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Perspectives on Autism

“Perspectives on Autism”

Transcript for the Museum Access Consortium Seminar

December 10, 2008

Hosted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art


Gillian Furniss Ed.D., Cindy Mark-Wittels, Constance Stienon,
Maria Teresa Canha, Briant Canha

Rebecca McGinnis

Hello. I’m Rebecca McGinnis, Access Coordinator and Museum Educator here at The Metropolitan Museum, and I’m so thrilled that we have a whole room full of people here this afternoon for an extra long afternoon, a MAC afternoon.

The Museum Access Consortium meetings are only usually about two hours, and when Pearl Rosen and I were trying to come up with the schedule, we realized we couldn’t possibly fit everything that we wanted to do into those two hours. So we kept asking, can I add another half hour, can we add another half hour? How long will they stay? We could have made it a whole day, but we feel grateful that we could compress and squeeze and try very hard to get so much into this longer afternoon.

I think this topic is vital, the topic of autism and people on the autistic spectrum – especially in the museum environment – and how we can, as museum educators, as museum people, welcome people with autism into the museum, and especially into programs and educational activities.

First of all this afternoon, let me introduce Gillian Furniss. Gillian will take us through an overview of what autism is and provide context for the panel discussion that follows. Gillian graduated from the doctoral program in art and art education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She wrote her dissertation on Jessica Park, an artist with autism. She is Adjunct Professor at Adelphi University and Visiting Associate Professor at Pratt Institute. She has published in the journal Art Education and presented at NAEA conferences. Gillian, thank you for presenting this afternoon.

Gillian Furniss, Ed.D.

Good afternoon. Thank you for coming today. I am honored to be here today at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and to be a panelist of the Museum Access Consortium. I have been giving the challenging task to present on the issue of Understanding Autism. Let me begin by explaining the word 'understanding.' It is distinctively different from 'knowledge' which implies the acquisition of facts. Understanding begins with the reflection of one's own life experience.

As a neurotypical individual, that is, someone who is developing at a typical rate and trajectory, I can celebrate the lives of individuals with autism and Asperger syndrome. I was trained as an art educator and received my doctorate from Teachers College, Columbia University. I wrote my dissertation on the role of intervention in the early art making of Jessica Park, who is now an artist with autism. As Adjunct Professor, I teach a course at Adelphi University called 'Celebrating the Creative Abilities of Individuals with Autism.' Some individuals with autism demonstrate creativity in terms of making art, singing songs, playing musical instruments, and performing in plays.

What can people like me and many of you in the audience learn from the life experiences of individuals with autism? We can learn to be more accepting of what it is to be human within an all-inclusive definition. I can approach this issue with wonder, with a trained mind, with appreciation for an alternative way of being human. In doing so, I begin to better understand my limitations as a neurotypical individual.

Individuals with autism are distinctly unique – no two are alike. This is because autism is a spectrum disorder. Today the three criteria for diagnosis are the impairments in social communication skills, impairments in interpersonal relation skills, and repetitive and restrictive areas of behavior or interests. But there are other characteristics that may or may not manifest such as hypersensitivities or hyposensitivities to sensory information such as sound, sight, taste, smell, and touch. Dr. Hans Asperger, the Austrian psychiatrist to identify autism in Europe in the 1940s, wrote about these hypersensitivies of a group of children he studied. Asperger syndrome was considered a separate disorder in the 1990s.

Some individuals are verbal, some non-verbal, some communicate with augmentative and alternative communicating devises or through visual communication when engaging in artmaking with a caregiver. Some are intellectually challenged while others score in the genius range on the IQ test. Some have savant abilities and are obsessed with specific narrow areas of interest such as the arts, math, or music. Individuals with Asperger syndrome are very articulate and often talk 'at' others about their obsessions. They have challenges with establishing friendships with peers unless they share a common interest or activity.

Artmaking is a significant, meaningful, and pleasurable process for some young children with autism. The artmaking of young children with autism demonstrates a mental and physical process of self-expression, imagination, and creativity. The art product acts as tangible evidence of what these children are thinking about during the art process. Often these drawings as visual representations of thoughts are repetitive obsessions or preoccupations of a narrow interest.

In the book Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child, Dr. Lorna Selfe (1977) documented the drawing of a young girl with autism who demonstrated artistic abilities. At the age of three and a half, Nadia suddenly began to draw horses from magazine illustrations, depicting them in a way that psychologists thought impossible for a child her age (Sacks, 1995, p. 194). She was able to draw horses, for example, in perspective, motion, and profile – all unusual for a typical child so young.
Selfe pointed out that the artistically gifted Nadia preferred to draw with a black pen. Attempts to work with paint were unsatisfactory for her and she soon grew frustrated with the medium. Likewise, Nadia did not seem to enjoy working in color. She seemed to prefer to work with a black pen because of its exactness of line and its ability to convey detail.

Dr. Oliver Sacks in An Anthropologist On Mars stated that the drawings of the British artist with autism Stephen Wiltshire demonstrate a “prodigious visual memory, which seemed able to take in the most complex buildings, or cityscapes, in a few seconds, and to hold them in mind, in the minutest detail – indefinitely, it seemed, without the least apparent effort” (Sacks, 1995, p. 199). Unlike the visual memory of typical individuals, artistic savants do not generalize images they have seen, but rather can retrieve specific details of an object with great accuracy (Sacks, 1995). Oliver Sacks stated Stephen Wiltshire “did not make any sketch or outline, but just started at one edge of the paper…and steadily moved across it, as if transcribing some tenacious inner image or visualization” (Sacks, 1995, p.
Jessica Park is another example of an artist with autism. As a young child she demonstrated a delay in speech and language development, and impairments in social communication skills. Throughout her childhood, Jessica Park engaged in artmaking at home and in the art classroom of her local public school in Massachusetts. She frequently made drawings and paintings which, as her mother Clara Claiborne Park explained, visually recorded her unique mental processes (Park, 2001).

There are excellent biographies and autobiographies of individuals with autism and Aspergers syndrome. Park is the author of The Siege: A Family’s Journey into the World of an Autistic Child (1967, 1987) and Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism (2001). Clara Claiborne Park has spent her life advocating for her daughter with autism to receive a public school education, supporting other parents of children with developmental disabilities, and educating the public about autism. She is a remarkable individual because she transformed what might have been a family tragedy into a family triumph.

