In January this year, Nicolette, a 17-year-old student from School of the Arts (SOTA), had an idea about reaching out to children with special needs. She gathered 8 friends and came up with an art programme for children as young as preschoolers to learn different art forms: Visual arts, dance, music and theatre.

And they quickly made the project happen: An art session every other Sunday,  in partnership with the Olive Tree Development Center, a special education school in Singapore.

“We realised how the special needs children are often marginalised in society and are often times not given the opportunities to really learn. Because we come from an arts school, we truly believe that arts help,” said Nicolette.

Photo of Nicolette with an art therapy student

Nicolette with an art therapy student

“We aim to expose them to the arts because we believe that no one in the society should be left behind. When children are exposed to the arts, they find better ways to express themselves. And they can cope better with their needs as well.”

Nicolette and her friends are graduating this year, but she hopes the project can continue.

“I roped in a few juniors to the team to help out so that they can continue next year. I don’t think it should be a one-off thing and die off next year. There are

[still) a lot of areas we can work on and let it carry on in the future.”

The project grows

As it turned out, this art therapy project by the SOTA students dovetailed nicely into ‘Project Oliva’, an existing initiative by a group of students from NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine in collaboration with Olive Tree Development Centre.

The team organised a ‘Family Day’ event at Enabling Village on 10 September to spread the message of using arts therapy to children with autism. The event included an art therapist and live music demonstration.

Photo of a child playing a shooting game at the Project Oliva event in the Enabling Village

Carnival atmosphere: A shooting gallery at the Project Oliva event in the Enabling Village

“When we first took over the project last year, we decided that we wanted to branch out to other special needs centers,” said said Erica Ngiam, one of the core members of ‘Project Oliva’. “We wanted our [fellow] medical students to be exposed to the different spectrum of people with autism and see if we can delve into different aspects into autism as well.”

“Family Day is the first carnival that we organized, and it turned out much better than we expected. There were more than 50 families who attended and it was good because I think the families enjoyed themselves.”

Photo of children at an art session at Project Oliva

Children hard at work on their drawings at the Project Oliva event at the Enabling Village

“Hopefully, the parents will be able to adapt this knowledge to better understand their children and to be able to bond with their children.”

As a medical student, Erica feels that it is important for herself and her peers to be exposed to children with special needs. “There are more people diagnosed with autism today. As future healthcare professionals, we feel that it is important to be exposed to these group of people before we start our careers to get a taste on what autism is like, and having a first-hand experience dealing with children with autism.”

Photo of the Project Oliva team

The six members of the Project Oliva team

“It is also to build empathy and patience within our medical patients. You need a lot of empathy and attention to them and their families as well.”

Main photo: An art therapy in session at the Olive Tree Development Center (Source: Project Oliva)