As a relatively newly qualified and rather earnest Art Therapist, my first Consultant role was in a child sexual abuse clinic. It was there I experienced one of the most valuable lessons of my career. Surprisingly, my teacher was not a learned Professor or University lecturer but rather a little 5-year-old boy living in residential care who had experienced more in his short life than most of us will confront in a life time.
The clinic was very proud to have its own "Therapy Suite": 3 adjoining age appropriate art and play rooms where children could come to recover from their traumatic experiences. As my 5-year-old client and I entered the suite he looked at me eyes wide with wonderment and asked sincerely "why did you choose me as your therapy sweet?". It still astounds me that I had not conceived that a 5-year-old child might have another association to the word 'suite' and that ostensibly sensitive and caring adults had not realised that the other kind of sweet might be a more natural association for children. The lesson: a sharp wake up call to the potentially catastrophic pitfalls of making assumptions, and the woeful short comings of verbal language in guaranteeing that we have arrived at a shared meaning.
The second example is not as palatable but arguably even more enlightening. I went on to explain gently to Daniel how he could use his therapy space, part of the description was about him being able to show me his feelings and that we would be able to play together. Daniel looked at me with the same wonderment and said "Can we have sex?". My immediate thought was to say something like "adults and children don't do that" but was forced to adjust my thinking to the grim reality that in his world they did. This was his normal.
Yes, at first glance we appeared to be on the same page and speak the same language. However, as I learned - same page, entirely different story. He taught me a valuable lesson - that I had to interrogate my every assumption in order to enter into his world, a world where 'normality' had been turned on its head. I still wonder had I not been fortunate enough to meet this little teacher, whether my curiosity with regard to children's communication would have been sufficiently ignited .
Today, as an Art Therapist with considerably more experience of working with children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse, it was gratifying to read a recent report claiming: "Art based therapy is the most successful therapeutic treatment for children who have experienced sexual abuse": - however, there soon followed a shocking caveat "but children who have been sexually abused will not necessarily get the help they need to recover from their experiences"
How can we accept a society that does not provide the support needed when traumatised children have been brave enough to come forward - as we encourage them to do. Surely it is our moral duty to offer a safety net of support and recovery services at the other side. If we study the increasing amount of sobering data being gathered we learn that perpetrators reside in families, schools, churches, charities, in well-known and well-loved institutions; child friendly places. Whilst none of us want to believe that these things happen to our children the curtain has been well and truly lifted and we can no longer blame the "bogey man".
For years we have lived with the myth that children do not want to talk about their abuse; unconsciously putting barriers in the way of disclosure. We applied a daunting court system to traumatised and vulnerable children that was designed for adults. We also dictated that children should deliver gold plated, verbal and timely disclosures, fully formed in the Queen's English with no contradictions or baby words. Several recent NSPCC reports have now confirmed that contrary to popular belief children DO talk about sexual abuse and WANT to talk about it -not always in words but they always desperately want to be heard.
This is why it is imperative that we provide more Art Therapy for these children who as a result of their experiences find intimacy and trust difficult. Art making provides a space between the child and therapist where an object can be jointly contemplated and through which shared meaning can be arrived at. Furthermore, a significant number of sexually abused children present with symptoms of PTSD; a possible feature of which is that the part of the brain responsible for forming and processing language is "switched off" as a result of the trauma. Once again this is where art can step in to enable children to give form to and "evacuate" their often nameless, messy, wordless experiences. The fluidity of the art materials works so beautifully for children; allowing them externalise, examine, discard, retrieve, repair and transform their thoughts, increase their emotional literacy and consequently start to recover themselves during the Art Therapy process.
The Time to Talk campaign is already proving to be a successful vehicle in driving children's mental health issues out of the shadows of shame and into the light. However, let's not remain blind to the limitations of the spoken word and also make Time to Paint - and take Time to Listen to the many languages of children. The more attuned we become to understanding all modes of communication the more we will lessen the silence, shame and secrecy which contributes to the micro climate in which the abuse itself thrives.