Individuals with autism have a different understanding of who they are in terms of their relation to others, and a different way of understanding who they are in relation to the world. Park stated, "We must intrude, attack, invade, not because she was unhappy inside it, for she was not, but because the equilibrium she had found, perfect as it was, denied the possibility of growth...The world we would tempt her into was the world of risk, failure, and frustration, of unfulfilled desire, of pain as well as activity and love" (Park, 1967, p. 12).

There were many significant individuals who played an important role in the artistic development of young Jessica Park. Her mother and other significant caregivers including companions, classmates, and public school art teachers taught her how to engage in artmaking using various art materials. Artmaking for young Jessica Park was a creative process that was extremely meaningful and pleasurable to her. Park explained that children with autism must be taught artmaking; they will not learn artmaking simply by observing others. Although there were art skills that Jessica Park needed to learn, there were also natural talents she proved to have innately such as hypersensitivity to color, a sense of proportion, and of balance in composition.

Many describe the artwork of individuals with autism as being more than merely a representation, but rather a unique interpretation of the world around them.

Clara Claiborne Park described her adult daughter’s paintings. She stated, “Bizarre becomes original in the language of art, becomes surreal” (Park, 2001, p. 4). Now an adult, Jessica is a professional artist who displays her acrylic paintings on her own website  ( and at various art exhibits. Clara Claiborne Park in Exiting Nirvana stated, "What's an obsession in psychiatry becomes in art the exploration of a theme."

A memoir by a mother of a son with Asperger syndrome is Valerie Paradiz's Elijah's Cup: A Family's Journey into the Community and Culture of High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome (2005). She stated, "His first drawings were of hats, all of them taken strictly from cartoons he had seen before. For months on end, he compulsively sketched the floppy hats of the Seven Dwarfs from Disney's Snow White, all the while asking questions that seemed to involve the phenomena of motion and gravity" (Paradiz, 2005, p. 141).

Daniel Tammet in Born On A Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant (2006) writes about his life experience with Asperger syndrome and savant abilities. He was born on a Wednesday which reminds him of the color blue. He was able to learn the language Icelandic in a week. He also demonstrates incredible mathematical abilities. He has synesthesia and associates people, numbers, words, and objects, with color, shape, and texture. He discusses his feelings of isolation as the oldest sibling of nine children – he describes his relationship with his younger brother as living parallel lives, and made few friends in school except those who shared his intense interests.

Tammet stated, "The strong sense of order and routine calmed me and I often sat on the hall floor with my eyes closed, gently rocking while humming to myself – something I often did when I was feeling relaxed and content" (Tammet, 2006).

Temple Grandin was the first person with autism to write her own life story. Entitled Emergence: Labelled Autistic (1986), it is a memoir of her early years from her own point of view. In her book Thinking in Pictures (1995) she continues her remarkable personal story. She tells us what it was like for her to learn how to speak, to go to school, to be encouraged by some teachers to work with her eccentricities rather than terminate her odd behavior, to create novel inventions such as her hugging machine. She designed livestock holding facilities by imagining these structures in her mind, as three dimensional objects, in space, and in motion, with the cattle moving through them. She tweaked these visual ideas in her mind, as she found weak areas of her design. Her architectural drawings of these facilities are in perspective, with vanishing points, executed from the bird's eye view.

Grandin explained how she processes information in a particular way because she is a visual thinker. She stated, “My memories usually appear in my imagination in strict chronological order, and the images I visualize are always specific” (Grandin, 1995, p. 28). She explained that her mind has a “video library,” which contains a visual image for everything she has heard, read, or seen.

Benjamin is a young artist with Asperger syndrome. He is prolific, drawing so frequently his parents provide recycled paper to keep up with his demand for art materials. Here is a photograph of him as a very young child drawing at home with a color marker.

In 2007, I curated an art exhibit of Benjamin's early drawings at Macy Gallery at Teachers College. I won a grant from the Teachers College President's Office of Community and Diversity. It was an opportunity to publicly acknowledge Benjamin as a talented visual artist.

One of Benjamin's visual obsessions is animated characters from the Disney movie The Lion King. This is an early drawing by him of two lions fighting on a cliff, drawn with color marker on recycled paper.

Here is a drawing of Mufasa from Disney's The Lion King. I verbally prompted him to "Draw Mufasa" using a charcoal pencil, a non-preferred art material.

Here are portrait drawings of Benjamin. I asked him to draw himself as "a man" and as then as "an old man." He used his preferred art material, a mechanical pencil. One of his obsessions is hair, in terms of color and length.

There is much to be learned from individuals with autism about how diverse the human condition can be, including artistic talent. Learning more about the function of artmaking for artists with autism not only contributes to our understanding of autism, but to our overall understanding of the function of artmaking for all humans. As Park explains, “[Individuals with autism] challenge us to perceive differently, think differently, feel differently, to stretch our imaginations to apprehend, even appreciate, an alternative world” (Park, 2001, p. 24).

Rebecca McGinnis

Thank you, Gillian. So now the next part of the afternoon is a panel of parents of children with autism. To my immediate right, we have Cindy Mark-Whittels. Cindy began her career on Wall Street as a successful fixed income sales person. After diagnosis of her son, Tyler, she departed Wall Street and joined the fight against autism in 2003. Currently, Cindy is a member of the Board of Directors of the Long Island Chapter of Autism Speaks, as well as the North Shore Autism Circle. In 2007, Cindy co-founded Autism and the Arts, a program at the Nassau County Museum of Art, dedicated to introducing art to individuals with autism.

And then next to Cindy, we have Constance Stienon, who is an artist and a parent of a child with Rhett’s Syndrome. As an artist, she is focused on the elaboration of the scriptogram, through ambidextrous writings, as a means to liberate writing from its meaning, and its readability, with an emphasis on the physical gesture and rhythmical forms, and she’ll talk to us more about that. Constance has collaborated closely with New York City’s Department of Education to develop an educational program of literacy, writing, math, science, social studies, art and music, using assistive and augmentative communication technology for her 13 year old daughter’s home education. 

Then next we have Maria Teresa Canha and her husband Briant Canha. Maria Teresa has successfully advocated for the development of her son, Justin, since his diagnosis of autism at the age of three-and-a-half in 1992. Her odyssey with Justin began in Brazil and led her to Belgium, Germany, Florida, Rhode Island, and finally Montclair, New Jersey, where she now resides. Maria Teresa learned through experience how to develop her son with visual strengths from a closed, non-verbal, inward looking child to an engaging, independently-minded young man. Briant Canha has supported Maria Teresa’s work with Justin, providing direction to the development of his art, and promoting his career through the creative use of video animation and computer graphics. Briant is currently a pharmaceutical executive with Sharing Plow Corporation.

