Expressive Therapy Center at Akron Children’s helps patients create and heal

words and photos by Allyson Smith

Brynne Lynch was “a normal, healthy, regular 8-year-old up until January of this year,” says her mother, Ann. But then she had multiple seizures at school and was rushed to Akron Children’s Hospital. She was diagnosed with autoimmune encephalitis, a condition where the immune system attacks healthy brain cells and causes inflammation in the brain, leading to other complications. 

During Brynne’s stay in the hospital and during rehabilitation, where she learned to walk and talk again, they met Emily Grabo, the art therapist at Akron Children’s Hospital. 

“Brynne would get very agitated because she couldn’t think of words to speak,” Ann says. “They called [Emily] in to see if Brynne could draw and hold a pen. It was a very emotional day when Emily came in because it was the first time she smiled. She mumbled a couple words but was happy for the first time in weeks.” 

Brynne is one of the many patients who have benefited and received rehabilitation at the Emily Cooper Welty Expressive Therapy Center at Akron Children’s Hospital. 

The Expressive Therapy Center is one of the hidden gems of the children’s hospital. And it does feel hidden: The main entrance looks like a back entrance. The wall, painted with a bright orange mural with a radio booth, is tucked in the corner near the entrance. 

The hallway opens into a large open space with windows at the top, allowing natural light to fill the space. 

A sign at the top says, “Create, heal, inspire,” and “encourage the possibilities,” the mission of the expressive therapy center.

Emily says the space is “half the magic.” 

“Some patients that I work with are in the hospital for two, three, four or five weeks at a time and maybe can’t go outside and get natural sunlight,” Emily says. “To come in here and have natural light, and not like fluorescent light from their rooms, really is such a healing experience for them.”

Emily and the other therapists in the expressive therapy center work with children and teens who are patients. Some of the patients who see Emily have recently been given a new diagnosis. Using art, she helps the patient grieve and process what this diagnosis might mean for their identity.

Expressive therapy is offered to patients at no cost.

“We think that it really has a lot of positive benefits that also benefits the hospital,” Emily explains. “If we can engage a patient in art therapy or music therapy or creative writing, and they are engaged and relaxed, maybe they’re not asking for as much pain medicine.” 

She also explains why art therapy is so effective. 

“There is sort of the idea that just creating art in itself is therapeutic, just inherently, and has benefits,” Emily says. “And then kind of on the other end, there’s more of an art psychotherapy that’s more insight-oriented, where you might be doing some more directed art-making. There might be an intervention that’s given, and an art therapist has very specific training in paying attention to observing how somebody uses the materials, and carefully picking the materials that you’re going to use with somebody because different [materials] can tap into different things for different people.”

Emily is trained to observe patients’ behavior and talk about those observations with patients. For example, if a patient’s drawing is barely visible, they might not have the energy to push the pencil on the paper. The way a patient uses materials can offer a lot of clinical information. 

Also, Emily says, activities like drawing one’s emotions as a landscape can help patients process. “Because art is powerful,” she says. “It’s nonverbal. It can tap into a lot of experiences for people. And if you don’t know how to contain that in a safe way, then that can be a really damaging thing.”

Art therapy is not only used to improve mental well-being. In some ways, it can be used as physical therapy as well. 

“We might be working on things like fine motor control with art-making,” Emily says. “Maybe [transitioning] from one of those foam adaptive things where it’s hard to grasp… to actually using it without one and providing the space and the response and the encouragement to be able to do that.”

Emily also shared some of her experiences as an art therapist.

“[One patient] was not aggressive, but she was clearly really agitated,” she says. “But I was able to get her attention with materials and say, ‘Can I show you something we’ve never done before? I’m going to do what’s called a breath painting. You watch me and then if you want to join me, you can.’ And so we were able to do that together. Then we would do competitions… so then that was encouraging her to take the bigger, deeper breaths.

“Obviously, I have the best job,” Emily adds. “I don’t have to poke you. I don’t have to give you medicine. I just get to be a witness to your experience, which is really a sacred thing.” 

For patients like Brynne, and her mother Ann, words don’t even describe how beneficial the expressive therapy program has been. 

“I get emotional thinking about what art therapy has done for my daughter,” Ann says. “She still deals with aggression and forgets things… and every time we turn around, Emily is there in the darkest times. The amount of support that department gives for us… there are not enough words to describe what they do for my daughter.”

Allyson’s background is in media production and anthropology. Her hobbies include coffee, traveling and teaching people about things they didn’t know before.