Communication As An Artform

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A painting done by Sesobel children. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: The sounds of children playing reverberated from almost every room at Sesobel, a school for children with disabilities.

At one point, a 13-year-old boy torpedoed into the play area on a bicycle and boisterously announced “I’m Gregory!” holding out his hand to a newcomer. Before the latter had the chance to return the introduction, the vivacious teenager had already lost interest and sped away on his three-wheeler.

“He’s one of the artists,” Mugay Moudawar, a specialized teacher at the school, turned to tell The Daily Star.

By most accounts Gregory’s behavior deviates from the norm of basic social interaction. However, an impaired ability to communicate is one of the hallmarks of autism, which often tests the patience of parents, therapists and sometimes, the specialized teachers at Sesobel.

While autistic children tend to perform poorly with basic verbal communication tasks, they often excel in visual and spatial tests. Through the special education program at Sesobel, autistic children are given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings through painting classes.

“These children are unable to [verbally] communicate their desires to other people,” explained Moudawar, “So in school at times they draw on the board what they feel, their fears, sorrows and joys. … These are all captured in the paintings.”

The finished products have not only granted parents and teachers a glimpse into their complex inner worlds, but now the general public can have this opportunity too as a collection of the children’s paintings are on display at the Phoenicia Hotel.

“We were the first school in Lebanon that dared to start a special program for autistic children,” said Sesobel’s President Fadia Safi, “because it’s very challenging, because every child with autism is unique.”

In 1989, after witnessing the trials of the mothers that were largely left without adequate resources to raise their autistic children, the school began a special education program for the preschool level. As the children grew into youths and then young adults, the school’s board realized it not only needed to build on the program, but construct another center to house its activities.

The proceeds collected from a silent auction of the children’s paintings will contribute to building this center.

“Autistic children and youth are real artists and they make really beautiful paintings, which will help them acquire the funds to build their new center,” Safi said.

As with many spectrum disorders, autism manifests through a triad of symptoms that include impaired social interactions and communication, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, such as head slapping and hand flapping, compulsive behavior and an obstinate and at times volatile resistance to change.

Most children show symptoms of the disorder before they reach 3 years of age. Neurologically, autism affects how information in the brain is processed, but how exactly this occurs is not entirely understood by scientists.

Depending on the gravity of the disorder, some who are mildly afflicted are able to integrate with society and even enjoy successful careers, but for moderate to severe cases of autism, most cannot live independently.

Given the challenges of having to engage with severely autistic children – let alone teach them how to communicate – the special education program at Sesobel adopts an adaptable approach that makes use of each child’s particular propensities, often by stimulating his or her heightened visual processing capabilities.

The teachers at Sesobel begin giving instruction around the preschool level. “We have to focus our efforts in improving their ability to express their needs, so we begin with actual objects,” said Moudawar.

To teach a child how to express thirst, for instance, Moudawar will place a glass of water on the table and, using gestures accompanied with simple language, will instruct the autistic child to show her the object whenever in need of a drink.

“In time we move on from objects to photos of the objects, then words that correspond to them … so the tasks become more and more complicated,” the teacher explained.

Because of the typical communicative barriers of the disorder, instructors said they have to be able to empathize with a child to understand their needs.

“A child with autism needs to feel secure at all times, because he is terrified of change,” Moudawar said, adding that this fear can be incited by simple habitual adjustments, from being instructed to stand up from a seated position to simple changes in the season.

“He needs to be prepared well before a change in his routine will occur. If he isn’t prepared in advance he will have an outburst.”

Sometimes these outbursts are resolved easily, once Moudawar explains what gave rise to the change with drawings. For instance, Moudawar recounts a time when a child once threw a fit because the teacher that normally handed out chocolate after a lesson was absent.

“So I took a piece of chalk and explained to him ‘Listen, the teacher is not here today, she is sleeping and the key to the chocolate box is with her,’ and I drew the key and put an ‘x’ through it, and he understood,” she said. Without this visual explanation, the outburst would have continued.