Briant and Maria Teresa, after the parents’ panel discussion, are going to talk to you a little bit more. They will go into more detail about using art with their son, Justin, for very important verbal and other kinds of development. Then that leads into the film Sidecars, which I should have elaborated on before. Sidecars is a documentary about their son, Justin, and his friend Lyndsley Wilkerson, who is also here. Lyndsley is going to take part in the discussion that we will have following the screening of the film. So, really rich material, it’s a kind of case study.

[to the panel] I would like for each of you to just talk a little bit about whatever you want to focus on, in terms of your experiences as a parent of someone with autism.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

I’ll start by addressing your question earlier on about how to plan for a child that may have a difficult time with something. Our life – my son is seven – he is non-verbal. I did not know that he would have an interest or take to art at all. And our life is all about pre-planning. So anything we do, we pre-plan. We’ll look at photographs, we’ll talk about it, in the simplest language or the most complex language depending on the child, but everything is pre-planned and pre looked at.

A friend of mine had invited me to come in just two years ago to the Guggenheim. It was a Jackson Pollack exhibit, and I brought my son, really in support of my girlfriend, more than I thought my son would have interest in art. And we showed up at the Guggenheim, it was a Monday, the lights were dim, it was quiet, and we had a phenomenal experience. It was eight kids up at the exhibit, it was very quiet, we got to walk around, look at everything, not worry whether or not they were going to run, touch things, because we were man on man, and it was really a wonderful time.

We then went down to the art room and my son had never expressed interest in painting or coloring before. And hand over hand, we took a paintbrush, dipped it in color, put it on canvas. We did it again. And then he just started to notice the kids around him doing the same thing, some more deliberate in their art and their drawing, and some less. And next thing you know, he just sort of really picked up himself and just started going with it. And after that, he really, there’s no art medium that he is not interested in. Crayons, pencils, markers, paints, he does everything, canvas, scratches, scratch-art, he loves everything.

So I had this epiphany one day, I thought as I was driving by the Nassau County Art Museum, that we should be doing something like this on a regular basis for these children. And I went in and spoke with them, and then I found Pearl Rosen, and she came and opened a whole new world for my son, along with ten others. We now have funding to add another ten children to our program. And it’s really been amazing to see, when you think kids aren’t paying attention, or they’re not looking, they are actually copying or watching others.

My son, like I said, he is non-verbal, was not writing before, now he writes letters, he writes words. In his art, I can see he has meaning. He goes back to pictures he has worked on, to fix them, to change them. He is artistic deliberately. And where his original writing and art used to start with lots of swirls and lines, now he actually has deliberate art. And he goes to do his work with a purpose. He also sees his friends once a month that he does his art with, and they really enjoy each other’s times. And Pearl has this amazing slide that she’ll show you of a young man, who is also limited verbal, who wrote down the names of the kids in the class on his art work. You would have never known if by looking at him, or even watching him, that he even knew that they existed in the room with him.

So, you know it has really opened up a mode of communication, and now my son, when he wants something, for instance, the other day we were standing next to a door. He hand wrote with his finger, “Open,” because he wanted the door to be open. So it really opened up an amazing world for him to know that this hand is a really creative thing and a way of communication for him. So that’s my son’s little story and how he began his journey of art experience.

Constance Stienon

My daughter is not really…I mean she is in the autistic spectrum with Rhett’s Syndrome, which is probably the most physically involved in the autistic spectrum. She is also non-verbal, but she has a lot of physical issues, like walking and all that. I just want to hook onto what Cindy said for two minutes, because Ysolde, who is my daughter, was there also at the Guggenheim Museum.

I think one of the things we appreciated the most at that time is that they actually gave us canvas and color. And although Ysolde cannot hold a pen, because it collapses in her hands most of the time, we did hand over hand. And all those paintings that they did were wonderful and I think the fact that they are really doing something real on a piece of canvas with color – it was so visually greeting – and I think, for them, so much more intense. Probably they felt much better afterwards. So that was one thing that I really felt – if we’re going to do art, let’s do art. Let’s just try to do something but not with play dough, with real clay and real stuff so they can really express themselves.

For us, we have gone to The Metropolitan Museum and the MoMA for the last, I think, three years. And Ysolde…I mean we love museums, we travel around, all summer long, and we always go to museums. But somewhere down the line, for some reason, Ysolde always goes over [by] herself. Some places, when she gets into a museum or when she gets into a very high Gothic Church where everybody is very quiet, she is going to start verbalizing. So, I would definitely think that a museum has that quality of space that it makes you feel different. You know the acoustic is different, the visual is different.

So in many cases, I think it might make them close off and just not want to deal with it. But at the same it will also give them a vocabulary. So I think there are reasons why everybody should be in a museum. But even more with kids with disabilities, any disabilities, because it gives them a sense of something that they could never have in other places. And vocabulary, or pictures or senses or dinosaurs!.. Or anything they are not going to find in a classroom. And the classroom basically is very limited for them. I mean, our society is not very open to disabilities, unfortunately, and our society is not really open to the intellectual being.

So, basically, going to a museum, maybe it’s the only hope for them to maybe be a little bit more cultivated, and have something else to do than just tasks [in classrooms] day after day, the same one, ten times. You know, Ysolde, every time she says a word, she is going to say [only] that word. She says maybe two words a year. And if she says it, I am going to say, Ysolde said this, and everybody will say “Ah ha”, but nobody really believes me. Well she said it, she speaks in our house and that’s it. I didn’t need to ask her ten times. She can’t do it ten times. I wish she did, but she doesn’t. And I think a lot of our kids do that. I mean, if they do something, they did it; they don’t have to re-do it all the time.

I had an incredible experience at the MoMA and at The Met with other kids. I know an amazing story at the MoMA that I think we should all be aware of. We should be very open to how they react to things. I’ve seen some child starting to write in front of an Italian 14th-century painting, writing my name because he felt that I looked like the painting. But meanwhile he kept telling about the carousel all the time. So everybody felt that he wasn’t listening while he was doing this. But he listened more than anybody else, actually better than anybody else. It was an incredible story.

Another kid at the MoMA when we went to the museum – that was hardest. It comes to the point of, what do you do when you have some difficulties with the space?

