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Autistic artists shine thanks to Artists As Educators grant

May 6, 2010

Councill Elementary Art Club Exhibit on April 29 was a great success, showing off the efforts of students taught by Laurie Ann Kramer as part of the Artists As Educators grant, under the direction of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Birmingham and supported by your Community Foundation, Birmingham City Schools and others.

Laurie Ann passed on the following note from Joel Brandon Smith, a Councill teacher, about the effects of the program on the autistic students in his class.

Innovation and Autism
To have Autism is to have a keen visual sense. These children take in the world primarily through their eyes and their hands. They each have a stunning visual memory. They are motivated by their own desires and goals and are unwavering in their pursuit of knowledge and experience towards those goals. Because they communicate more through visual images and movement than words, painting becomes a perfect medium for them to expand upon their natural strengths: visual, hands on exploration and learning.

Visual arts set the context for learning self-expression, self-control and discipline, persistence towards goals, social collaboration and decision-making. Design is a complex critical thinking skill. Students who participate in the creative arts develop skills which will make them our future innovators.

Can we even imagine the contributions these children will make if we allow them the autonomy to design their own goals and pursue them? As educators, parents and community members, we should be doing everything we can to remove obstacles to this innovation. We must see each child for their set of strengths and help them to develop their talents, rather than focusing on their weakness and potentially breaking their spirit.

Art and Autism
My class has had the fortunate opportunity to participate in a visual arts project brought to us by Laurie Kramer from the Cultural Alliance. Laurie deliberately reached out to make sure our class participated because she was aware that children with behavioral or communication differences are often left out of such enrichment due to potential difficulties. The interesting thing is that Laurie and I agreed that this is the group that stands to gain the most from such projects.

My students have classical autism. Most of them have extremely limited communication abilities. They take in the world almost exclusively through their eyes and their hands. With this in mind, it only made sense that they would stand to learn more from a painting project than just about any other experience I could present to them.

The table was prepared with brushes, sponges, paints, the medium and even a Tonka truck at one time. Then we gave the students something they rarely experience: complete freedom — freedom from pressure to perform, from teacher anxiety, from the need to be controlled and from rigid limits. We put no extra rules in place for the new activity. We didn’t limit their access to the paint or materials. It was up to them to decide what they would do with the materials.

The result was astounding. The same behavior issues we deal with all day virtually disappeared. No hitting, screaming, meltdowns, jumping out of the seat or even distraction. My least academically attentive student was focused on his work. In fact, I think I got my first glimpse of what Jeffrey Freed, author of “Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World,” calls “hyperfocus.” These children who seem to live almost every moment in a state of distraction went into a zone more intense than I had even seen even when they obsess over things, which autistic children have a tendency to do.

This focus wasn’t on an obsession. It was a brand new experience to them. If you have known an autistic child, you know that brand new experiences are often difficult because they don’t always adapt to change easily. However, this change seemed welcome to them.

I observed as each student had a truly individual experience, each manipulating the materials in a different way. Some literally dumping gobs of paint then working the paints together into specific colors and distributing it carefully across the medium.

As they gained momentum and began to realize that they were not going to be limited, the work only got more detailed as the paint was poured. Layer went over layer as textures and colors where manipulated. Their eyes never left their work in the full 45 minutes they worked (an incredible duration for their normally brief attention spans).

I heard some verbalizations that I had never heard from some of them before. “Mr. Smith, check this out,” and “O.K. Here we go,” where used in context, without the need to coerce the appropriate language from the student. I couldn’t help but wonder how many more spontaneous and contextual verbalizations I would get if we did similar activities on a daily basis. And was it the complete freedom and lack of pressure that prompted this kind of focus and spontaneous language?

In reflection, I realize that I was watching these students do what they do best: teach themselves by exploring their world. When faced with no limits to their exploration, they proved to have seemingly unlimited attention. Skills that a teacher might toil for months to teach with limited success were suddenly being used appropriately in the context of this activity.

I realize now that I may have learned as much as they did by simply watching. I have learned about parts of these children’s personalities that I didn’t know existed. I can’t help but wonder what the results would be if we teachers would focus our attention on creating the context for children to learn by their own exploration rather than simply trying to direct information (mostly verbal) into their heads. Thank you for a true, whole class, learning experience, Mrs. Kramer.

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