The upstairs room where the children sometimes spend hours on a single canvas shows signs of their furious creativity: A white table is splattered with paint in the art room, as are the chairs, walls and the floor. Piles of canvas are strewn on the ground along with brushes stiffened with remnants of acrylic paint, their tips thinned with overuse.

The hours the children spend on a single canvas is a rare investment, as most are unable concentrate for long in other activities.

On display in the room is a bright-red medium-sized painting of a geranium that itself contains a darker flower. On the right-hand corner is the signature, “Walid.” Only the large and wobbly handwriting gives away the artist’s young age.

Gregory’s subdued and intricate paintings, one of the many on display at the Phoenicia Hotel’s exhibition, show no sign of the energetic boy that had burst through the playground earlier. The discordant arrangement of colors in his work “Ulysses 1,” for instance, suggests an emotionally complicated inner world.

The children at times paint dark colors in a very narrow spaces on the canvas to express their anger, which sometimes leads to interventions from the supervisors.

“But sometimes they would invade the space of the canvas, with all kinds of colors. And that’s how we saw their joy,” said Moudawar.


The Art Of Autism, On Display In Lexington, Kentucky

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Teal, Orange, White by Nancy Sexton, part of Discover the Art of Autism.

Courtesy of the Church of St. Michael the Archangel


Children and adults with autism often experience impaired communication and social interactions, but there is at least one inexpensive activity that has been shown to help: art.

“It’s a way to express themselves,” says Kay Wright, who, with Donna Pizzuto, organized an exhibit called The Art of Autism, on display at The Episcopal Church of St. Michael the Archangel.

“A lot of people who have autism have a hard time expressing themselves and a hard time making social connections, so this is one way they can communicate and express themselves,” she says.

Wright, a real estate agent and retired teacher, is a volunteer for EAGLE (Embracing Asperger Gifts and Life Experiences), a social support group for adults with autism.

“Several of them are really art- oriented,” Wright says of EAGLE members, “so this exhibit just kind of came out of all that.”

Wright and Pizzuto reached out to groups including EAGLE, Latitude Artist Community, the Autism Society of the Bluegrass and Fayette County Public Schools to spread the word out about the exhibit.

“We weren’t sure what kind of a response we were going to get,” she says of the call to artists.

But submissions kept coming in right up until Sunday, when the exhibit opened.

The exhibit features more than 25 works. The 16 artists range in age from 6 to 47, and they work in media ranging from acrylic paints and watercolors to digital photography and wood carvings.

One of the artists is Jade Finley, 12, a Bryan Station Middle School seventh-grader who has three acrylic paintings in the exhibit, includingTo Haiti With Love.

The painting was Jade’s way of dealing with the 2010 earthquake that devastated the island nation of Haiti.

“I wanted to make it to honor them,” says Jade, whose two other paintings, Flutter Flies and Spring Break, feature brightly colored nature themes.

“I paint all the time,” Jade says. “Art inspires me.”

This year’s success means the exhibit probably will become an annual event.

“We had several artists who submitted pieces say they would like to submit more for next year,” Pizzuto says.

For Wright and Pizzuto, both members at St. Michael’s, there is also a spiritual aspect to artwork.

Wright facilitates and Pizzuto is a member of an Artist’s Way group at St. Michael’s, based on the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, which focuses on connecting more fully with God through creativity.

“It is our belief that we are all born with creative talent,” Wright and Pizzuto wrote in the exhibit’s brochure, “and to use that talent, embrace it and celebrate it is to honor God.”




‘Discover the Art of Autism’

When: Through April 28. Gallery hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. daily.

Where: The Episcopal Church of St. Michael the Archangel, 2025 Bellefonte Dr.

Learn more: (859) 277-7511,

Artists And Autism: The “I Am Me” Exhibit

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RIGHT: Mikaela Scheldt's 'Self Portrait' is one of the pieces in the I Am Me: Artists and Autism show.

