By: Kristine Davis
Telling your parents that you want something to eat. Knowing how to respond to a stranger. Engaging with a group of your friends while sitting still at a table. Responding to your dad’s question. Talking about many different subjects when conversing with a friend. Accepting the embrace of a parent.
A typical child can do these normal things. But for a child with autism, very little is normal.
Dr. Julie Ivey, founder and director of Baylor’s Autism Resource Center, describes autism as a neurological disorder that has no known cause or cure. One out of 90 children will be diagnosed with the disorder, Ivey said, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Children with autism exhibit three unique characteristics: communication skills that are hindered in some way, odd or unusual behaviors, and a lack of socialization.
“It’s a puzzling condition,” Anita Karney, president of the Heart of Texas Autism Network, said. “There are many puzzling pieces connected together in terms of cause and cure.”
There are different ways to help connect the pieces, Karney said, through therapies, nutrition, music.
And even art.
Because children with autism struggle to use words to communicate what they feel and think, art is an effective way to express themselves without words.
“It’s an outlet for them to be creative without a lot of the pressure of having to use verbal skills,” Ivey said. “They can let the thoughts flow.”
Art not only gives children a voice where they have not had one, but it can also be the medium where a parent can finally connect with their child.
A feeling of disconnection is not unlike what parents may feel when trying to engage with their child who is deaf. In the 1996 film, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Richard Dreyfuss plays the part of Glenn Holland, a high school music teacher. A year after their son’s birth, Glenn and his wife, Iris, discover their son cannot hear.
After agonizing over not ever being able to connect with her child, Iris spews forth her deep-seeded aggravation, screaming at Glenn: “I don’t understand what he’s trying to say! Don’t you get it? You walk to school every day with all these children who are normal. I can’t talk to my son! I don’t know what he wants or what he thinks or what he feels. I can’t tell him that I love him. I can’t tell him who I am. I want to talk to my son!”
Art, for a parent of a child with autism, could be what sign language is for a parent of a deaf child — a fresh connection that replaces frustration with new understanding.
Syrenthia Rice was baffled by the behavior of her son, Jordan, istic until he was 5 years old. As a toddler, Jordan liked to be by himself. He did not like to be hugged. He never communicated verbally. When he was a young child, he knocked a television off its stand in the Rices’ home during a fit of frustration, but Rice never told anyone.
“In the back of my head, I knew something was wrong,” Rice said. “It was pretty unusual.”
But the biggest indicator that something was different was that Jordan did not talk.
“Everything else he did on time, like walking,” Rice said. “There was nothing to show you that he had autism.”
As she spoke at their home, Jordan wandered over and stood behind her chair, leaning over to smell her hair. When Rice looked at him, he frowned at her and began to rhythmically repeat, “NO!”
“He doesn’t like me to look at him,” Rice said.
Even as a 2-year-old, Jordan continued to be disconnected, not speaking to his family. That year, a woman asked Rice if she had heard of autism.
“You know, she drinks a lot,” Rice said. “So I thought [to myself], ‘Well, this drunk woman, what does she know?’ But the idea stayed in my head.”
After confiding in her best friend, a special education teacher, Rice began to accept the possibility that Jordan was different from other children.
This friend also put Jordan’s situation in perspective: “If he gets labeled, he can get some help.”
When Jordan was 5 and about to enter kindergarten, Rice took her son to the doctor for diagnosis. It was not encouraging. A team of doctors, in the midst of Jordan throwing things around the room, told her Jordan would never be able to function.
“After they made their assessment,” Rice said, “I called my girlfriend in North Carolina crying, ‘Oh! They said Jordan is never going to be able to do this and never going to be able to do that.’ It was a diagnosis that made me think that he’d always be confined.”
But Jordan did not need to be confined. This year, he attends Midway High School in Hewitt in their special education classroom. And through art, Jordan has begun to break out of his own “world” and connect with his family by illustrating who he is and what he thinks, even without words.
When he has free time, Rice says, art is what Jordan loves to do. Art is a place of calm in the midst of a world that children with autism find just as puzzling and different as many find the autism disorder.
