Art therapy can be used for many things. Whether you are trying to unlock your child’s creative potential, ease the stress of expatriate life, battle anxiety or depression, and even address issues of interrupted development, this expressive form of psychotherapy is a “non-threatening way to address behavioural and emotional challenges,” explains Sara Powell, the co-founder of Art Therapy International Centre (ATIC), Dubai.

“As a clinician, we ask: how do I help on an emotional or behavioural level, or help them achieve their academic potential?” Powell adds. “So we use art as a way to understand [a client’s] inner world to support them.”

These days, in the UK, US and across Asia, art therapy – which is a relatively young therapeutic discipline – is common, but in the Middle East it is not yet well known. In fact, ATIC, which opened its doors in 2015, is the only dedicated art therapy centre in the UAE. “The challenge is people here don’t really understand what art therapy is,” Powell admits. “They think we’re just art teachers. But we’re trained as psychotherapists – the only difference is we bring in art.”


Powell, who hails from the UK, initially did not know what it was, either. But, while working as a special needs teacher, she saw a change in her students’ attention span after a session with a play therapist. “I saw a difference in how they could retain information and they were happier,” she says. This realisation led her to do a Master’s Degree in Art Psychotherapy. She then moved to Singapore, where she co-founded ATIC, and worked with the government and schools, helping terminally ill children, addicts and gifted university students, to name a few. After six years, she returned to the UAE – where she grew up – and opened a branch here.

“We use art as a way to understand your inner world”

“Basically, we are a group of art therapists who have come together and who share the same values, mission and vision – to familiarise the community about art psychotherapy, and to provide a service. It’s not about one [form of therapy] being better than the other, but it’s an option.”

The services ATIC offers are wide-ranging, and the team works with individuals – predominantly children – one-on-one or in groups, offering therapies that incorporate movement, music, play and visual arts. They also collaborate with the government and schools, including Kings’ Al Barsha and GEMS Education, working with children with typical or interrupted development and supporting students in the inclusion process, too. They also offer training to teachers and an introductory foundation course to art therapy.

“It’s a non-threatening way to engage. For children, they may not have the language skills to be able to fully express how they’re feeling. We can now use the artwork to gain further information.

“Art is a very natural way for them to communicate and, at the same time, you don’t have to be an artist. It’s not about the aesthetic; it’s about the process.” 

When it comes to play, the team has myriad media and materials to utilise. This includes dress-up and fantasy. “Children who may have some medical trauma due to a physical illness, for example, like to become the doctor and gain a sense of control. This is not forced – it’s something they choose and we support them.”

ATIC also runs creative parenting workshop, art psychotherapist Mariam El Halawani tells us. “We support the parents and offer alternative ways to communicate with their children to address certain behavioural difficulties.” There are also sessions for parents and children to work together with the therapist. Powell explains: “This fosters better communication, bonding and understanding, especially if there is a speech deficit or if there is a child who may have separation anxiety challenges… We also work a lot with siblings of children with special needs.”

Most commonly, ATIC therapists see children struggling with anxiety. “There are a lot of adjustment difficulties in the expat community,” says Powell. “And children are growing up faster due to the fact that they are exposed to a lot more now at a younger age, and they don’t have the life experiences or the emotional maturity to be able to balance that out.”

Art therapy is a non-threatening way to address behavioural and emotional challenges”

Back in schools, Powell admits that while many offer great provision, it is not always easy for them to have all the resources necessary in order to support every child. And, often, it is the students with mild learning difficulties that fall through the cracks. “And there is a lot of misdiagnosis.

“Sometimes families have been to three or four centres, spent Dhs20,000-30,000 on assessments, and still the child has no treatment. There is amazing support here, but I think there is still room for growth.”In the meantime, art therapy can make a big difference.

In a nutshell

A brief introduction to what art therapy is all about, according to the British Association of Art Therapists

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as [a] diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing.

“Art therapists work with children, younger people, adults and the elderly. Clients may have a wide range of difficulties, disabilities or diagnoses. These include emotional, behavioural, or mental health problems, learning or physical disabilities, life-limited conditions, neurological conditions and physical illnesses.

“Art therapy is provided in groups or individually, depending on clients’ needs. It is not a recreational activity or an art lesson, although the sessions can be enjoyable. Clients do not need to have any previous experience or expertise in art.

“Although influenced by psychoanalysis, art therapists have been inspired by theories such as attachment-based psychotherapy and have developed a broad range of client-centred approaches such as psycho-educational, mindfulness and mentalisation-based treatments, compassion-focused and cognitive analytic therapies, and socially engaged practice… Importantly, art therapy practice has evolved to reflect the cultural and social diversity of the people who engage in it.”

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