Saturday, May 14, 2011

Art - Good for Jimmy and Good for us

Art is created and enjoyed by many types of people. Inherently, our society values those that create art.  Art positively speaks to our differences with interest and respect. We all like and dislike different things.  Yet, with art, we respect those differences and elevate them in our society. Differences makes the world an interesting place providing color and depth in our world.

 When it comes to someone with autism, perspective of the world is altered from what is considered normal by actual and diagnostic standards.  Many people with autism, like Jimmy, have heavily restricted verbal means to communicate and engage in relationships. Verbal language is the tool that most of us use to communicate.  What if verbal language is not the easiest communication tool?  People with autism, like Jimmy Reagan, are often challenged to offer their name, make a polite comment, share a joke or offer condolences in the time of need. That doesn't mean that they don't want to express those feelings….How frustrating it must be to have such difficulty sharing what is in your heart and head. I believe that many people with autism becomes frustrated with their inability to communicate.  Just imagine how isolating this must feel.  I believe that this is how Jimmy feels.  He had words until he was about two years old….slowly the words including "Momma" escaped him. Jimmy has suffered years of challenging illnesses and until recently, I never understood that depression and anxiety were a part of his world. His separation and disconnect with those who love him and he loves certainly contributed to the negative spiraling of his health. How would you develop relationships with others, share the world that you live in and be a part of a community that is vital to us as human beings if you can't find a way to communicate with those people? TRY ART.

Jimmy's art has helped him emerge from isolation and has most certainly contributed to the overall improvement of his health. Someday, I'd love to see a research study on this topic. Jimmy "feels" better and certainly "functions" better since he creates art that others find interesting and shall I use the word, "love"? As a parent and someone who appreciates a wide variety of art, I can see how sharing his art makes Jimmy feel. He has purpose and is motivated every time someone tells him that they like his art. His posture is different….not curled over as he has been for years. He is motivation to be in places that demand more language than he can produce.  His stomach pain seems to be more tolerable.  His ability to control his repetitive verbalizations is clearly improved as well.  He's motivated to be in otherwise challenging places.  It also make me and our family feel relief and pride that other people can see the talent in Jimmy that we see.  

Jimmy recently donated an art piece to St. Thomas Academy for their annual auction.  Jimmy and his brothers who attend St. Thomas chose the piece. It was a unique colored pencil portrait called Man from Italy.  It wasn't my first choice and I hoped that someone would bid on it. I learned that a bidding war of sorts took place. I was hearten by this. Then, I received an email from one of our fine U.S. servicemen. His wife had bid on and lost Man from Italy at the St. Thomas auction.  He wanted to buy a print of this work for his wife for Mother's Day. Emotional might be an understatement. I was in the car when I learned this. I pulled over and called my daughter who is in college in Massachusetts….a little overwhelmed….we both felt the warmth of this gesture. It made a difference for us.  His wife loved this piece that Jimmy had proudly donated and helped display.  But, she didn't know how important her desire for this piece might be to Jimmy or his family. But, it is.  It means that Jimmy is communicating with others and it impacts all of us.  Was a great Mother's Day surprise for two moms.

On April 28th, 2011, we hosted an art opening for Jimmy at the Sunfish Cellars in Lilydale, Minnesota.  In January, Brian and I stopped into the newly opened and renovated Sunfish Cellars. We thought it might be a great place to have an art opening with an open loft that seemed very social. Sometime later, Brian and I attended an event at the store, Owner, Bill Miller, asked if we would be interested in displaying Jimmy's art in the store.  Thus, the art opening was born. Some two hundred people attended the event.  We displayed 31 pieces of art.  Jimmy sold 12 original pieces. We were shocked.  Jimmy stayed at the opening for 3 1/2 hours.  As folks came in and mingled, he greeted them with a handshake and "thank you for coming."  He could retrieve these words. I am certain that he thanked everyone in the crowd at least twice and some three times. He was happy to be in the crowd because he was proud of his work and understands that other people enjoy his art as well. Jimmy is motivated by
the positive comments, smiles, hugs and handshakes he receives
when people view his art.

At the opening, I had several parents who have children with autism ask me how I found something that Jimmy was good at….something  purposeful and a way he could feel included in our community.  These are questions that parents of children with autism struggle with daily. I am not sure that we found it for him.  He found it and we followed his lead. Finding a career that is meaningful for someone with autism isn't easy.  In fact, it is very difficult.  But, not impossible or unlikely. 

Several months ago, I attended an autism employment seminar that was hosted by Cargill, 3M, Best Buy, Autism Works and others.  Temple Grandin was the Keynote speaker.  Temple has autism and she  is enormously successful.  When Jimmy was diagnosed, the first book that I read was written by Temple.  This book gave me hope that my autistic 3 year old would have purpose and find his way. Temple is adamant that families find a purpose for their children with autism because people with autism are focused and reliable workers.   They like tasks, they don't mottle up the work area with idle chit chat….they can get the job done. So, hiring someone with autism  seems like it's a no brainer.  But, it isn't.  Our communities need to help create and present opportunities to those with autism.  Best Buy is modeling a new distribution center after a Walgreens distribution center that employs large numbers of handicapped people including those with autism. It is Walgreens most efficient Distribution Center. Their employees show up for work, work hard, get the job done and are happy employees.  People with autism can be very productive.

Where Do We Come From?
 What Are We? Where Are We Going? is a famous painting by Post Impressionist, Paul Gauguin

Purpose is important to us as human beings and is no less important if you have autism.  Purpose can be defined as, " the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc." For centuries, Philosophers and artists have questioned "purpose" and "the meaning of life."  These questions seem to be more daunting for a person with autism and require the help of many to be successful.

As my goals for Jimmy  have changed throughout the years, one has remained the same… him find a purpose that he loves, contribute to his community and be happy.  For now, his love of art and his ability to share it with others certainly helps us feel closer to this goal.

I 'd like to thank Nix Wurdak from Mendota Heights Patch, a local electronic newsletter/paper who  interviewed Jimmy at his opening. Nix has a unique understanding of people with autism.  She also works at Fraser, the largest provider of autism services in Minnesota. " 

Check out her story about Jimmy. 

Jimmy's art is currently on display at Sunfish Cellars.