And that is what children with autism are. They are “different,” Karney said. Not “weird.” Not “quirky.” Different.
According to Ivey, research shows that the brain of a child with autism is “wired” differently. Even the shape and size of the brain looks different than a typical brain.
“They see things differently,” Karney said. “They come up with different solutions, Doctors call it ‘neuro-typical.’ They think totally outside the box. They are absolutely unique.”
Daniel Sumrall, 11, exemplifies this uniqueness. Daniel’s connection with art began as performance art as he discovered the outlet of pretending. His father, Stephen, recounted his son’s milestone:
“We have one of those big trampolines,” Sumrall said. “One day, Daniel ran out and grabbed all his toys and things and sat down on the trampoline. Then he would jump up and throw them! We couldn’t figure out what he was doing at first because we weren’t watching what was going on on the TV. On the TV, Spongebob’s pineapple house was exploding. So, he would jump up and explode when the house would. He was pretending.”
Daniel then moved from performance art to being behind the camera. Now, he likes to take an old cell phone and record clips of games on the computer while doing a “voiceover” and repeats what the voice says on the computer onto the video camera.
Sumrall says his son is taking the ideas out of his head and is able to express himself in some way.
Art can be the key for these unique children to express what they are thinking to parents who want to connect with them.
Through art, Mary Ompad has begun to see what her son, Darion, is thinking and connect with his ideas as he expresses himself with a paintbrush and blank canvass.
“[Art] lets me know that he’s actually paying attention to what he sees because I can tell him over and over again, but he won’t respond,” Ompad said. “When I see him actually draw it all on his own, that’s how I know that it’s sinking in and he’s learning.”
Where they cannot express verbally, children with autism can express “artfully.” As Jacqueline Baumann, a self-taught art therapist, puts it, “[Art] allows them to express themselves in a way they never thought possible because they don’t have to know the right way to say things. They can really express their emotions. If they’re upset, you’ll see it in their artwork.”
Art is the missing piece of the puzzle that can connect a parent and child with autism in a way that speech therapy, occupational therapy, counseling and social groups cannot.
And a puzzle piece is the mascot for the Heart of Texas Autism Network, a blue one with legs and sunglasses that sits in the top corner of their website. “Just like people with autism,” Karney said, “each piece [of the puzzle] is unique but fits together to form something beautiful.”
A few years ago, Doreen Ravenscroft, director of Waco Cultural Arts Fest, connected with the children of the network in order to make beautiful art. Along with the network and another autism-related foundation, The Arc of Texas, Ravenscroft helped start a summer camp that incorporated art into their daily camp activities. This past summer, 40 kids attended the camp.
Art is an expression, she said, that “releases creativity [children] don’t believe they have.” To raise money and awareness for the camp and other network-related activities, Ravenscroft sets out large, cardboard puzzle pieces at her Arts Fest in the fall for anyone to decorate with a $1 donation.
Ravenscroft hopes to create a “living mural” somewhere in Waco with the 500 pieces that have already been created.
The network also wants to raise awareness and funds to make art a staple in their autism-related activities and groups, Karney said. One such effort is their first Mardi Gras Celebration in spring 2011. Through the collaboration of Betsey Klesse and Jacqueline Baumann, the expressiveness of art will be united with a contest. This will give students in Waco and surrounding areas a chance to donate their art for the cause of autism and win a prize. Art students, no matter the age or skill level, may take part in the contest. In the spring, their work will be exhibited throughout a weekend-long celebration during Mardi Gras. While on display, a puzzle piece will be placed next to art entries of children with autism.
As art opens up the doorway for expression, others may begin to see the truth that Baumann points out: “Autism is a gift. It’s not a negative thing.”
On a bookshelf next to the fireplace in Jordan Rice’s home sits a framed art activity completed at school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In it, Jordan’s teachers asked the students to complete the sentence, “I have a dream…”
Jordan wrote, “that I be treated the same.”
Jordan’s brain may be different than most everyone else’s, but he still possesses the same common characteristic as other typical children – human. With art as a viable form of expression in a world as puzzling as this incurable disability, perhaps one day Jordan will be able to express that truth to everyone.