There was a teenager and there was a rubber scooter at MoMA that he wanted to ride…he just saw this scooter and he was dying to go on this thing. And actually, if you really go back and think, you would want to go also on that [scooter] – we all would. What the kids do, actually, most of the time is what we want to do. We can stop it. But they can’t stop it. We were educated in a way that we can stop it; they can’t stop it. So he wanted to go on the scooter, and obviously, we couldn’t let him. And the MoMA guards are pulling him out, and the guards were coming up like crocodiles, eating some prey or something, I don’t know. And the kid left, and the mom left, and I don’t know, I never saw her again.

So, in a way I felt like, gosh, we didn’t help. We should have been there. We should have found a place afterwards, maybe, where he could have gone into. Be aware of that, because obviously if you are going to go show them, they are hypersensitive and Ysolde is hypersensitive. But she closes off too, so you never know how she is going to react. But we have to deal with that, and it teaches us a lot, because it’s actually how we feel, too, most of the time. We just control it in many ways.

I mean it’s just amazing kids, we learn so much from them. You learn everyday, it’s another day, it’s a beautiful experience. And museums have this environment that really can bring [things out]. You know, the kids may be savant or anything, and at least we should give that [chance] to them. They deserve it.

And they should not be in malls, wandering around with aides who really don’t care what they are doing with them. They should be in museums. There is, in this city, more than 85 museums and there are only 22 malls, and they are very small malls, so I don’t even know why we would go there. So why don’t we just bring all these people to museums?! You know, everybody should be in museums. But [our kids] should be there, definitely more than any of us, they should be there. That’s it.

Maria Teresa Canha

My name is Maria Teresa Canha and my son, Justin, you are going to see a lot about him in the film Sidecars, so I’m not going to say too much. But I have to say that when we moved to New Jersey from Rhode Island, Justin had seen a Sesame Street video on The Met and going to The Met. And once he knew it was here, he wanted to go and he wanted to see those paintings that are in the Sesame Street video!

It was unbelievable. I couldn’t figure it out. It was only after we got here that I thought, Oh, yeah. And you know, the thing with Justin is he does like to see artwork, but he hates crowds. And so it’s difficult because he goes to school Monday through Friday. And on weekends, most museums are really, really crowded.

His artwork has actually been, is now currently being shown at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey. You know, he’ll look around at the artwork, but he really prefers to go into a corner and just continue to draw. And then people come up to him individually and talk to him. I think that the problem is really the crowds for him. He’s just so sensitive and dislikes a lot of people. Justin has been in several exhibits already, and you know, as much as we want him to interact with people, it becomes difficult.

However, even though he is very private, he loves to communicate through his artwork, especially his cartooning, and you will see a lot of that in the film. So if there is anybody that approaches him and says “Oh Justin, tell me about this character or that in your cartoon, what’s going on?” Then he will talk about it. And he loves to do that. He prefers to talk to teenagers and males because, as you will see, his cartoons are violent, and that’s an interesting…another whole realm of discussion, why are they violent.

He is not violent. But he says, “Oh no, women are caring and women don’t like violence.” So he prefers to talk to teenagers and to males. And he’ll say, “No females allowed,” and all of this kind of stuff. But I don’t know if there’s anything else I should say about Justin at this point, because there’s going to be so much in the film, and then we’re going to have Q&A afterwards, and I’ll be happy to answer. But, you know, I love to bring him to museums. I am a museum person. I just find it challenging because of the crowd thing. But let’s see what my husband has to say. Thank you.

Briant Canha

I’m going to speak just a little bit about the way I see museums, autism, and community outreach. I think that museums have a tremendous opportunity with autism, art and community outreach. I mean the potentials for this are just enormous.

I think it was only two year ago, we talked about planning a boxed exhibition that we could go from museum to museum. Particularly at the time we were thinking about university museums. And the reason we thought about university museums was it would be a community outreach in general, which would involve the different departments of the university. Autism involves neurology, psychology, physical therapy, art, you just name it, you can just go on and on. So the various departments could play kind of a role in the community outreach, which would center around the museum and an exhibition of outsider autistic art. So we talked about this some time ago, we just haven’t had the time to execute the plan.

What we did do for community outreach was to run a whole day event at UMDNJ, University Medical and Dental Center of New Jersey. We did a whole day about how to identify and develop the strengths of autistic kids using art. And it started off with a clinician talking about what autism is, why art figures in, then went onto the gallery owner that works with Justin, who told how commercially this works. I came up and talked about Justin’s development and part of my presentation today came from that presentation. And then we had someone come in that talked about disabilities in general, and how to employ people with disabilities, how to develop their commercial strengths to art. Then we had three centers that used art with disabled people in the community, three different centers.

Then at the end we showed Sidecars. So basically it was, if you have an interest in autism, come here, and we’ll talk to you about how you can develop your child with art, and here are the places that you can go to in the community where they can get help.

So it’s kind of a whole – trying to be as all encompassing as possible, because in a museum you can bring a child in, autistic or whatever, and you don’t know if they’re going to be particularly interested in what you’re showing them in a museum, whether it’s animation or it’s a statue or it’s a piece of art. You don’t know how that’s going to work. They all kind of need a little bit of individual attention sometimes. And if you can direct them to places in the community where they can get that, it can be very helpful to people.

My own interest in that has sparked [unclear]. I had a guy in my company, and he told me, “You know, my kid’s autistic, I heard you have an autistic kid.”  I said “Yeah. So tell me about your son, what is he like?” And he said “It’s terrible, all he wants to do is draw.” So I thought, this guy needs education! (laughter) And I thought that might be applicable to the general public. You know, people would warm up to that.

What I found was when I did the UMDNJ day, we had cast our net a little bit too narrowly. What we should have done was include all disabilities. When it comes down just to autism, it’s a great draw because there is a lot of press about it. But all disabilities can, I think, all people with disabilities can benefit from art, as we all can. It’s just something that will be a good community draw for you. And there will be plenty of collaboration that you can muster to do one of these things if you’re interested.

If anybody is interested in doing that, I would be happy to talk to you about it and the type of people you could bring in and how to run it. I would be interested in helping out.

Rebecca McGinnis

Thank you so much, thanks all of you, and thanks Briant. Yes, that was a great day in New Jersey. I was there and that’s where I learned of Justin and Maria Teresa and Briant. I think it was fantastic. And you would need several days, if you were going to open it out to more disabilities. It was really, really a good day. So if any of you have any interest in taking up Briant on that offer, please do. Also I was just thinking that Justin has actually shown his work here, you know, at the Sprout Film Festival.

Maria Teresa Canha

Yes, that’s right.

Rebecca McGinnis

We hosted the Sprout Film Festival in the Eurocenter here, when was it?