Mikaela Scheldt’s ‘Self Portrait’ is one of the pieces in the I Am Me: Artists and Autism show

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Madison Hongyee loves art.

As her mother, Jennifer, explains it, “If she’s not eating, sleeping or in therapy, she’s doing some form of art.”

But art is not just a simple hobby to pass the time for the 10-year-old girl from Fort Walton, her mother added.

“This is how she communicates,” she explained about Madison, who was diagnosed with autism at twoyears-old.

“She was the poster child for autism — not talking or making eye contact and rocking back and forth in front of people,” Hongyee added, explaining that when Madison turned four she started drawing endlessly with markers, eventually peppering in moments with Play-Doh.

One of Madison’s most treasured works, a Play-Doh sculpture of her parents embracing, can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts on Florida State University campus. It’s one of 30 works in the “I am Me: Artists and Autism” exhibit running as part of Seven Days of Opening Nights.

The exhibit opens Friday and will run through March 31. On Feb. 19, there will be an opening reception at the exhibit, which will feature live performances — poetry readings, dancing and instrumental performances — by other artists who also have autism.

All of the artists participating in the exhibit are clients from the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), a part of the FSU College of Medicine’s Autism Institute, said Allison Leatzow, FSU CARD autism consultant. CARD, a resource for individuals with autism and their families, serves 18 counties with two satellite offices in Panama City and Pensacola.

“Many times we are a family’s first resource when their child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder,” said Susan Baldino, FSU CARD volunteer and member of the CARD constituency board, whose son has also been a client at CARD for 16 years. “We consult with them on what it means to them and their family, strategies and provide contacts in the community for various services.”

“We work with individuals of all ages that may be more affected by autism and will require a lifetime of support to those that are mildly affected and require minimal supports,” she added. “With teens we can assist with transition to adulthood concerns. If it’s an adult that has been diagnosed, we can work directly with them to develop strategies to manage themselves in the social world — college, living independently and working.”

Autism, considered one of the fastest growing serious developmental disabilities in the U.S., affects one in 88 people — affecting boys more frequently, with a ratio of one in 54, Leatzow said.

Some of the aspects of autism that are addressed are managing behavioral issues, sleep and eating difficulties, toileting difficulties, how to use technology, as well as assisting with promoting communication, creating visual supports and enhancing academics, she added. CARD also works with schools, community organizations, businesses and the medical community to provide consultations.

Stephen Johnson, 32, a local attorney, was diagnosed with autism two years ago.

“It was life changing — a paradigm shift,” he said, also participating in the art exhibit displaying two of his photographs, explaining that CARD helped him to understand what autism really is.

“I had a lot of misunderstandings,” he added. “I have a psychology degree and I didn’t know what autism was. There are a lot of social rules for someone (with ASD). All these things that happened in my life that I thought were just incidents I realize were because of autism.”

Johnson and others are happy to have the opportunity to show their talents and how they express themselves artistically.

“I just really wanted to participate,” said Matthew Cravener, 18, who was diagnosed with autism at age 10. “It isn’t a drawback being autistic — others who are not autistic may think it’s a drawback, but that’s their loss. And that’s the message (the organizers) are trying to get out about autism — it may be a disability but we’re not held back by it.”

Portraits Of Autism

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Evidence and Artifacts: Facing Autism | Christopher M. Gauthiér.

When you give politicians the number “1 in 88,” what they hear is the “one.” They don’t hear “millions of people are struggling with autism spectrum disorders every day.”

My wife, Jacqueline, and I want to help people move beyond just understanding the autism community as a statistic and show the faces that convey the reality of this community. Evidence and Artifacts: Facing Autism is a grass-roots photographic project documenting the growing number of individuals, families, teachers, therapists, advocates, doctors and researchers on the front lines – fighting back against disability.

