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Honorable Mention from Writer's Digest: Art Transforms a Mind

Art Transforms a Mind (Competion Article)

 by Elizabeth Becker


When my son, Matt,was a little over year old he would hold up a ball and turn it this way and that, looking at it from all angles. I knew that day that Matt would be an artist. What I did not know was that he would be autistic. When the symptoms of autism crept in, it seemed to put Matt’s mind on hold, and in many ways regress. It was several years before I noticed that his eye for perspective and talent toward perceptual – conceptual art was still intact.

Matt began his art as all children do –scribbles with crayon, lines on a page – what I call his “primitive art”. I felt his drawings revealed his mind and I always looked at his art with a deep interest, trying to find the meaning behind each drawing. One of his early drawings - a set 3 V-shaped lines in row after row - was finally deciphered as the large power lines that traversed the mountains near our home. It was that “light-bulb” moment that led me to investigate every drawing thereafter.

Matt was about 3 years old when I showed him how to trace a picture, allowing him to draw anything he wanted and have the end-product look similar to the original. He was unhappy with his own simple renderings and was easily frustrated when his art didn’t quite meet his own high standards. Tracing gave him a new found pleasure in art. At school he couldn’t trace. He had to do his school work before he could enjoy his one true joy – drawing. Every day when Matt returned home from school I would unpack his back pack to get out his papers and read the teacher’s or aide’s messages. Each day I found the most interesting drawings on the back side of his assignment papers. Unable to trace, Matt had to recall his favorite items from memory and draw what he saw in his mind’s eye. These were of course very child-like drawings, not up to Matt’s standards of perfection. Years went by as I watched him teach himself how to recall detail in order to perfect his art.

His ability to draw from memory was learned– Matt taught himself. He would sit in is room and draw the same picture over and over. Matt never erased. Each time a line was drawn at the wrong angle or too long he would crumble the entire sheet into a ball and toss it away. He had to have perfection. His hands would draw slowly at first, getting each detail just right. Then he would repeat the process over and over until his hands could fly across the page and draw the most intricate of pictures in under 5minutes.

This isn’t all that unusual if you think about it. Lots of people train their hands – crocheting, knitting, driving a stick-shift. Practice over and over allows you to perform a function without looking, allowing a person who crochets to watch the television, or a person driving a manual transmission to keep their eyes on the road. Matt’s love was drawing and he trained his hands to draw without thinking. This allowed him to draw any time and any where without having any of his beloved train books in front of him or his favorite movie on the TV. He began taking paper and pencil with him where ever we went – always ready to draw if the need overtook him. Drawing calmed his mind, allowed him to focus on the minute and decreased his fear of new surroundings and sounds. He used his art to communicate as well, telling me what he needed and what he was thinking. Matt had found a way to make peace with his world.

As Matt got older his interest veered more toward animation. The cartoons he watched became a daily ritual and the characters became his imaginary friends. He would repeat the spoken lines of each character and add a few responses from himself. His new friends began to show up in his art. Again, Matt would practice drawing each facet, his hands moving slowly at first. He practiced drawing just eyes, then just facial expressions, and then body gestures. Page after page of practice allowed him to then combine these pieces to show any situation and every type of movement. Each new drawing became more and more detailed. Between the ages of 12 and 16 Matt learned to draw himself and began putting himself in his drawing with his cartoon friends.

Self portraits take time to master. Matt would look at himself in the mirror above his dresser and make various expressions. He wanted the hair to be just right, the expression to convey just the right emotion. As a part of learning to draw, Matt was also learning new social skills. He used his animated self to interact with his animated friends, converse, and display both sad times and good. Watching him interact with animated characters concerned me – was this new behavior a good thing or a bad thing? I chose to think of it as a good thing – after all, he was learning to interact, even if it was not with real people.

I’m glad I decided to just let it flow out of him this way because I soon realized his ability to interact with real, live people was improving dramatically. Matt had used the safety of his art to practice social skills and emotion. After getting comfortable with his animated friends he could now test his new-found skills on family members and school mates. Matt found a way to enter our world without overwhelming fear of the unknown – it was truly amazing to behold.

Matt has never stopped learning. Autism is not a static condition with children doomed to always be as they were at 2 years old. They learn, they change, they adapt to new situations. Autism causes fear of the unknown, but given a supportive environment they learn to move past the fear and attempt the incredible – entering our world. I look at Matt’sdrawings now and see a progression of determination and talent. I see a child growing and learning and emerging from beneath the dark cloud of autism. Would I have been that strong? Could I have done what he has done? I don’t know.

Matt still takes paper and pencils with him where ever we go. Most times it is like taking a safety blanket and the items are never used. Sometimes he sees something and just needs to draw it – liket he various street signs, or the beach at Hatteras, but these drawings are for later use in the stories he writes. You see, Matt’s art needed dialogue.  After all, animation, comic books and cartoons all have a story line. So Matt not only draws, he writes. Where in earlier years he could only communicate through his body language, he now can communicate through words, emotion, body language, and various forms of art. His stories revolve around his own life, historical events, and places he has both visitedand places he has yet to see.  His sentences are clear, his paragraphs well written. Art has transformed his mind.

Matt is now 24 years old.  He graduated high school with a GPA of 3.85 and number 4 in his class.  He was a National Honor Society member and is in Who’s Who Among High School Students.  He can converse, though he keeps his comments quite short, and he has very good eye contact. He displays every emotion including humor and empathy.  The great strides that he has achieved are all a result of his attention to detail, hours upon hours of practice and the animated friendships he developed through his love of art.

If I could pinpoint one pivotal moment in Matt’s life that changed everything it would have to be the day that I put Matt in my lap, placed a pencil in his hand, placed my hand gently over his and we began to trace. I didn’t know it at the time, but that one act, that simple, 15 minutes of attention, gave Matt the one thing he needed to transform his entire life – a love for art. 



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