Flamingos Those Tuxedos (Emerson College Wilde Press 2013). Visit for more on him and his work in education.

1 Comment

  1. Andrai Whitted

    “Creativity is an activity for daily living.” Such an important concept in a system where the days are spent on rote tasks. I’ve worked with elderly populations in group homes as well as teens with severe disabilities in classrooms, and in both cases it was tough to find support, resources, and staff/administrators willing to implementing outlets for creative expression regularly. Often times the desire is there, but a lack of follow through.

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