January 23, 2018 Culpepper Blog: Projective Drawing and the PMAI®: Helping Autistic Students Gain Greater Self-Knowledge

By Katherine Culpepper


I am a marriage and family counselor, a school counselor in an inner city high school, and a counselor in a relatively new program (four years) designed for students on the autism spectrum who seek vocational training after they graduate from high school. (This is a school department initiative to help these young men and women integrate into the work environment as well as develop friendships and additional social and emotional skills with other members of the program.) I work together with the teachers using projective drawings and the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator® (PMAI®) to help the students understand themselves better. The information gained from both the projective drawings and the PMAI® has also proved to help parents better understand their adult son or daughter.

I want to share with you how using the method that I have designed can lead to some meaningful ways to help young people gain greater self-knowledge. I have found that the use of projective drawings is enriched by the use of the PMAI®, as this instrument can open the student up to the deeper story they are living. They can become aware of the personal gifts they possess, as well as the shadow side of their personality. Such self-knowledge helps them make better decisions about how they choose to live. This method has endless potential and can be used by individuals with themselves and by art therapists, educators, counselors, and consultants in any workplace setting.

In November 2017, I traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to present my first professional conference paper at the American Art Therapy Association Annual Conference. In the course of the 50-minute session, I described two case studies in which I used an art therapy method I have developed over the past eight years. Initially, I employed the Projective House-Tree-Person (HTP) method. Relying upon the student’s work of art, considered from a kinetic point of view, gave me the opportunity to explore aspects of the student’s life not readily available through an approach that begins with the presenting problem. The “kinetic” point of view, according to Robert Burns (1970), explores the story being told in the work of art.

Later, as a student at the Assisi Institute, I became interested in the work of Dr. Carol S. Pearson, who explores archetypal characters and narratives and their connection to different ways in which we imagine our identity and our life story. Burns’s kinetic approach to HTP and Dr. Pearson’s work on the relationship between personality and narrative struck me as complementary.

My purpose in my presentation in Albuquerque was to explain how I integrate the HTP process with Dr. Pearson’s archetypal analysis and apply this method in my work with students as a means to further growth in the five core competencies of social and emotional learning: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making.

In her book Awakening the Heroes Within, Dr. Pearson describes the process of personality development as a “life journey” with three parts: preparation, the transformational journey, and the return. She proposes that one think of this journey in light of twelve “archetypal stories.” Along with Dr. Hugh Marr, she developed the PMAI®, the instrument I have incorporated into my use of the kinetic HTP method.

The method begins by meeting with the student, who is asked to draw a house, tree, and person that tells a story. It is drawn on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of blank white paper, with a basic set of 12 colored pencils available for the student’s use. Upon completion of the drawing, there is a guided conversation about the story being told in the student’s drawing. Yoram Kaufmann (The Way of the Image, 2009) refers to this as the “interpretation” of the image. Once the basic elements of the story have been discussed, further questions about the work of art are raised. Throughout, the conversation is guided by attention to unusual features of the drawing and significant parts of the story being told (informed by the principles advanced by Conforti, Kaufmann, Edinger, and Bach as described in an earlier part of the paper).

The second form of interaction with the student builds on this initial “interpretation” or subjective presentation of the drawing. After the student has taken the PMAI®, and the results have been discussed with the student, the student is invited to explore the story being told in the drawing, together with reflection on its parts, through the lens of the results obtained in the PMAI®, with particular attention given to what Dr. Pearson refers to as the gifts and shadows of the archetypes. According to Kaufmann, this is the “translation” of the work of art.

I proceeded to share two case studies with the audience. Here I would like to share one of these cases, in which I worked with a student on the autism spectrum. (At the conference, I was able to display the work of art, but I do not have permission to reproduce it here).

I asked the student to draw an HTP picture that tells a story. When this was completed, we began the “interpretation” phase of the conversation.

Question: Tell me about the story that is being told in your picture.

Answer: This is a picture of my uncle and me. My uncle is teaching me to put the key in the door to unlock it. I have to try many, many times before I learn. I was 15 years old at that time.

Q: What did you draw first?

A: I drew the house.

Q: Do you live in this house?

A: I live in it with my mother who likes to listen to Cajun and Spanish music.

Q: Can you describe what it is like inside your home?

A: It is very quiet and peaceful.

Q: What did you draw next?

A: I drew my uncle and myself. He is teaching me how to open the door using the key.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with your uncle?

A: He is very patient and kind. We get along good.

Q: Can you tell me about the tree?

A: It was there when I first moved here. It had a bit of green leaves. The leaves started to appear more and it started to change into a different color because it was aging.