Maria Teresa Canha

In May.

Rebecca McGinnis

In May. And Justin was here, so there was a display of art in association with that. Well, I would like to open up questions from the audience to any of the panel. And maybe we should pass the microphone around. Yes?

Audience Member

This actually, anybody can answer this. While your child is using art, are you talking with him or her, are you sitting and saying, “Oh wow, I see you’re drawing this.”? I mean, is there a way that you’re developing language while they’re painting or drawing, or do you just kind of let them go and then you come back to it later. What are you doing to develop language?

Constance Stienon

When we go to an exhibition, I usually prepare a booklet, where I ask the person who is going to show the painting, what they are going to see. So we have a bit of the painting. So what I do is, usually is to make a book with the picture or the project we’re going to have, and then I use symbols for her to communicate, because the thing is, my big frustration is that since she is non-verbal, there is no way she can really interact with anybody and we’re not giving her any vocabulary to do that.

We are using assistive technology. Assistive technology for a non-verbal kid is basically computers, a machine that would say yes or no. And the result is that sometimes she will use symbols to communicate.

So at least the book can help her out. And then after that, since we home instruct her, I tell every therapist we went to the museum, and they can work on that. And the Special Ed teacher can eventually, you know, do something else with that. But I think the symbols for a non-verbal child is – something has to be there. It doesn’t matter, you have to find the vocabulary for them to be able to respond, and you can ask the parents, something like that.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

With my son, sometimes I’ll ask him what he’s drawing. I’ll ask him what color he’s using. Sometimes he’ll answer me; quite often he’ll put his hand on my mouth to tell me to stop talking. (laughter) I have a five year old daughter, and she’ll often sit with him and if she’s coloring her own, he’ll be watching and a lot of times she likes to start at the top of the page and color by the holes of her pad, he’ll start imitating her.

If she takes the pen to go to his pad, I mean, he will take her pen away, and he’ll put it on the floor or underneath his chair so that she can’t do it. So it really depends on his mood. He often does like music when he’s doing it. His favorite is Enya. You could definitely tell based on the music, he definitely does different types of art to music. So that’s something he definitely likes. He likes classical music and I’ll have that playing a lot also. But as far as verbal communication, most of the time he’ll put his hand on my mouth to tell me to be quiet.

Maria Teresa Canha

Well my son, since he is verbal – if he weren’t he’d probably be doing the same – but when he’s doing his cartooning, he just says “Don’t be curious, don’t be interested.”  And that means to me, go away.

Briant Canha

Except for Lindsley.

Maria Teresa Canha

No, Lindsley, who you will have a chance to share with you later, she’s become kind of Justin’s art partner. She can ask him anything. But I can’t, I’m the mom. So sometimes when he’s drawing animals, and he does animals in pastels and charcoal and often for the gallery, that’s different. He’s more willing to talk about it. “Oh mom and I are mammal lovers,” and we go on and on and on about the particular animal that he loves and that I love too. So that’s a special connection that we have.

Justin loves to listen to classical music while he is doing his art, and he does say it keeps him calm. But often what he does is self-talks. Maybe those of you who are familiar with and work with students on the spectrum – he just repeats videos, scenes from all different cartoons, and when he’s nervous he does that louder.

Sometimes it’s amazing, because he seems really agitated while he’s talking, yet his artwork is so fluid and calming, like he’s, it’s not necessarily what he’s saying, it’s not how it’s translating on paper. But he often will say, “Well, when I’m doing my self-talk, it helps me stay calm.” Luckily, he is able to control himself in certain situations, and if we go into a museum, I’ll say “Justin, here you can’t do any self-talk because then you’ll just look weird.” And he understands that. And he is able to control himself in certain situations. We go a lot to classical music concerts, because we both love classical music. He’s able to be quiet in those environments, too. But when he’s doing his art, it’s a combination of self-talk, classical music and the cartooning. He doesn’t want any part of me. But Lindsley will be able to share with you after Sidecars about that.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

I’ll often put an iPod on my son, if we’re going somewhere. You know, for neurotypical people, you can walk into the museum and not really see what they’re seeing, or [what] children with disabilities [are seeing], when you talk about hypersensitivity. I mean, it’s thousands of people coming at you at very loud volumes and the echoes of these rooms and the acoustics of these rooms are really very difficult for them to take and process.

So a lot of times, if we are going somewhere, like an airport or something that’s really busy, I’ll just put his iPod on so he’ll be listening to classical music. And I’ll pre-plan him and let him know, “Hey, by the way, we’re getting on an airplane today. But I just want to let you know we’re going to walk into the airport and we have to wait on a line and we have to do this stuff.” And my son also, he doesn’t self-talk, he self-sings or self-hums, so he hums every tune to every video he’s ever watched. So we’ll sort of go through this. And then he’ll either listen to his music, or he’ll hum the music to himself, sort of as a calming mechanism also.

Audience Member

I work with children who are deaf and autistic, so I was just wondering if when they are doing a drawing, if it was beneficial for [unclear]? Even if they’re not giving anything back, that I’m just sitting and signing with them a couple things, you know?

Cindy Mark-Wittels

Have you tried like vibration of music on the table or by their chair or something like that?

Audience Member

I haven’t tried music, so I could do that.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

I’m just talking about even vibration, like maybe even vibration of music.

Audience Member

Constance, could you talk about Rhett’s Syndrome?

Constance Stienon

Oh. Where to begin? Well, Rhett’s Syndrome is, well it’s basic – it’s not basically…it’s a long story I guess. It’s in the autistic spectrum because it develops about the same time that autism does. I mean, it doesn’t develop, but it can begin showing up about the same time.

I’m sorry. About nine months, 18 months time and you know, show normal delays and all that. Most of the time its girls, it’s only girls. There are no boys. I think there is one boy who had Rhett’s Syndrome. If there was a boy, most of the time if there were, they would be dead before they are born, most of the time. So it’s a severe syndrome. Most of the girls, all of them are non-verbal, a lot of them don’t walk very well. And they usually start walking, but then they stop walking, and there are different phases in Rhett’s Syndrome.

When we first started with Ysolde, she got diagnosed when she was four, which is a bit atypical, because she walked and she seemed to be a bit more there most of the time. But the syndrome has this, how do I say, negative publicity. When you read, ten years ago if you read what Rhett’s Syndrome was, you would just go to the Brooklyn Bridge – that’s the closest bridge to my house – and you would just jump.

