In and Out of the Lines


People, like crayons, come in a vast array of colors; but each one contributes to our
collective palette.

Stephanie Botswich had a particularly stressful day at work. Traffic was horrendous. Paperwork was time sensitive. Emails were haunting. Meetings ware laborious. Lunch was at a drive-thru. Colleagues were indifferent. Her desktop was indignant.

By the time she made it home, she was frazzled. Having been through this familiar ringer before, she knew exactly what to do.

Nice hot shower, flannel pajamas, pancakes for dinner, glass of chardonnay and two hours of sheer relaxation with her favorite adult coloring book. Stephanie was back to ground zero. Whether it was the chardonnay or the coloring was not an issue. She enjoyed them both and they worked their magic.

Stephanie was back at work the next morning. A social worker by profession, she is a surveyor for (your) state department of intellectual and developmental disabilities. Her role is to visit group homes and asses if they are meeting the standards of care and support as dictated by the Department. In addition to insuring that safety and health issues are being addressed, she is also responsible for ascertaining if the psychosocial needs of the residents are being respected, provided and encouraged. On this particular day Stephanie visited four homes. She returned to her office to complete her reports and findings. On this day Stephanie cited two of the homes for allowing the residents to “color.” She indicated that the group home staff was encouraging “age inappropriate behavior.” She failed to indicate that both homes were using the “Color Me Happy Zen Coloring Book,” the same book that both mesmerized and delighted her the night before.

The first coloring books emerged years before the first crayons hit the scene. The early coloring books were called “painting books” and were usually illustrated with watercolors. The first coloring book was produced in the 1880s and was called The Little Folks Painting Book. The rise of the coloring book was due in part to the emerging technology of lithography which allowed easier printing than a wooden block or cooper plate. This allowed for the inexpensive printing of thousands of images which found their way into the “painting books.” Modern copyright laws were not in effect and that allowed for publishers to “steal” images which contributed to keeping the books affordable for schools and families.

Coloring in coloring books has been a mainstay of early education and educators claim it is a valuable tool in steps leading to artistic expression. Many art teachers see it as a modality to learning how art “works.” It enhances  eye-hand coordination, alignment of shapes, color compatibility, boundaries and styles. Teachers believe that coloring
books are valuable in helping to motivate students’ understanding of concepts that they would otherwise be uninterested in.

Readers of Exceptional Parent magazine should not be surprised to find that the physicians responsible for treating their children with special healthcare needs might have started their medical training using The Anatomy Coloring Book (available in the medical book department of every leading university). It provides students with a firm introduction to the relationships, locations and boundaries of the internal organs and structures; which comes in handy when surgery is the treatment of choice.

According to Elena Santos (The Huffington Post), “One of  the first psychologists to apply coloring as a relaxation technique was Carl G. Jung in the early 20th century. He did this through mandalas: circular designs with concentric shapes similar to the gothic churches’ rose windows.”

The relaxation derived from coloring lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of the brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.

While some psychologists are adamant that coloring is not therapy but therapeutic, the fact remains that more and more adults are becoming “colorists.” The rewards for engaging in adult coloring books have their foundations in sheer pleasantry. Dr. Joel Pearson, a brain scientist at the University of New South Wales (Australia), explains the therapeutic effect. “Concentrating on coloring an image may facilitate the replacement of negative thoughts and images with pleasant ones. You have to look at the shape and size, you have to look at the edges, and you have to pick a color. It should occupy the same parts of the brain that stops any anxiety-related mental imagery happening as well… Anything that helps you control your attention is going to help.”

Millions of adults around the world are putting pencils, crayons and coloring books in their backpacks, briefcases, suitcases and kitchen tables. They take them to the office, to the beach, to vacations and the back porch. It is not only a reality, but a welcome addition to the arsenal adults have to combat the complexities, stressors and misadventures that life multiplies and provides.

Perhaps that is something that Ms. Botswich and her Department should reconsider the next time she feels that “coloring” is an age-inappropriate activity for people with cognitive impairments. People, like crayons, come in a vast array of colors; but each one contributes to our collective palette.

People with intellectual and developmental disabilities certainly provide color to our lives… perhaps we should encourage them to color in their own.•

In his 87th year, the artist Michelangelo (1475 -1564) is believed to have said “Ancora imparo” (I am still learning).  Hence, the name for my monthly observations and comments.
 — Rick Rader, MD, Editor-in-Chief, EP Magazine Director, Morton J. Kent Habilitation Center Orange Grove Center, Chattanooga, TN