Child abuse. Developmental disabilities. These words evoke pity, but also silence and insensitivity towards patients and victims.

All the more reason for caregivers of all kinds to learn how to connect with clients like these. For three days, the 9th Annual Expressive Therapies Summit sought to teach those skills. Professor Lynn McKnight and Dr. Deborah Russ, both of American University of Antigua (AUA) College of Medicine, helped therapists develop methods for treating patients through the power of art.

Expressive Therapy is the interdisciplinary use of art, dance, movement, poetry, music theater – expression – as a form of therapy. It’s a science-based clinical toolkit, whose applications can run the gamut from bad relationships to mid-life crises. This year’s summit focused specifically on children and adults with developmental disabilities or trauma.


Day 1: Connecting with the Severely Developmentally Disabled Through the Expressive Arts

To offer truly effective Expressive Therapy, therapists should feel the physical limitations of the disabled. That’s what day 1 of the summit was all about.

Thursday, October 11th, was devoted to connecting with intellectually or physically disabled clients by spending an evening in their shoes. Participants broke into pairs and took turns wearing blindfolds, earplugs, and socks on their hands to simulate sensory and motor impairment.

Their partners played the role of therapists, guiding the “patients” through a group music session and some fun arts-and-crafts. The “therapists” often forgot to take their partner’s disability into account while communicating with them. But these mistakes were the idea. Attendees came away with a better understanding of how real developmentally impaired patients experience the world, improving their ability to connect and communicate.


Day 2: The Impact of Interpersonal Violence on Youth: Sex Trafficking, Domestic Abuse, Acquaintance Rape

The second day was devoted to abuse, with four separate events on domestic violence, acquaintance rape, and sex trafficking. First, Dr. Russ and Professor McKnight explained how to identify signs of past abuse in patients. Then they led participants on a journey through the poetry, painting, music, and myth-making that abused patients often use to describe their pain in ways plain language can’t.

All of this helped attendees gain a better understanding of how objective, evidence-based techniques for therapy can be rooted in the subjective world of expression. But as any practitioner will tell you, seeing and feeling the pain of patients takes its toll.

That’s why the last event of the day was called Vicarious Trauma, Compassion Fatigue and Burnout. In this seminar, self-care and care for others merged into one. After identifying specific ways vicarious trauma impacts therapists, the event ended with participants creating a collage to express their own emotional baggage.

The overarching lesson of this year’s Summit is that Expressive Therapy straddles the world between the objective and subjective, between matters of science, and matters of the soul.