Because it was just such a devastating, awful thing. I mean, it still encompasses people, so [you’re told], “You take a girl with Rhett’s Syndrome, they’re not going to do anything.” I mean, that’s basically the “positivity” we’re getting from the outside world.

But Ysolde is doing many, many, many things and you just have to have an eye for it and stimulate her. It’s a lot to do for them and for any person with a disability. To me, the most important thing is to educate them. I think everybody has a brain and we all think. It’s not because you’re non-verbal that you don’t think. So, we just have to put them in places where they learn. If Ysolde is never capable of telling me with her assistive technology, this symbol, what she thinks, it matters, but it doesn’t matter, as long as she has something in her head.

As long as she can escape the world sometimes and think of a poem that she might not be able to share. I think that’s where... I think that’s where art education in museums is important – in getting away from the Rhett’s Syndrome.

Audience Member

What were early art projects that your children did, and at what ages did they start to become young artists? We work in a museum and we are actually working with two different groups of autistic children. We’ve started with tours, having made them, doing it when the museum is closed, so that it is very comfortable for the families, the teachers, the children. We’ve made sensory adjustments, but for other children, we offer workshops that follow. I’m just sort of curious what art activities you found that your children enjoyed early on?

Maria Teresa Canha

For my son, it was painting and I think because painting was the easiest thing to do. He had a lot of OT issues, as well. So it was really easy to take a brush and just sort of make a slight mark and see what happens. And then he went to markers and then he got into pencils, and then it just sort of grew from there. So now he’ll, really he enjoys any kind of art. But we really started with the simplest form, which was paint, because it was really, you dip it in a color and then you hit a canvas or any type of surface. And so for him that’s where we started and it just kept growing, and he kind of let us, sort of, he guided the rest of the way for us.

Audience Member

How old was he when he started the painting?

Maria Teresa Canha

I would say three or four.

Constance Stienon

For my daughter, art is hard to do because she is not using her hands. That’s one of the characteristics, so it’s very hard. And her hands are very sensitive. But we just do hand over hand, and I think she gets everything visually and the echo and the sound, and all that. And then after that, you know, we try to do art projects. I think if I picked the best art for her, it would probably be the most strong, like a [unclear], I mean something that has a very strong sensory [component], so she can be really motivated by it and probably she will use her hands then.

Maria Teresa Canha

Well, in the case of Justin, he started with markers at home and there was no end to the supply of markers and paper. Like from the age of five. It was just more and more. I recognized the Lion King characters, you’ll see a lot of that in the film.

But I just want to share the story of a friend whose son began at a later age. He had never shown any interest in art, and he’s basically non-verbal, he’s also bi-polar. But one day, it wasn’t just acrylics, but for some reason he got exposed to sand with acrylics, mixing the two, and it started from there. And now, and I think that maybe this was at age 15 or 16, and now he’s doing exhibits. It’s all very abstract, but he loves the texture. And the different colors. And he has his themes and it’s unbelievable.

Just the pure paint wasn’t interesting to him, but once he mixed it with sand… So I think that the idea is to try anything, even if it were combinations that you would never think, [you think] well this doesn’t make sense. But, you know, for them something that has a different texture, just represents something different to them, would be something really interesting. And so, with Justin, he always was interested in drawing little figures with markers. But some can’t do the small figures, because of motor skill issues, whatever, and so in Andy’s case, I know he uses big brushes, and you know, big movements, and that works fine, and he loves it. And he found a new identity in art, after, in his late adolescence. So, there’s all kinds of possibilities.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

Tyler also liked shaving cream, bath foams. We would spray them and he would just pick it up in his hand. He would start to make different objects or things and put it onto the wall and then he would discover that if he blows his breath onto a window… And then he’ll start to do things and you’ll see characters and you’ll see real pictures in his hot breath on the window. My car windows are filled with different pictures on his side of the car. So, you name them media, I mean they could really use anything as art.

Constance Stienon

I think anything that makes messes is probably the best.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

They like messes.

Constance Stienon

Yeah, messes are good.

Cindy Mark-Wittels

Markers are a really great thing. Fat markers, skinny markers. Because they’re very easy to just to brush across paper. Then as their motor skills get better or as they gain confidence in what they’re doing, you start to see their artwork refine itself, and actually come through, or they gain confidence in what they’re doing. But we also have an unlimited supply of magic markers. I should have bought stock in them.

Rebecca McGinnis

Well, thank you all. I’m sure there are lots more questions, but I want to keep us to time and to go next to Briant to talk about your experience with Justin. And I want to thank Cindy and Constance.

Briant Canha

Thank you. The genesis of this presentation was a presentation that I did at UMDNJ about developing, identifying and developing the strengths of autistic children through art. One of the reasons that we kind of go there was because we kind of recognized that there is a lot that is said and done, a lot of work being done, trying to find out how to cure autism and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And as a parent, you know, I am really interested in that not happening again, because I’ve got a couple of sons and that would be really important.

But on the other side, there can also be a lot of room for improvement on what to do when you do have an autistic child. What do you do with them? 

Well, Maria Teresa and I started out back in 19… well, I guess it was, what was the date, baby? What year was he diagnosed?

Maria Teresa Canha


Briant Canha

’92. There really wasn’t a lot out there. Not at all. And we weren’t in the U.S. We were living in Belgium at the time, and you know, it was – there was really no playbook. And to tell you the truth, today, there are a lot of, there are a lot of…there is a playbook, but, you know, these kids they run almost anywhere.

They’re – you’re not really sure what’s going to work. There’s not really a whole lot of data that says, you know, connect point A to point B, and you’re going to get a result. Doesn’t work that way. So the specific questions that often times come out, they’re difficult to answer because you can only really answer for your own kid. And sometimes you don’t really know why he did what he did in the first place. Because they’re just all over the spectrum, as kids are. It’s a spectrum disorder.

So each kid is really an individual. One of the things that I wanted to do was just to focus on my kid and say, “Okay, here’s where he is now. Well what was he like before?” And fortunately, we happen to have videos of Justin when he was a kid. People will say, “Well, what was he like? You know, he’s fine, what happened?” So, I tried to put in some videos to show you what Justin was like. Unfortunately I don’t have that much time, videos are difficult medium to work with, it takes a lot of time. If I have three years of Justin’s videos, it would take me three years to review them all, and another three years to edit them. But anyway, I have a few to show you. 

This presentation goes kind of like this. Identifying Justin, when was Justin diagnosed, what did he look like, what was he doing?  Okay. How did we identify his strengths and interests? What happened? We weren’t clinicians, so what did we do? We had to look back and see what we did, because sometimes you kind of forget.