I try to create portraits that compel the viewer’s engagement and demand a sensitive visual inquiry of each individual’s face. In the act of looking, the viewer may experience a sense of being “seen” by these children and adults in the midst of their delight and anguish; “seen” by the fierce and loving families in their grief and hope; “seen” by the teachers and therapists in their commitment to help; “seen” by the compassionate medical professionals in their search for ways to relieve human suffering; and “seen” by the members of scientific and academic research community who are steadfastly searching for the causes and treatments of autism.  

When I photograph people in the autism community, I spend 10 to 20 minutes just chatting, helping them become comfortable and developing the moment when we’re connecting – when they’re revealing some inner part of themselves to me.

It’s been interesting to discover that having the camera between us somehow eases our conversation, regardless of where the person is on the autism spectrum. I typically make several hundred frames of each person. Sometimes it’s a subtle glance that proves the most revealing.

Our daughter has an autism spectrum disorder. Our son has sensory processing issues. And I know I’m an undiagnosed Aspie. So our family is aware of the challenges that autism can present every day.

The Facing Autism project is both a way to honor those who are rising to this challenge and a call to action. Please visit my website,, to view more photos of these amazing people, and leave a message if you would like to learn more about the project. I am always looking for local organizations that are interested in partnering with me in expanding its reach. It’s great to be connecting with the Autism Speaks community.

Evidence and Artifacts: Facing Autism is a long-term photographic project documenting the growing number of individuals, families and invested teachers, therapists, advocates, doctors and researchers on the front lines fighting the debilitating characteristics of autism spectrum disorders. Facing Autism is both a call to action, and a way to honor those who are rising to the challenge autism presents everyday.

Public debate is intense as the nation grapples with a sense of urgency for answers regarding the causation, prevalence, and effective treatment of autism spectrum disorders that now affects at least 1:88 children in the U.S. According to the late Child Psychiatrist, Dr. Stanley Greenspan MD, “Autistic spectrum disorders are complex developmental disorders, associated with the well-known symptoms of social and communication difficulties, self-stimulatory and repetitive behaviors, and narrow or overly-focused interests. These symptoms result from underlying challenges in a child’s ability to take in the world through his senses, and to use his body and thoughts to respond to it.” In a paper written by Dr. Martha R. Herbert, MD, Autism: A Brain Disorder, Or A Disorder That Affects The Brain? Dr. Herbert states that, “Autism is defined behaviorally, as a syndrome of abnormalities involving language, social reciprocity and hyperfocus or reduced behavioral flexibility. It is clearly heterogeneous, and it can be accompanied by unusual talents as well as impairments, but its underlying biological and genetic basis is unknown. Autism has been modeled as a brain-based, strongly genetic disorder, but emerging findings and hypotheses support a broader model of the condition as genetically influenced and systemic.” Dr. Herbert acknowledges the role of environmental insults as a possible trigger for biomedical conditions that impact the varying behaviors associated with autism and indicates possible points for intervention and treatment. We believe if researchers were able to identify components of the toxic soup required to trigger vulnerable children, perhaps we could begin to stem the tide of children struggling with allergies, asthma, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder and Autism.

Evidence and Artifacts evolved from environmental spaces poisoned by toxicity, to the affected human beings, which reside in those spaces. We began this project in a desire to move past merely raising awareness about autism to taking an active role in shaping the national dialogue about the role the environment plays in human health and development. The Facing Autism portraits compel the viewer’s engagement, and demand a sensitive visual inquiry of the individual faces. In the act of looking, the viewer may experience a sense of being “seen” by the children, in their delight and anguish; “seen” by the fierce and loving families in their grief and hope; “seen” by the teachers and therapists in their commitment to the notion that all children can learn; “seen” by the compassionate medical professionals in their search for ways to relieve human suffering and “seen” by the scientific and academic research community who dare to raise disquiet in their pursuit of truth related to autism causation. This shift in perception reduces the chance of exploiting “poster children” to gain political currency, exposing those with power to the collective gaze of expectation by the autism community.

