There’s little doubt that Amanda McConnell’s art has been influenced by the autism of her son, Daniel. She readily admits her show of figurative oil paintings and intaglio prints at the Marie W. Heider Center for the Arts in West Salem this month — entitled “Sense & Spirit” — was inspired by the fact that he “lives in a world where sense and spirit are inseparable.”
McConnell’s presence in West Salem can be attributed to Daniel. McConnell has lived most of her life in Hawaii and still has a home there. But the search for a place where Daniel could receive a better education led the family to relocate to the mainland and eventually to West Salem.
“We looked all over the country and eventually settled here,” she said. Daniel attended classes at the Chileda Institute in La Crosse and graduated from Logan High School.
“It was very hard to leave Hawaii and a lot of my work is reflective of that move,” McConnell said.
Her father was a painter and she grew up with the arts. There’s still a gallery back in Maui that carries her work, and she has won numerous Hawaiian art awards and commissions.
In addition, she’s illustrated children’s books and even has a commissioned sculpture at the Honolulu Zoo. Much of her work can be described as meditative, and she said there’s a solid connection between that fact and her nonverbal son.
“He’s very quiet,” she said. “In terms of autism, the senses are very acute plus very intense spiritually because they are cut off from the world in so many ways. Watching him grow up and using that as an avenue of connection has influenced how I look at things.”
About four years ago, the family had a revelation of sorts regarding Daniel. Because he was nonverbal, people didn’t think he was capable of doing much in terms of academics.
“We had him assessed and found that he was totally aware, but it’s all inside,” McConnell said. “He can’t speak but he can think and read. That was a huge life changer because we had kind of accepted the way he was. I always knew he was present, but I didn’t know how.”
Daniel now uses a typing device to communicate. He’s told the family he wants to go to college. He’s now auditing classes at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
“He wants a life and he has no problem doing academics,” McConnell said. “He’s very handsome but very autistic. The big message to me is that things are not always what they seem.”