And then, how did we start to leverage the strengths, how did we use this stuff? I think some of the questions from the audience were about that as well. Like how do you use his strengths if you find them?

And then, you know as he progressed, what did his art look like when he started off? Was he an autistic savant? Did he just wake up one day and pick up a pencil or a brush and start doing these fabulous drawings, or how did that all happen?

And then finally, what we’re doing practically now with Justin’s artwork and how we’re using that with him, not just professionally, but also how we are using it to develop his strengths? And how he uses it to develop. Because sometimes we tend to talk a lot about what we’re doing to get Justin to do what he wants. Well, sometimes you got to turn it around and say, well what’s Justin doing to get where he wants? And he’s doing a lot.

So what you’re about to see now is the video we had of Justin just before he was diagnosed. You’re going to see the star of our show here, kind of running around. Do we have audio?

Okay, well you’re seeing Justin running around. He clearly has not a clue to what is happening. He is carrying a stick – that was one of his obsessions, carrying sticks, he’d pick up sticks, run all over the place. He’s not really paying a whole lot of attention to the people. The children are all playing games. This was a birthday celebration. And you’ll see another girl, right there, she’s just passing now, I think she’s pretty much Justin’s same age, you’ll see that she’s engaged, Justin is not.

And if you let Justin loose, he’s just going to go run off someplace. You may just never see him again. So you better, you better follow. Oh, Maria tried to pick him up on her radar. And he does look back, so that’s pretty good. But he’s gone. So that was Justin.

Now at this point, we had no idea what was wrong with him. We thought that perhaps he might even have a hearing problem or be deaf, because he didn’t, he was totally non-verbal. He didn’t say “mom.” He didn’t say, “dad.” He wouldn’t look at you. He had one of the traits of autistic people – sometimes that they kind of look like right through you when you’re talking. And Justin clearly did that. We didn’t really know what was going on.

My sister’s a nurse and she said, “There’s something wrong.” We said, “Really?” “You should have him looked at.” So we had him looked at up in Boston, I believe it was in Children’s Hospital. And then he was diagnosed as, what at the time was called – I guess they still use the thing – PPD. Which means there’s something wrong, but we don’t know what it is. You know, but he’s not autistic. And that really confused us.

Anyway, we’re not really here to talk about what the clinicians say. We’re here to talk about what we did. So just go to the next video here. As I said, there were certain things that Justin was really interested in. And we identified, by watching what he was interested in, we kind of figured out what was a strength, I guess, at the end of the day.

You see, Justin here is at a little pond, he is out there looking out at the ducks. Now Justin usually won’t focus on anything, he’s kind of looking around, he doesn’t really care. But he notices a duck, and he is really interested in that duck. He pays a lot of attention to it, and we found that he was super interested in animals. And until this day, Justin is very interested in animals. Anything to do with animals, Justin’s into it. He has animal dictionaries, animal books, animal this, whatever is animal, he’s really into that. So this is when we first noticed this sort of thing.

We weren’t satisfied with what was going on in Europe at the time, so Maria Teresa found from my mother that there was a school in the U.S. that was focused on developing autistic kids. And they had showed my mother a video, at some function I don’t know, about autism.

It showed a kid, his name was Jack. And they took Jack and he was autistic. And they worked with Jack, and then he wasn’t autistic.


My mother thought that was pretty good, so when she called us up, she said, “Well, you know I saw this and everything else and you know.” She didn’t say they were going to fix our kid, but we sure hoped that they would.

Anyway, Maria Teresa went to Boston. She went to a school called LCDC and they did work with Justin to get him going. He was completely non-verbal – he was really out there. They started him with sign language because he didn’t really, I think he really didn’t know what language was for. So they started with sign language, linking signs to words. And they used a video, they used video to do this, as well, which was very interesting because we learned from Justin that he would focus on a TV.

It could be that there was nothing on the TV, it would just be snow or something, but he’d watch the TV. So from that, we kind of figured out, you want to get his attention, put on the TV. So watch what happens. We started doing the sign language thing and he has the visual strengths, he’s interested in the video. So we started making our own videos, you’ll see here. This is Maria Teresa’s video, and what she’s doing is she’s teaching him, through sign language, the word for climb. So, I can read her lips, “Why is the girl, the girl, why, why is the girl –

Maria Teresa Canha [from audience]

– What is the girl doing?

Briant Canha

Oh! What is the girl doing? Okay. See I have my limitations. Maria Teresa will fill in. So we made a lot of these videos, teaching Justin basic things that he needed to know. Eat, drink, play, etc, etc. And you know, he was doing okay with the single words. And so what we would do was [find] other things that he was interested in. Here we go, we’d take him to the zoo. He loves the zoo. So now he goes to each of the animals, he starts to sign the animals. He goes from animal to animal and he’s starting to get more and more interested. And through this video, you’ll see Justin, this is the scene, you’ll see him signing, “Wolf.” So here he is, there he goes…“Wolf!”

And we go from cage to cage, and you know, wolf or tiger, whatever it is. So he got into this thing of going to the zoo all the time. He loved that. He got to run around and, you know, it’s kind of a nice thing to do. So then, he’s dragging her off to the wolf, and you see, he’s kind of engaging his mom anyway… Then, since we know that he’s interested in animals, we try to incorporate it in just about everything that he did. And this ended up happening with the drawing. [In this image] this is Maria Teresa saying, “It’s your turn, it’s your turn.” So she’s incentivating him to draw, saying it’s your turn to draw an animal. And, this is what – the dog?

Yeah, this is supposed to be a dog. So, she says, “You do it!” Then it goes back and forth between her and him. And this ends up being Justin’s first art lesson. And you’ll see him drawing his dog. And then I think she says, “Draw the body, now draw the head.” And she points to…. So she’s telling him what to do, and he’s doing it, and she also incorporates the sign language, the tail goes, up, right? I think you told me that. He starts drawing, yeah.

Now she’s speaking to Justin to put in legs, so he likes to do legs. And he continues to like to do legs. And Justin is going to do as many legs as he wants. (laughter)

So I think someone asked a question about, “Do you talk to him when he’s doing his artwork?” Well, see how much good it does. But she says, “Okay, now draw the tail up.” So, she would draw with him and she would take turns drawing and I’m going to draw an elephant, you draw the dog. And after a while, Justin started, he was drawing now.

