White Tiger* was a 6 years old Eretrian refugee boy who was part of an art therapy group being held in Geneva. We were told that the reason why he was staying in a special needs school was that he suffered from mild autism and speech disabilities and that his attitude was very protective and closed off. Indeed, from the first day of the session White Tiger was not willing to participate in any form. No one even heard the sound of his voice. He behaved as though he did not want to be noticed and was extremely sullen and withdrawn. We suspected that his behaviour was learned during his time travelling to Europe, when he was regularly told to hide at the risk of being caught or killed.
After a couple of sessions, White Tiger was still not willing to speak or make any sort of sound. The most we managed was to establish some kind of eye contact, and he accepted to express himself through very small body movements. On the third session, we invited the children to experience some excercises around drum & body percussions. We noticed a shift in White Tiger as he began to actively participate and play. The changes continued and became pronounced as he engaged with the therapist and eventually, other children. His body expressions amplified more and more while he was drumming stronger and stronger on the instrument which was starting to suffer from his wild beats on its skin. White Tiger’s face lit up with a wide smile. Then he suddenly stopped and tears starting to fall from his big brown eyes. We gently approached him to ask him what happened. We noticed he actually broke the drum’s skin because of how strongly he was beating. The child could not stop crying and literally broke down on the floor for half an hour before finally accepted the therapists arms for the first time. This turning point felt like a significant and cathartic moment for the boy.
Over the following sessions, the shift continued. White Tiger started to participate in whatever was being proposed. His eye contact improved greatly and his body language indicated he was more open to the social environment and engagement. His favorite thing was to lay his head on the therapists knees during story telling. But the most unexpected thing started to happen whe, after some time, White Tiger started to speak, eventually becoming as talkative and expressive as the other children in the group.
His special educators could not believe this change in him so they asked the therapist what she did with him. What happened was that the approaches of art therapy principles, created a safe space for him to let go and healing. The methods complimented his education by creating an avenue for him to connect with a side of himself that was shut down.
White Tiger has since moved on from the special needs institution and integrated into a classical school. He continues to advance in his education with greater confidence. We still have his broken little drum to remember him and his transformation.