Facing Autism heralds a significant truth.  The causation of the autism epidemic is yet unknown, and even as the numbers grow exponentially, the collective response seems utterly inadequate. Our children’s minds and bodies are being held hostage in the public and private battleground of the politics of autism. Our eyes are on you. We are pleading with you not to be silent in the face our urgency.

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”Robert F. Kennedy

via Evidence and Artifacts: Facing Autism | Christopher M. Gauthiér.

Autism + Dreams = A Beautiful Mosaic

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Andersen students piece together dreams with art

MINNEAPOLIS — A group of students hovers over pieces of Italian tile, searching for the right color and size to fit into a puzzle that will one day grace the outside of Andersen United Community School in Minneapolis.

Muralist Greta McLain oversees the activity, encouraging students when needed.

“I’m part of a project called Project Semilla that’s located in the Phillips Neighborhood,” said McLain.  She’s partnered with Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church to secure a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to create a mosaic on the outside of the school.

McLain’s students are all part of the school’s Autism Spectrum Disorder program — and the connection between these kids and the mosaic is producing exactly the results teachers were hoping to see.

“It’s amazing to see their success,” said McLain.  “They’re, oh, ‘I’m really good at detail, and I’m really good at puzzling pieces, I’m really good’ at these things that are… direct skills for making murals, but no one would really recognize outside of this context.”

The mosaic began taking shape last year, when McLain asked students to imagine what traits make up a strong community.  Students then created mosaics depicting each trait as a “seed” that is represented within the mural, literally growing out of it. 

Students this year are basing their “seeds” on what they like best about school.  McLain will install their work over the summer.

The HeArt of Autism

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Autistic Artists Share a Gift From the HeArt
Casey King, 13, is a student at HeART of the Spectrum who draws with colored markers, charcoals and colored pencils.  photo courtesy of HeART of the Spectrum</p>
Casey King, 13, is a student at HeART of the Spectrum who draws with colored markers, charcoals and colored pencils.  photo courtesy of HeART of the Spectrum

A piece of work by Jack Carl Anderson, one of the founders of HeART of the Spectrum, is displayed at Pioneer Square Starbucks and” was published in the book The Art of Autism 2012.” photo courtesy of HeART of the Spectrum <br />
A piece of work by Jack Carl Anderson, one of the founders of HeART of the Spectrum, is displayed at Pioneer Square Starbucks and” was published in the book The Art of Autism2012.” photo courtesy of HeART of the Spectrum 


By Lydia Sprague

While autism seems to be getting a lot more publicity lately, with Hollywood stars like Jenny McCarthy speaking out about their own autistic children, and popular television shows featuring characters with the disorder, many people don’t know what exactly autism is. A couple of Seattle artists are doing their best to change that and expose the vividly whimsical side of the autistic community while they’re at it.

Michael Tolleson and Jack Carl Anderson began painting in June 2010 and had a lot of success. They found themselves working at a gallery next door to an organization for autistic youths and decided they wanted to help those kids out.

“Sometimes, the universe puts you where you need to be: We were in the right place at the right time,” Tolleson said.

And so they started HeART of the Spectrum, a gallery and community center in Pioneer Square for autistic youths. It offers one-on-one classes for artists who fall along the autism spectrum of disorders and then displays the art. The gallery also pushes to have the art displayed throughout Seattle and help get the names of talented autistic artists out into the art world.

“The structure is geared toward the individual, so we work one-on-one with each person that comes in,” Anderson said. “We started with youths, and we’re now expanding to adults.”

Because art can be the only form of expression for some of the artists who work at the gallery, Anderson and Tolleson say they strive to help them gain understanding through exposing their art to the greater community. 

‘The whimsical side’

What most people know as autism is actually a spectrum of developmental disorders. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are defined by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. 

The CDC estimates that one in every 88 children has been diagnosed with a form of autism. The disorder can manifest in many ways and ranges along the spectrum from very mild to very severe. Those with milder symptoms may be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. Those with more severe symptoms, including significant language and behavioral delays, are diagnosed with “classic” autism. 

