PAINTING HIS WAY TO RECOVERY – THE ODYSSEY OF AN AUTISTIC ARTIST

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Nicholas was born in 1991 to a family consisting of his father and mother, Nick and Kathie, and myself in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio where he was raised and spent most of his life. In 2015, they moved to a more semi-rural location in North Canton where they currently reside.

When he was approximately 18 months old, the symptoms of his lifelong disability began to appear. He was speaking less and less, made little to no eye contact, and his learning capabilities had severely diminished.  In elementary school, Nicholas was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

There are many who have been drawn in by Nicholas’ warm and affectionate nature. He enjoys singing to himself and playing tricks on people. He has a smile so infectious, you can’t help but smile back. What’s more, people quickly come to realize that his personality is so pure that he isn’t capable of emotions like prejudice, jealousy, or malice.

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After Nicholas graduated from high school at the age of 22, he was introduced to a new environment at a prominent day program for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Change doesn’t come easy for a lot of us. For someone with autism, it can be a great challenge to overcome. At first, Nicholas seemed to take the next step of his life in stride.

In the beginning, he prospered as other individuals in his group benefited from his unyielding energy and enthusiastic influence. Almost every day he would come home with a huge grin on his face. While Nicholas found some common ground with his fellow peers, he was still the only one amongst his group who had autism. This fact would greatly hinder him in his coming years at his program.

After a span of three years, our family and I began to notice changes in Nicholas’ behavior that were so subtle over time, we didn’t realize what was happening until substantial damage was done. The most profound change in his personality was that he didn’t express joy as often as he used to. He surprisingly smiled less, joked with us rarely, and what was worse, he had all but ceased to sing to himself.

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In the summer of 2015, they moved to a larger house with more land to build a garden and space for Nicholas to roam. For his benefit, their home is more secluded which provided a much quieter environment than they were used to. Nicholas’ apprehension for this dramatic change steadily gave way to excitement as they made the new house their own.

Despite the challenge of uprooting from the town where we spent our childhood, my family and I didn’t believe that our home life could have been the cause of Nicholas’ struggles as we have always remained relatively consistent in our habits. It has always been our goal, as a family, to provide him with a warm and stable environment.

For anyone who has spent time with a person who has severe autism, it is well understood that for many, the best environment to provide for them is one with as little sensory input as possible.  This would mean providing them with a setting that limits the amount of peers and staff working together in any given room. What we came to realize too late was that over a short span of three years, the conditions of Nicholas’ day program had dramatically changed.

Upon further investigation, it became known that Nicholas was going into a room, day after day, with a sum of 30 or more people while receiving very little one-on-one care. In the midst of this chaos, he was rarely alone except when he went into an office or cleaned the pet room. With so much sensory overload and lack of privacy, he simply had no way to decompress until he came home.

After consecutive incidents at his program, we realized there was something going very wrong for him. Despite several of our inquiries, we were not immediately informed of the increase in adults and the rapid turnover in staff. These events are what lead him to being transferred to a new location with fewer staff and peers.

Once he switched to the new program, his anxiety and distress only grew. We found out after the fact that this location was just as overcrowded as the previous one. The symptomatic behaviors he was showing with his peers and staff were now revealing themselves during his home life. After a month it became clear that he would have to remain at home under our mother’s full time supervision in order to regain the self control and peace of mind that was lost to him.

Back to his own family environment, after months of guided rehabilitation, Nicholas appeared to comprehend that he would never have to go back to his former day program and along with that realization came some relief. So the questions began to arise. What could Nicholas do with his time that would be fulfilling and stress relieving? How could we get him into the community without making him feel anxious? What could be done to repair the damage imposed upon him that was three years in the making?

It was around that time that when we were given a painting Nicholas made from his former day program. It was one of his works of art that was being shown off in their location while another was being sold for charity. When my family and I saw it, we were amazed at what he could do. It displayed incredible mountains of paint that rose off the canvas and crept off the edges. He had been working on it diligently for over 18 weeks.

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Our mother eagerly set up Nicholas’ art studio to provide everything he would need. Canvases, brushes, and acrylic paints. Initially, it seemed that his earliest work was his way of expelling negative energy and apprehension. This was evident to us when he would press his brushes deeply into the canvases making stark, straight lines. While he learned each new technique, his tension transitioned into joy as his straight lines softened into swirls and waves. 

The most profound behavioral changes we discovered was what he did while he painted. Whenever he applied brush to canvas, he would start talking, singing, and making jokes. He was expressing himself in ways that we had not observed in years. All the best traits in him that we had missed and loved began presenting themselves while he created works of art. The progress he made didn’t stop there. To this day he continues to develop better coping skills to combat his anxieties.

As the tagline for my brother’s blog I have written the phrase, “Expression through Abstract Artwork,” because his paintings are truly evidence of another form of communication that is beyond words. It can only been seen and experienced. With each person we meet who has viewed Nicholas’ work, everyone tells a different story of what they perceive. One person has even said that they could see an angel in the painting that was sold to them.

We have found that what helps fuel Nicholas’ drive to produce art is enthusiasm and watching others enjoy his creations as well as expanding his knowledge with fun and creative ideas so that he never loses interest in his work. There are several techniques that we practice with him while he paints which I will mention in a later blog.

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It is our wish that others will be able to enhance the lives of their children, loved ones, or students through a desire to create art. My family and I have discovered firsthand the therapeutic benefits painting and other artistic endeavors can have on a person with developmental disabilities. We can’t always communicate with the people we care about in the way we are most comfortable with. Sometimes inventive methods are needed in order for us to relate to one another.

-Natasha

 

“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”

― Vincent van Gogh

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