“Educators need to spend more time developing a child’s area of strength and less time pounding away on the deficits.” Temple Grandin
I have the most wonderful job in the world. When I open my mailbox or email each day I’m often surprised by what I may find. It may be a beautiful piece of art, a funny cartoon, or a profound poem. The email will often lead to a story behind the art or poetry, which inspires me and gives me hope about our future.
For the last several months, I’ve been collecting art and poetry of artists on the autism spectrum for the new book “The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions;” the second “Art of Autism” book. As I collect the art and hear the stories, these are some questions I ponder. What if we as a society switched our focus from what is wrong with people with autism, to what is right? What if we dedicated as much time to developing their unique strengths as we do on remediating their perceived deficits? And in the end, what if society’s perceptions of deficits actually turn out to be strengths?
Hans Asperger felt those diagnosed with high-functioning autism tended to have “a particular originality of thought and experience, which may well lead to exceptional achievements in later life.” We now know the plasticity of the brain allows growth well beyond the formative years. The stories in the “Art of Autism” confirm this. Some learn how to communicate in meaningful ways at much later ages; others have major breakthroughs in their twenties or thirties.
Here are some of my insights from compiling the art, the stories, and the poetry. Many people on the spectrum have strengths as a population. These include an ability to see complex patterns; a deep relationship and bond with animals and nature; an ability to focus on an area of interest for extended periods of time; an acute spatial awareness that allows some to know where they are oriented even in unfamiliar places; an amazing memory which allow some to remember minute details from years past with accuracy; highly developed senses including extra-sensory perception and intuition; as well as novel and innovative use of media in the creation of their art. While not all people with autism have these abilities, those that do seem to exhibit what may be called “evolutionary” traits.
One thing is for sure, autistic artists benefit from a supportive family. One of the chapters in the new book is titled “The Journey.” The journey, whether physical or symbolic takes the individual to a new realm of being. One family relocated from Israel to the United States to open doors for their child; many parents change careers that are in alignment with their children – some become therapists, other’s start autism-friendly companies, and others spend much of their life scheduling mentors, shipping art, entering exhibitions, and creating a ‘buzz’ around their child. Artist Seth Chwast was evaluated for a dry-mopping position at age 18. His mom refused to let him spend the rest of his life mopping floors, so enrolled him in his first art class. At 28, he is now a major figure in the art world and has been chosen by one art critic to be one of three outstanding American artists living today.
Some artists in the book speak of the symbolic journey. They may have.received an Asperger’s diagnosis late in life. The diagnosis is described by some as a relief and liberation. They now know they are not mentally ill, deranged, nor alone and since the diagnosis their lives and their art have flourished. They are proud to be Aspies, seen by the media in a kinder light than being autistic. Aspies are portrayed as quirky, nerdy, creative types. Who wouldn’t want to be in the company of Andy Warhol, Bill Gates, or Michelangelo?
Another journey has been through means of developing one’s communication. Facilitated communication (FC) is controversial, yet seems to be a way for some people who prior to FC had no way of sharing their world. FC is a technique in which a person with autism has a facilitator who places their hand over the hand of the person on the letterboard or keyboard to allow them to communicate. This type of communication system gained international recognition when Tito Mukhopadhyay appeared on “Sixty Minutes” in the 1990’s. Through FC, poets in the book Sydney Edmond, Louisa Jensen, Craig Roveta, and photographer Forrest Sargent can now communicate their experience.
So what does all this mean? I think we must take a step back and follow our children’s lead.
There are many paths and ways of experiencing life. As parents, the path we take with our autistic children leads us to unfamiliar and uncomfortable places.
The new Art of Autism book is scheduled for release in late-winter 2012. I hope those who view the book will be as touched and inspired by the stories of the reslience and the creative power of the human spirt, as I was as I compiled the book.
The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions About Those Living on the Spectrum will be in print Spring 2012.