Q: If you were to title this story what would it be?

A: Learning to use the key to open the door.

Q: What does this story say about your life?

A: Even if I fail, I will keep trying until I learn.

In the second part of the process, I administered the PMAI. In connection with what Dr. Pearson refers to as the “Preparation Phase,” his score was highest as a Warrior and he identified with the gift of determination. In connection with the “Transformational Phase,” his score was highest as a Creator and he identified with the gift of vision. (Among the autism students, and high school students generally, I do not investigate the student’s placement on the “Return Phase” of the journey.)

We return to the picture that was drawn and I ask the following questions.

Q: When you look at your work of art, do you see the Warrior in this story?

A: In the story I see that I am determined to open the door using the key.

Q: Where in your present life are you living the story of a Warrior?

A: I am living the story of a Warrior now because I am determined to go to college. My teacher says that I have a lot to learn.

Q: In the next stage of your journey, you are being changed (transformed) by living the gifts of a Creator. Do you see the story of the Creator being lived in your work of art? You spoke about the changes in the tree when you said that “the leaves started to appear more and it started to change into a different color because it was aging.”

A: I am getting older too and my creative thought for this thought is to actually start working in the campus for a really clear view so by the time I am 21 I am confident and ready for sure—a taste to see.

The student began interning at the local community college in November 2017. He states that he likes being on the campus. He is given errands to run from one place to another and various other tasks.

Application to present life:

Q: What did you learn from this process?

I recall for him the core competencies in Social/Emotional Learning, which are increased self-knowledge, social management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

In connection with self-knowledge, he states:

A: I learned that I am a Warrior and it helps me with my determination. I am living the story of a Warrior because I am determined to go to college.

The student went further to state that as a Creator, he is using the gift of vision and imagination, enabling him to prepare for the future and his desire to attend college when he is 21.

There was a meeting with his mother, uncle, and teacher, and all were supportive of this decision for the student to continue to pursue his goal of attending the local community college.

I would at this time like to share with you my own experience of working with this student. I was overjoyed with the way in which he responded to this method. The exercise offered him the experience and support of coming to know himself in a deep way. It could never have happened without this process.

The presentation of this case study (along with a second) was followed by a lively discussion of the method and practice. Some of the more interesting questions asked were:

(1) How long does it require to conduct the initial interview, and what sort of follow-up is done?

(2) How does the student understand the archetypal language used in this method? It seems rather sophisticated for this population or the high school population generally.

(3) Can this method work for other populations than this one? What about an elementary or middle school population?

Briefly, I noted, first, that I have a heavy caseload, and that I am not able to spend the time that I would like with the students. All the same, I find that there is growth in the core competencies of Social/Emotional Learning if I spend 60-90 minutes with the student in the initial interview, followed by a meeting with the student and parents/guardians. Shorter meetings of 15-20 minutes can follow if needed later in the semester or academic year.

Concerning the use of the language of archetypes, I spend about 10-15 minutes explaining the different archetypal characters and stories, using examples from popular culture. The students for the most part catch on to this way of speaking about themselves without much hesitation.

Concerning the population, I pointed out that the school district where I work is extremely diverse. “Approximately 65% of our students are Hispanic, 17% Black, 9% White, 5% Asian, 3% multi-racial, and 1% Native American. Approximately 19% of students are English language learners (ELL) and about 16% receive special education services. Nearly 60% come from homes where 31 different languages are spoken and come from 52 countries of origin. Approximately 88% qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.” (PPSD website).

I have not, however, used this method with elementary or middle school students. I concluded the presentation with a restatement of my conviction that the method is effective, though I continue to develop the practical ways in which I work with various students and develop tools for the assessment of the effectiveness of the approach.

In conclusion, using projective drawings takes one only part of the way. I have found that it takes the PMAI® to open the person to deeper insights in the gifts and shadows of the story they are living. Combining a narrative approach to the interpretation of the work of art with the PMAI® enables students to relate readily to the method and enjoy gaining insight into themselves. Since I began using this method, I have found that it is an exciting and creative work for both the student and me, as each and every student’s story is different. The method offers many students hope that their lives can be enriched through self-understanding and responsible decision-making.


Katherine Culpepper received her B.S. Ed. from the University of Memphis in 1987 and her M.S.W. in Marriage and Family Counseling from The Catholic University of America in 1990. She has worked as a school counselor with a wide range of students in the Providence School Department since 1995, including students in the Autism Transition Academy since 2014. Her interest in art therapy and archetypal analysis was developed further at the Assisi Institute. She and her husband, Gary, have two daughters, Marie and Anne. For more information, contact her at culpepper.katherine@gmail.com.