1. Special Needs

Creative Kids on the Spectrum

Spectrum Kids are often Super “Art-Smart” 

New research is confirming that Autistic thinkers have outstanding abilities in visual tasks. Brain-scan studies have shown the autistic brain prioritizes visual/perceptual information and uses it to drive complex problem solving and thinking. Likewise, many Spectrum kids are predisposed to be perceptually keen, and that tips the scales in favor of becoming super art-smart.

Artistic Talent is a gift that can be Cultivated

About 1 in 10 people with Autism are also classified as “gifted” as opposed to 1 in 100 of the general population. Intuitively, I estimate the percentage is even higher. In my experience as both an art teacher and a Spectrum-kid mom, I’ve found there are many different kinds of “artistic gifting” that simply don’t show up on a test. Sometimes the special gift within your child doesn’t emerge until later. The book, An Unexpected Life, by Debra and Seth Chwast, is an awe-inspiring testament to this fact. Seth discovered his artistic passion after age 20. Today he is a sought-after exhibiting artist and author, and is highly autistic. 

For this reason, I encourage parents to focus on exposure and opportunities in the arts rather than nailing down whether or not their kids are “gifted.” For kids on the Spectrum,visual art activity will likely have a calming, therapeutic affect which is valuable in of itself. Over time, practice in the arts can blossom into a dedicated pursuit that may change your child’s life!

7 Tips for Encouraging the Artistic Development of Your Autistic/Sensory/Spectrum Kid:

1) Give paper and pen. Stephen Wiltshire, the reknowned Autistic artist from the UK, never uttered a word until one day after a school field trip, he said the word “paper” followed by “pen.” As his passion for drawing unfolded, an insightful teacher used his artwork as a springboard to teach him the alphabet. Visual art became the gateway for learning additional skills. Today he travels the world to create and showcase his exceptional drawings, made entirely from memory, both astonishingly accurate and impeccably detailed.

2) Visit museums. Your spectrum-smart child is most-likely an extraordinary visual processor. Nurture his or her vast ability to see via exposure to visual art at its highest form! Museums (many offer virtual access to their collections through their websites), Art Books, Galleries and Community Art Centers are important places for firing the imagination of your budding artisan. Don’t be surprised if, like 17-year old James Frye, your “Spectrum-smart-kid” starts rattling off the names of dozens of world-class artists like he knows them personally. 

3) Provide a mentor. An art mentor could be a member of your extended family, a neighbor, a friend, or an online guide. The important thing is to find the right mentor who really “gets” your child and whose style/medium/approach is similar to what your child seems drawn to. Seth Chwast, severely autistic and marvelously artistic, catapulted to fame and success through the guidance of an art mentor. (Read more about his story here).

4) Share the joy. Many biographies of Spectrum-artists testify to the joy they find in being able to socialize through their art. For kids who struggle with social cues and norms, being able to display their personality and find a voice through art is a victory. You can promote this trend by expressing your joy and your pride in your child’s art. In this article Varna Steinhardt deftly writes about being a mom of a Spectrum kid as she witnesses the unfolding artistry of his mind.

5) Recognize that visual art is a legit form of communication. Art is produced as a work of analysis, synthesis, deep and sensitive observation, intuition and persistence. Even non-representational art can have these qualities. Spectrum kids often have an ability to lock in on an artistic task of significant scale or difficulty. This is a profound communication that adds value to society. I love what Temple Grandin says in “The Autistic Brain “we have got to work on keeping these children engaged with the world.” When we make space for their creative expression, we provide a beautiful platform for these highly intelligent kiddos to communicate. As they engage with the world, they show us how they see it. We get to see with new eyes.

6) Learn what tools and styles resonate. When I was a kid, I fell in love with vine charcoal. The softness of it. The swiftness of lines you could make. How easy it was to smudge out and re-do, leaving just a trace of Leonardo-like sfumatto. My son by contrast, loves the neatness of the pencil. Pencil. Paper. Eraser. Ruler. Canson spiralbound sketchbook, 9”x12”. He is, like other Spectrum kiddos, extremely particular about his tools. And with these few tools he draws. For hours. And hours. And hours. He fills 154 pages of each sketchbook with precisely drawn comics featuring his own characters. I share this not to highlight my kiddo, but to relate firsthand how important it is to track, over time, which materials delight your Spectrum-smart child. Art materials are a sensory smorgasbord. They are the tools of the trade. And they will help your child direct their visual processing genius into an artful passion. Does she like color? Wet, goopy paints? Soft, smudgy pastels? Vivid and precise markers? Or does she like Prismacolor Verithin blue pencils? Black Tombow markers? Have fun discovering together!

7) Build entrepreneurship skills early. Yes, art can be a career. There is no reason your Spectrum kiddo can’t grow to be a highly successful, well-paid artist. The key is to offer small opportunities that grow into bigger opportunities, proportionally as your child matures. Entering art competitions is a great place to start. But also, think about setting up an online store using a forum like Etsy, or Selz or even a blog, so that your child can learn how to showcase their work and get paid for it. Along the way, interview successful artists in your community or watch or read about their journey online. Foster humility within a “hero’s journey” concept. It will take persistence, trial and error, failure, and more persistence, for your kiddo to reach their dream. Luckily, one of the traits of many Spectrum kids is an ability to hyper-focus. If a kid can laser focus to produce a complex art project, he or she has a future business that can be branded. Your child can become a published author, illustrator, painter, graphic artist, fashion or landscape designer…the list goes on! Just watch for the passion and insert wisdom and counsel along the way. As Temple Grandin argues “raising and educating kids on the autism spectrum must focus on their long-overlooked strengths to foster their unique contributions.” Your Spectrum kiddo has extraordinary gifts to contribute to this world.

P.S. Let us know if we can help you! Visit artfulkidsclub.com to view our classes for home school or after school, our curriculum for private schools and check out our free resources for parents. We’re here to support you and your Spectrum-Art-smart kids and neurotypical Art-smart kids!

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