The Art of Autism: April is National Autism Awareness Month

Albert Einstein once said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun.”

For 13-year-old Hayden Smith, this is truth. Theater is his sweet spot; the stage is his happy place.

When the 8th-grader at Oregon Trail Middle School in Olathe, Kan., first discovered theater just two years ago while taking a class at The Coterie Theatre, he went from a preteen uninterested in much of anything to a talented young man with a passion.

When Smith assumes the persona of his character and takes the stage, his quick mind helps him deliver lines, his diagnosis of highly functional autistic melts away and he becomes an actor.

“I like being able to play parts that are not my own boring life,” Hayden mused. “To be someone else, to be characters you always wanted to be, is cool.”

Amanda Kibler, education director for The Coterie Theatre, said she’s noticed that one of the appeals of theater is that it lets you put on a mask, a persona.

“We step into the life of someone else,” she said. “You can say and do things that you wouldn’t do yourself.”

While wearing that mask, the actors are also learning. Kibler said she loves watching students who are withdrawn start to engage with others, and she recognizes that even small steps are huge.

“This is part of why we want to make sure that theater is open to everyone,” Kibler said, noting that classes at The Coterie are open and inclusive to all kids. “It’s such a great tool to learn how to socialize, make eye contact and recognize facial expressions.”

The magic and art of theater help break down the barriers that divide us.

Smith said he has experienced this first hand.

“In theater, I met fun people who are as weird as me,” he laughed. “Theater helped me make a lot of friends.”

For kids who long to make connections and for parents who hope for their children to find friends who love and accept them for who they are, this is monumental.

Ayanna Clay-Gray, mother of 16-year-old Erron Michael Gray, who has been taking classes at The Coterie since 2015, is familiar with the emotions surrounding this issue. Ayanna sought out theater classes after learning that children with Asperger’s are often creative. Erron, now a sophomore at Blue Springs South High School, has thrived in every class.

“The classes gave him an opportunity to not be judged and to feel great about doing something he loved and enjoyed,” Ayanna said, thinking about how theater has benefited her son. “The classes impacted him to the point that he wants to be a voice actor. Erron’s confidence was building and he wanted to do more because he felt a part of something great; he felt accepted.”

Open doors, acceptance and the chance to shake off what has once held us back are things for which we all long. Art, be it in the form of theater, music, visual art, dance, etc., has the power to make these things a reality.

Many organizations around the city are taking a cue from this, realizing that art is impactful and healing for everyone. Doors are being swung open wide with programs and activities being offered that are meant for all to enjoy.

One form of art that has been notably difficult for children on the spectrum to enjoy because of sensory concerns is music. Enter The Musical Autist.

The Musical Autist is an organization that helps organize sensory-friendly concerts in cities across the country. Locally, an annual concert comes together with the help of Kansas City Metro Music Therapists and the Kansas City Alumnae chapter of Sigma Alpha Iota.

Their upcoming concert, to be held at 10 a.m., April 22 at Central United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Mo., is about providing equal access to fine arts by promoting the neurodiversity movement, self-advocacy and community music therapy.

“Music is essential to being human,” said Rachelle Norman, president of the Kansas City Metro Music Therapists Association. “Everybody should have access to the highest level of music. It’s who we are as humans.”

A similar theory is driving The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art to make visual art more accessible.

“Art is food for the soul,” said Christine Boutros, manager of Community and Access Program at The Nelson. “It is a universal language that has a way of reaching people in a way other things cannot. It allows for self-expression. It’s a tool to learn about other things. It’s good for overall emotional well-being.”

With this in mind, The Nelson launched a low-sensory morning for families in November 2016 in partnership with Joshua Society for Neurological Disorders and the Autism Society The Heartland. The event, planned to occur three times a year going forward, offers access to the museum outside of regular hours, so it’s not busy. A family fun spot, fidgets, noise-canceling headphones and a sensory room for calming down when things get overwhelming help make the museum an inviting environment that hopefully will trigger social engagement about art.

“There is a social impact of making art accessible,” Boutros said. “It helps break down barriers to making connections with other people.”

The next Low Sensory Morning is 9 – 10:30 a.m., April 15. The event is free but registration is required. Visit www.nelson-atkins.org for more information.

Jessie Stalling, president of the Kansas Art Therapy Association, pointed out that children on the spectrum are often visual thinkers or kinesthetic thinkers.

“Art provides a natural fit for both,” said Stalling.

Stalling and a team of graduate students from Emporia State University were able to bring together both learning styles with the help of a Royals Charity Foundation Grant. They organized low-sensory events in 2015-2016 including film screenings at low volume and lights half up paired with craft projects related to the theme of the film. This is something that could be done at home as well.

Dessarey Klarlund, executive director of Autism Works, noted that it’s important to offer kids activities and programs in a format and at a pace that works for them.

In the past three years that Autism Works has offered the summer class CrAzY Art, she has noticed that many new students had never brought home a completed art project before.

But at CrAzY Art, they can work at their own pace and finish projects.

“They are so excited to show off their work,” Klarlund said. “Everyone is creative. We give them the tools and opportunity to explore art for themselves. And we eliminate sensory overload.”

Brenda Wilper, whose sons Bryan, age 9, and Sean, age 7, attend classes at Autism Works, has experienced first-hand the pride beaming from a child’s face with the completion of an art project. Her boys both come home and eagerly search for the perfect spot to display their work.

“A creative outlet is important for everyone,” Wilper said. “The art classes expose them to different mediums and allow them to make something they are proud of and can display.”

In addition, Wilper has found that the classes have increased her sons’ engagement with others.

“Bryan has had fun connecting with the other kids in his classes,” she said. “. . . It gives them a place they can truly be who they are in a safe and non-judgmental place.”

Jaime Lyon, owner of Inflated Joy and art teacher for Camp Encourage (an overnight camp for kids with autism), celebrates the positive influence art can have in a child’s life.

One of the projects students at camp do is called “I Am.” They create art around positive attributes they notice about themselves and their lives.

“We celebrate goodness,” Lyon explained. “It’s a part of the creative process.”

Through this process, the art helps create a common language among kids who feel isolated. It helps them connect with others.

“Picasso once said, ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,’’’ Lyon shared. “Art equals the playing field. There are no rules and it doesn’t have to be perfect.”

Lyon can see emotion in the art her students create. She encourages art for all kids inside and outside the home. And she pointed out there is logic and science behind being creative.

“Creative freedom is a great way for kids to express themselves,” Lyon said.

Alexia Lang

Alexia Lang is a multimedia journalist who has worked in newspapers, magazines, radio and blogs. She holds a journalism degree from UMKC and her Master’s work is in Leadership.

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