There are others who fall in between: They may be diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), meaning they have some symptoms but not all.

Although those living among the spectrum may have a disorder, they probably don’t see themselves as disabled. Many choose to see the bright side of life, and that joy is found on display at HeART of the Spectrum’s gallery.

“What seems to be a surprise to the outside community about the Spectrum community is how happy it is,” Tolleson said. “When viewing art by someone who’s on the spectrum, I think anyone can take away that there’s lots of color and life. And for someone that’s on the spectrum, they may not show it on their face or communicate verbally what’s inside.”

He continued, “By showing the art, we’re showing the best side of the autistic community. In many ways, the Spectrum community is seen as being non-functioning and having other traits that may or may not be true. But when we show the art, we’re showing the whimsical side.”

Tolleson spoke of a 13-year-old student who told him he wanted to be smart like his sister, who is not autistic. 

“What art did for him is, now he has an art and a talent he can take hold of and a way to be recognized,” Tolleson said.

The need to create

The students produce art of all kinds from paper cut-outs to collages, from finger paintings to charcoal drawings. Generally, they are creating something that was already inside of them.

“Many of the artists are nonverbal, so art is their form of communication; these artists that are on the spectrum are the real outsider artists,” Tolleson said. 

“The art isn’t necessarily an expression — sometimes, it’s just [the artist’s] world,” Tolleson explained, saying that compulsive behavior can be a common trait in people with autism. “There is a compulsion to create: They have something inside that has to get out, that has to be created. But once it’s out, it’s not necessarily sentimental.”

The art produced by Spectrum artists may vary in shape and form, but according to Tolleson and Anderson, there are some defining characteristics.

“One trait it all has in common is how direct they are, and the second thing, they all share is how bright the colors are,” Anderson said, adding that directness is a trait among people on the spectrum. This is why HeART of the Spectrum has a very important rule for its teachers: When a student speaks, it’s important. 

“You see a painting of trees. When you stand away from the painting, it’s a forest, it’s a grove. It’s giving a simple, clear message,” Tolleson said. “Everything is very direct and very linear.

“When people want to get involved [in volunteering] we check them out to see if they have a good background in teaching or working with kids, but not necessarily kids with autism,” he added. “What they really need to understand, though, is that when anyone that we’re mentoring speaks — because it is a Spectrum trait — if they say something, it means something.”

Sharing the ‘gift’

Though HeART of the Spectrum was launched in July 2011, it has had a lasting impact on a lot of people, especially its founders.

“You get a gift; you give a gift,” might be Tolleson’s life motto. 

He and Anderson decided to start HeART of the Spectrum after seeing the autistic kids next door. Because they had done well with their own artwork, they were able to open the gallery and community center on their own. 

The center gets no outside funding — only profits from the sales of the artwork on display at the gallery.

“We’re definitely not in it for our pocketbooks. We’re in it from our hearts and because it needs to be done,” Tolleson said. 

The gallery started out as a way for two outsiders to do something good for the autistic community and help get exposure for Spectrum artists. However, when Anderson began working with the students, he said he felt an understanding and connection to the kids in an interesting way. Tolleson suggested he take an evaluation, and they discovered Anderson has Asperger syndrome. 

The gallery continues to expand. It is displaying more and more art from around the world, as well as art from its own students.

“When we started out, the gallery displayed only local art, but now, we have two artists from the East Coast,” Anderson said. “Soon, we will have art from an artist in Australia who recently won a stamp contest.”

And the art of students is moving beyond the gallery’s walls, as well. In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, the Starbucks in Pioneer Square is displaying artwork by autistic artists, including a couple of HeART of the Spectrum students, and a piece by Anderson himself. And a recently published book, “Art of Autism 2012,” features art by Anderson and some of the students.

For more information on HeART of the Spectrum and art in the Spectrum community, visit the gallery’s website (

Wil c Kerner The Cut Out Kid!