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How Art Transformed an Autistic Mind

When my son, Matt, was a little over year old he would hold up a ball in one hand, extend his arm and turn it this way and that, looking at it from all angles. That was when I knew that Matt would someday be an artist. What I did not know was that he would soon be autistic as well. When the initial symptoms of autism arose it seemed to put Matt’s mind on hold, and in many ways regress. Sensations from light and sound to simple textures became uncomfortable.  He had to deal with the onslaught of his environment and it was overwhelming. These were unsure times – would my son be tortured this way his entire life?  Would he ever be able to communicate with me? I look back now and am amazed at how fast Matt learned to deal with these intensified stimuli.  In dealing with such a change in his perceived environment Matt went through a period of adjustment – the classic autism behaviors arose.  He had regressed so much that I wondered if he had lost his artistic eye.  Had it been lost or had art simply taken a back seat to the emergence of his autism? It wasn’t until several years later that I noticed his eye for perspective and talent toward perceptual – conceptual art was still intact.

Matt began to draw as all children do with scribbles using a crayon or pencil.  He drew simple lines on a page at various angles without pattern or reason – what I called his “primitive art”.  That changed the day I drew a picture of a train for my oldest son, Christopher.  Matt watched in fascination from a short distance away as I sketched a train.  I was teaching Christopher to draw and talked to him about lines and perspective and copying from a simple picture.  I showed him how to create simple details.  Soon my simple lines on a page became something recognizable – a locomotive.  Christopher began to draw his own version, copying from a picture in a book and adding small details. Matt had watched the whole lesson and even though he was only 3 years old he was hooked – drawing fascinated him. 

From that day on Matt would bring me a paper and pencil and force it into my hand to signal to me it was time to draw a train. This became another daily routine – that is until I decided to change things up a bit.  Again, Matt brought me the paper and pencil and I promptly sat down on the floor with him as expected.  This time however, I placed Matt in my lap and put the pencil in his hand.  I covered his hand with mine and together we drew a simple train. Matt was nervous and his grip on the pencil waivered but I held firm and we continued on until a simple locomotive appeared on the page. I let go.  Matt put his new drawing on the floor and started to copy it himself, just as his brother had done.  His lines were barely visible as he lightly scribbled across the page, trying desperately to create an image.  The lines were somewhat chaotic but they soon merged to form a somewhat recognizable image – a locomotive.

From then on Matt drew daily.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and while primitive in its form his pictures were beautiful to me. I watched him evolve to create new patterns and lines on page after page and often wondered if these patterns actually meant something.  Could they be revealing his thoughts?  Still unable to speak, I understood that Matt could be trying to communicate thought through his art.  With this in mind, I examined each piece of his primitive art with deep interest. What was the meaning behind the shapes and the lines?  One of his early drawings - a set 3 V-shaped lines in row after row - was something he would draw almost every day.  What were the 3-Vs? Then one day while riding in the car I glanced back to see Matt staring upward out the window.  In a moment of curiosity, I leaned back and looked up.  At first I didn’t notice anything of interest. Refusing to give up, I kept my gaze upward and that’s when it hit me. I finally saw what was so fascinating to my son - power lines. It was one of those “ah-ha” moments that I will never forget.  The large power lines that traversed the mountains near our home created a pattern of long straight lines.  Each power pole had a set of 3 V-shaped connections. Matt had been drawing the power lines.  I learned an important lesson that day - there really were messages in his artwork. The most important is that my son had thoughts of his own and was not incapable of independent thought or feelings - the professionals were wrong about that dismal prediction.

Something deeper was also ignited in moving pencil across paper – a fascination with the skillfulness of drawing and a desire to be capable of creating by hand what he saw in his mind.  Matt still asked, in his own non-verbal way, for me to draw for him.  It wasn’t what I was drawing, but the act of drawing that was tugging on his soul.  Matt wanted to create.  As he watched my hand draw line after line his hands would flap faster and faster. Obviously, Matt was getting more excited as the picture emerged from the previously blank page.  It didn’t take long for the fascination to turn into an obsession – Matt now needed me to draw for him every day, over and over.  Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t mind drawing – I love to sketch – but the amount of time I was spending repeatedly drawing one train after another was preventing me from doing other needed tasks.  I wanted Matt to draw for me but he was very frustrated by his own work – it didn’t look like what he wanted it to look like.  Finally one day - on the spur of the moment - I changed our routine  . . . again.

I put the paper over a picture of a train on the cover of one of his train books, picked him up and put him in my lap, placed the pencil in his hand and covered his hand with my own. Together we traced the train.  I picked up another sheet of paper and we traced the train again. This time his hand had a firmer grasp and he directed the pencil instead of me.  Soon a picture emerged of the train from the book cover – a bit shaky and not very pretty, but still it was clearly the same train and Matt had drawn it. I didn’t know it at the time, but on that day I had given my son a skill that changed his whole life.

Tracing gave him a new found pleasure in art. Now he could create a drawing and it would look as it should.  Drawing was NOT just a past-time, it was a necessity.  Unfortunately, he couldn’t trace while at preschool and had to draw free-hand.  Each day he brought home assignment papers from school I would immediately turn them over to look on the back of each page.  There I would find the most interesting drawings. Unable to trace, Matt had to recall his favorite items from memory - he would 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 he expected from those that he traced. In order to correct this perceived “flaw” Matt had to teach himself how to draw free-hand.

Matt would sit in is room and draw the same picture over and over. The first few were traced from a picture of his choice and the next would be drawn free-hand. He 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 5 minutes - without tracing.

This isn’t all that unusual if you think about it. Lots of people train their hands; crocheting, making pottery, driving a stick shift. Practice over and over allows one to perform a function without looking. Matt’s love was drawing and he trained his hands to draw without thinking about how his hands moved. This allowed him to draw any time and anywhere without having any of his beloved train books in front of him. 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 details of various objects 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 a chaotic 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 into his drawings along with his cartoon friends.

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 at first – 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 schoolmates. Matt found a way to communicate without overwhelming fear of the unknown.

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 – like the various street signs, or thebeach at Hatteras, but these drawings are for later use in the stories he writes. Matt realized his animations needed dialogue – after all, comic books and cartoons each 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 speech, the written word, emotion, body language, and various forms of art. His stories revolve around his own life, historical events, and places he has both visited and places he has yet to see.  Art has transformed his mind.

Matt is now 25 years old.  He graduated high school in 2005 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 good eye contact as long as those he talks to are smiling.  He is intelligent, a very deep thinker, and a deeply feeling young man.  He interacts and he has opinions.  The great strides that he has achieved are all a result of his attention to detail, hours upon hours of drawing and in the evolution of drawing objects to drawing situations and stories. Autism has finally taken a backseat to who he really is – an artist.

If I could pinpoint one pivotal moment in Matt’s life that changed his whole world and changed the path of his life, 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 way to express himself through his art. 


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