Paint without Fear - Strategies for Painting in your Autism or Special Education Classroom

Share for your fellow special educators!

Do you have paint eaters/slurpers/drinkers in your special education classroom?  I do.  I once went an entire semester of twice weekly art projects without painting.  We colored, cut, glued and dot markered until the cows came home, but I couldn’t bring myself to get out the paint because while I’d love my autism classroom to look like this –

Paint without Fear - What painting in my autism classroom does not look like

Let’s be serious.  It’s this – Paint without fear - what painting in my autism classroom really looks like

It wasn’t just the mess.  We’re always messy.  It was the very high risk that one of my students would ingest a significant amount.  I have one girl who can get out of her seat and suck the paint out of a bottle across the room before you could blink.  She also likes glue, dot markers and hand sanitizer.  No joke.  And let me tell you, there is no overcoming pica with social stories and visuals.

So putting a bowl of paint right on her desk?  No thank you.

Oh, and paint and technology do not mix.  Our orange and red tinted Smartboard is proof “washable” is a bit of a scam.

In every class I had at least one or two of these high risk students (or sometimes 6 of 6!).  And frankly, we could overcome the problem with significant hand over hand assistance but then we’re not really learning anything.  If there’s no independence, then what is the point?

Which brings to me to the question I had to ponder – what is the point of painting?  My students are early elementary…and so far none have shown evidence of being artistic savants.  Do I have some creative geniuses?  Yes!  Will I ruin anyone’s future career by limiting our painting?  Probably not.

So why do it?  In my case, it was because I wasn’t being fair to the other 50% of students who could handle paint without causing my hair to turn gray.  I knew many of my students loved painting and should have the opportunity to do it more often than never.

Painting lets us work on a variety of skills – making choices, identifying supplies, sharing supplies, fine motor skills etc.  We’re also learning to not eat paint or scoop it up with our hands.  Hopefully.  And ultimately, avoiding the problem is doing a disservice to my students.

So, I want to share some of the semi-solutions I found that helped me get over my irrational fear of paint.

1. Melissa and Doug Water WOW

This is my easiest and best tip – start without paint!


These are incredible teaching tools and my students cannot get enough of them.  Practice painting without paint!  Can it get any better?  And if your students try to drink the water…it’s ok…because it’s water.

As you ‘paint’ them with water, a color picture appears.  It’s seriously awesome.  My paras are just as amazed as my students!

I don’t use the included paint brush but instead give them a real paint brush and bowl of water (…in a dog bowl – see #2).  Students practice holding their brush, dipping in water, stroking across the paper etc.  It’s the best way to teach using a paint brush without paint and still get the satisfaction of making something.

Each book includes 4 pages and they dry quickly and are thus reusable.  My girls love this princess/fairy set but I also have construction, animals, letters, shapes and numbers.  There are also bigger sets that come on rings instead of books.  I give those to my fast workers who can get through more cards.  Another tip for your fast workers – give them a tiny paint brush!

Paint without Fear Melissa and Doug Water WOW Books

When we’re done, I prop them open on a shelf.  They dry just fine even when closed, but since I have another class coming shortly after, I leave them open to air dry.  I used the same set of 10 or so for a year before we finally scratched them too much to use.  But for only a few dollars each, they are well worth it!

I use these as a warm up since my students don’t all come in at the same time.  If you use the brush they give you, you could even make this an independent work task or station.

I buy everything from Amazon but I know Target has these in their art section too.

2. Dog bowls

Next, get yourself to the dollar store and buy dog bowls.  Seriously.


I challenge you to try to tip them over without picking them up.  I’m not saying your student won’t scoop up a handful, but for those that aren’t trying to eat it, these are awesome.  I used to use muffin tins but a heavy hand flips them.  Dog bowls are made to stay still – a little rubber on the bottom and a wider base and you’re in business!


I primarily use these for water when we’re doing watercolors but paint works too!

Note: I don’t buy ones that scream “dog” but the small silver one does have paws on it.  None of my students care but some adults may ask why you bought dog bowls for your classroom.

3. Paint in squirt bottles

Finally, we’re ready for real paint.  We purchased these mini bottles from Discount School Supply a few years ago and they revolutionized how I do actual paint.  I RARELY put paint in cups anymore.  First, I always end up wasting so much.  Second, open containers of paint.  Remember my paint connoisseurs?  I’d just rather not give them easy access.  That’s not on them.  That’s on me.

So instead we use these tiny squeeze bottles.  Students squirt their chosen color onto the paper and then use the brush to spread it around.

We also have the cute little carrying basket so each student has a variety of colors right in front of them and a place to return them.  They add a little structure to our open ended art projects.


Bonus – you’re also strengthening hand muscles!

Back to my girl who sucks paint out of the bottles…we don’t let her use these…yet.  I believe we’ll get there someday, but today is not that day.  She chooses her color by pointing, with a visual or with her device and her para puts the paint on her paper.  Or it’s a hand over hand moment.

So I’m not saying these will solve all of your problems, but they did help me feel confident enough to bring out the paint again.  And my students are loving our projects and an occasional taste test.  But we’re getting better every time we try!  Do you have any other creative solutions to the chaos painting projects bring?







Painting strategies in an autism classroom - 3 tips




Paint without Fear in your Autism Classroom