Janice LeBlanc

Registered Psychotherapist (RP)
Registered Canadian Art Therapist (RCAT)
Certified Trauma Practitioner - Clinical (CTP-C)
Virtual Therapy Available

dark green paint stroke

Using art to process feelings, emotions for disabled

from www.yorkregion.com

Artistic treatment. Art therapist Janice LeBlanc runs a group in Markham. She says art therapy is a type of treatment that can be more effect than verbal psychotherapy. Staff Photo/Mike Barrett

Emily Bigioni sits upright and smiling, looking around with curiosity at what will happen next — rather than being hunched over in a slouched position as she tends to do when bored.

When she began art classes 10 years ago, Emily’s parents were thrilled by their little girl’s reaction to her art classes.

Emily has a brain condition known as pachygyria, similar to cerebral palsy. While she cannot speak or walk, they discovered she could paint.

By the time Emily was four, she was enrolled in art classes that included music, painting and clay in a program at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital.

Emily’s mother usually needed to stay with her daughter during other programs. If the little girl saw her mother leaving a class, she would start whimpering. Sandra Bigioni attended Emily’s first two art classes but soon realized Emily did not want or need her there.

The Bigionis are among the parents and children in York Region who have discovered the benefits of art therapy and art classes for children with special needs.

“People are becoming more aware of art therapy, what it can do and how powerful it is,” said Janice LeBlanc, an art therapist with a private practice in Bradford. Her clients come from Newmarket, Bradford and Innisville and she leads an art therapy group in Markham.
In the last few years, she has fielded inquiries from an ever-growing group of organizations, including an acquired brain injury association and children’s aid societies.
Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy, said Ms LeBlanc, who teaches special education at Keswick’s Our Lady of the Lake Catholic College High School.

Ms LeBlanc believes art therapy can be more effective than verbal psychotherapy.
“You use art to process feelings and emotions that are difficult to speak about,” said Ms LeBlanc, who has been practicing art therapy for 10 years.

One of her clients has non-verbal autism, yet is able to communicate through art.
“You can see through the art how she feels about something, even though she cannot say it. It is a fascinating process,” Ms LeBlanc said.

The only drawback to an otherwise positive form of therapy is that art programs are sometimes cancelled because of lack of funding, she said.

Therapy only tends to be covered by the Ontario Health Insurance Plan when done by a doctor and she does not know of any art therapists who are doctors. Without a stable funding source, art programs are susceptible to being cancelled, she said.
Vaughan’s McMichael Canadian Art Collection, for example, offered art therapy programs for 10 years, starting in the mid-’90s, for people with cancer, at-risk teens and children with special needs.

Shelley Falconer remembers the programs being incredibly successful.
“We were inundated by letters of how it had changed participants’ lives,” said Ms Falconer, the gallery’s former director of programming and exhibitions.
The group for cancer patients was run through Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

But the classes were discontinued in 2005 when gallery attendance diminished and the gallery’s board of directors changed, she said.

“It was one of those things that fell by the wayside,” Ms Falconer said.
Unionville’s Varley Art Gallery provides an example of a York Region locale adding art therapy classes to its list of offerings.

The gallery is part of a pilot program serving York and Simcoe regions, taking place in four rotating locations: Toronto’s Bob Rumball Centre for the Deaf, Sutton’s Georgina Art Centre & Gallery and Barrie’s Maclaren Art Centre and the Varley.

The program, meant for adults, is called A Sensory Exploration Arts Program and was co-ordinated by DeafBlind Ontario Services, in partnership with the gallery. The Ontario Trillium Foundation provided a grant. The program is meant for York Region residents who are deaf, deafblind, or otherwise sensory impaired. Many of the participants face huge obstacles in their daily lives and have developmental and/or physical disabilities. The program offers art creation in the form of painting, sculpting, drawing, music, movement and drama. The program began March 9.

Another art therapy program beginning at The Varley starts in April.
This eight-week course is for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders ages 7 to 12 years. Its goals is to provide a safe environment for growth through drawing, painting and sculpting.

In offering this program, the gallery was reacting to a trend among its class participants.
“We noticed more and more children with different forms of autism taking part in our programs,” said Cheryl Rego, public programs coordinator.

The Varley hopes to eventually expand the program to include children with attention deficit disorder, Ms Rego said.

Today, Emily Bigioni is a Brother Andre Catholic High School student and has been painting for more than eight years.

Her artwork was displayed in an exhibition at the Varley in early March.
On March 14, Emily’s parents, Vito and Sandra Bigioni, announced they had raised $1 million for respite care programs, which include art classes, at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. They embarked on their fundraising mission when Emily’s arts programs at Bloorview  were threatened with cancellation.

Ms Bigioni has witnessed amazing results in her daughter’s art classes over the years.
Children born with a condition that leads them to constantly hurt themselves cease this behaviour in the class because they are happy. Shy children transform into being outgoing.

For the Bigioni family, witnessing Emily’s transformation in these art classes has been rewarding.

“It has given her confidence, self-esteem,” Mrs. Bigioni said. “She is proud of the work she does. It has brought friendships — peers and facilitators — developed a sense of community.”

Visit www.visitthevarley.com or call 905-477-9511 for more information on the Varley Art Gallery and its programs.

For more information on art therapists, go to the Canadian Art Therapy Association (www.catainfo.ca), the Ontario Art Therapy Association (www.oata.ca) or the American Art Therapy Association (www.arttherapy.org).

by Simone Joseph