Five Months

Five months ago, I began working with an autistic artist living in a group home. On the first day I was due to meet him, I was an hour late. My classes at the Arts Council of Princeton let out an hour later than I expected, so sheepishly I called my new student’s mother to explain. She was very kind and understanding, and said there was no problem. Her son would be waiting for me, but unfortunately, she had to leave and couldn’t meet me on our first day together. This seemed fine over the phone, but in reality, I wish she had been there to introduce me to his particular likes and dislikes. As a result, I stumbled over everything in the first five minutes.
Although my new student was eager to engage with the art materials in front of him, he seemed extremely interested in my bag full of additional materials. I had been warned that he can pinch people on occasion, so I stayed out of his way as he dug through my bag, emptied every new box of pencils, markers, paints, and shredded the cardboard containers they came in. I almost cried, because at the same time, he seemed agitated and his tics were seemingly aggressive. He made loud, scary noises with his mouth, and I couldn’t tell if he was ok or not. I flagged down one of the aides in the home, and he explained that my new student loves to unwrap packaging, that it gets him very excited, and his noises were not signs of distress, just excitement. He added that I should probably bring different containers next time. At the time I was frustrated that no one warned me about this, but looking back, I can understand how a busy mom would not even think to mention it as she was long exposed to this particularity, and had probably avoided it for years. I forget to tell people that my own son has asthma. And that is a big deal. So I don’t blame her. But at the time, I was shocked and not sure I wanted to return.
When I finally did set up watercolors for him to use, he dragged the brush through every color, turning the new set into pans of various shades of mud. He then poured little jars of acrylic, mixed that to the point of mud, and flung paint all over the place. By the time he was done, paint was on his face, even his lips as he tried to open jars. I realized that if I did come back, I needed to buy non-toxic paint in case he ingests any. When we wrapped up, the aides told me that that was the longest he had engaged in an activity in a long time. I think it was what they said that made me want to return. Despite being a roller coaster of a lesson, he benefited from it–so that made it worth it to me.
When I did return, I bought giant containers of non-toxic tempera, and poured paint into cups for him to do whatever he wanted. This proved to be a good solution. He poured the colors he wanted, then scumbled the brush across the canvas in an almost hypnotic rhythm. I learned to love watching him paint. He would create gorgeous work, then smush the brush through it and start over. It was a lesson for me to watch him focus on the process, not the end product. He no longer ripped anything, and never pinched me. He didn’t fling paint as much, and because the paint was easy to access, it didn’t end up on his lips while trying to open a jar. I watched him paint for months, unsure of meaning in his work. One day he painted all in red–though typically he loves cooler colors. Some days he painted for an hour, and other days, 15 minutes. I would always wait for him on those shorter days, and sometimes he would return after a break and paint again. I noticed he had a sign to indicate he was done. But other than that, there was no back and forth communication.
A few months ago, his mother drew my attention to an art show for autistic artists. She asked me to select art, and submit it to the show. I’m so accustomed to this practice, so I was happy to help. Just this week, we learned he got 2 pieces juried into the show that had over 80 artists submit! I don’t know how many pieces were accepted, but no matter what, I was proud of him. And I assumed he wouldn’t understand until he saw his work framed, on the wall, during the show’s opening. This past Saturday his mother met me at the home to pick up the work to get it framed. When she was there, her son seemed distracted, looking away as she spoke to him and tried to explain that his work would be in an art show. I saw her try to explain, and thought it was kind of her to do, but clearly he wasn’t interested.
But then something unbelievable happened. He grabbed her iPad, which had a keypad on display. She held his arm as he started to type. At one point she was focusing on the iPad, while he was typing and looking away. She asked him to pay attention. And then he did. He typed, “I am very proud of myself.” You could have knocked me over, I was so stunned. I had absolutely no idea he could write. His mother explained that he can’t write with a pencil, and this technology involves training that costs money, and the staff has a high turnover, so only two people do this with him. I was floored. He was proud! He knew his work was special. He understood! My eyes welled up.
His mother and I spoke for another half an hour. By the time I was about to leave, she asked me to come into his room for a quick look at some of his other paintings. He seemed perturbed to be interrupted, but he allowed us in. At one point, his mother turned to him and said, “By the way, did you know Barbara is expecting a baby?” He grabbed the iPad, and with her help, typed, “Congratulations.” Then, he typed, “I hope you have a safe delivery.” Again, my eyes welled with tears. I couldn’t believe such sophisticated thoughts were inside a person that appeared chaotic from the outside. I just couldn’t believe it. Five months, and I didn’t push him harder based on my own assumptions. Five months.
When I left, I had a whole new idea of how to tackle future lessons. I also learned that he knows about 300 signs, so I hope to use them to communicate in the future. His mother said that at one point in his life, he had wanted to support himself with his paintings. Wow. They are beautiful, and he could have done as well as any of us. He still can–if only his teacher can catch up with him.
The funny thing is that I don’t make these assumptions of the very young or the very old who are nonverbal. I treat them differently, understanding that their brains are working well and can comprehend what I say. But I am so humbled to realize that even someone with loud noises and repetitive tics, who appears to not notice or respond to instruction, is actually quite capable, bright, willing and able to make beautiful work. My student has taught me far more than I have taught him. For that, I am truly grateful.

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