Okay great, so we got the sign language, we got the incentives which are the animals: he’s saying things, this is great, so as long as we’ve got that, what’s next?…

So that’s kind of where things started off. You can see at this point that Justin was clearly not an autistic savant. I mean, he’s starting off with some real basic stuff here. So let’s just go back. I’ll show you some of Justin’s early artwork. Maria Teresa said he liked to do markers. It was nice stuff. He’d get into one theme or the other, he’d be stuck on a theme. This was Noah’s Ark. Justin was obsessed with Noah’s Ark. Everything was always Noah’s Ark in all configurations you could possibly imagine. The point is, it’s not hugely sophisticated. But he liked doing it, so give him more markers.

Audience Member

How old was he when he did that?

Briant Canha

Maria Teresa, how old was he?

Maria Teresa Canha

He was about four.

Briant Canha

About four years old.

Audience Member


Briant Canha

This is the Lion King, yeah, okay. Zazu and I forget all the animals, but he would constantly do this stuff, and it was to the point where it was like, Justin you could try to do something else. But he was still non-verbal, so there was not going to be an argument, and he was going to do what he wants anyway. Some other stuff – these are the Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and Ze Carayoka and some other one.

The point is, pretty simple stuff, we just kept giving him more and more markers. You know, go for it Justin, keep doing it. But...I guess, the thing of obsession, that’s another point – [I thought] maybe we should take his markers away, because he was doing this all day long. I said, you know, let’s just stop this because he’s just so into it, you can’t get him away from it. Yes?

Audience Member

How long could he stay there let’s say making a drawing? How long could he sit there in one sitting?

Briant Canha

Boy, in those days and even today, he could do it pretty much hours and hours and hours. We’ll show you how we took advantage of that, when it comes to animation. This is the point. Animation is key frame by key frame by key frame, you know. And we gave Justin Flash software, which is animation software, and he drew 200 frames. Very sophisticated stuff, and I’ll show you some of that.

Audience Member


Briant Canha

If anybody has any questions as I’m talking, please ask, because this presentation can go pretty much anywhere. We have plenty of material to give you the backup. Now, just once again – the obsession. He’s drawing, drawing, drawing and now he’s drawing houses on fire. As a parent, you know, I’m not so happy with my four year old drawing fire.

Audience Member

That’s Dumbo, right?

Briant Canha

Yep. And, you know, the matches were carefully hidden because if he gets any other ideas, not so good. So, we didn’t stop him from drawing. But I personally felt that at some point this has to stop. Okay? A lot of this is kind of networking around, trying to put together what interests Justin and how we can use it to our advantage.

We couldn’t really communicate with him. We couldn’t really communicate anything to him very complex that we knew about, because he’s not reacting. We’d talk to him, but what does he know? What does he not know, he’s a kid? Maybe he does know what you’re talking about, but he doesn’t want you to know that he knows that you know, you know, so what do you do?

And then there are more complex things, how do you communicate this? Well, he did like the TV. So, I thought, okay, I’m going to try and put the concept in the television in the crudest form I possibly can, in any way I can do that. So I started doing stick figures and I would take, I would draw on a piece of scrap paper, the stick figures doing something that I wanted to communicate to him.

One of the earliest ones that I did was to help him in the schoolyard. He was so autistic that he didn’t really have a sense of depth, so when he went to the schoolyard, or the playground, the swing would hit him in the head. He would go out and it would just hit him in the head. He couldn’t get it. So somehow I explained to him when you go to the schoolyard, you know, don’t be a dummy, look for the swing, and all this kind of stuff. So I created this video. Okay.

That’s his friend, his friend, Blockhead. I invented this friend, Blockhead, who’s a stupid guy. Justin is the guy in the blue shirt.  So, this is the concept. It went from slide to slide and it’s a little bit slow, but I’ll advance it a bit for you. “Careful. Wow. Look how the swing is dangerous.”

Okay, the swing goes back and then Justin says, “Hey you watch out!” Justin’s the smart guy. Then, “Watch out, you’re going to get hit with the swing!” And bam, his friend gets hit. Oh! Bockhead’s in tears. And then Justin runs to the teacher. Here’s a teacher. And Justin’s the hero.

And it was unbelievable. Because I did this, he immediately got it. And it was weird because I knew, he just got it. And we only had to do it once. And I thought, how did that work? But I’m going to take advantage of this. So, we used this for virtually everything that was complex that we needed to communicate to him: It was toilet training, don’t hit the kid in the playground, don’t touch the stove because it’s hot, here’s why you have to take a bath.

I mean, recognize that Justin was, he was very, very autistic in this. And it was very hard to communicate with him. And this was kind of like a little hole that we found and all we’d have to do is shape the information like this. Put it on a video, throw it in his head and he’s done. Yeah?

Audience Member

You gave him the role of the person who knows better, or the helper? Did you do that on purpose or did you just do it, and then see that it helped? Did you continue with that?

Briant Canha

Yeah, I mean one of the things that Justin did have is a slapstick sense of comedy. Always. If somebody, you know, in a cartoon or something, it was something that was really like violent, he’d laugh. You know, funny violent, not bad violent. And so I said, rather than him being in any violence, let’s try somebody else. And so he got into, he liked that. You know, he was always the smart guy. You know. I think that was some management course I took somewhere once, I don’t remember. Somebody probably told me that. But, we used this, and this was fantastic. It really worked very well.

Anyway, so now we’re getting the art going, we’ve got the video going, we’ve got a way to communicate with him and we can stick things into his brain, you know, and he’s happy. We’re moving here. Okay.

So now, Justin, at one point, Justin starts drawing stuff and telling us what he’s doing. He had a bad day at school; he comes home and draws the bad day at school. He got whacked in the head with something or whatever. The teacher, yeah the teacher was, I wish I had this one. The teacher got upset at him, and the teacher had this mouth that was like half the page. (laughter) And Justin is like, you see him, he’s terrified.

And I think he has artistic talent, but I think the need to express also must have driven him to draw something you could get. This is a funny one. We went fishing, my brother and I. I’m not sure who the fisherman is, my brother in the red shirt or the purple shirt. But we went fishing and we caught this fish and we ate it. And Justin, the next day, Justin came to us with this drawing and he said, I had a nightmare. He had a nightmare, this is the fish eating Justin. (laughter) So now we got, we were able to communicate with him with drawing. So if we see something that’s bothering him, he knows he has that outlet. Yeah?

Audience Member

During this time, when he wanted something from you, how did he communicate that?

Briant Canha

Typically, he’d lead you to it. He’d take you by the hand and physically lead you to it. He didn’t really want a lot. He was pretty easy to, or he’d just go and get it, but he didn’t express much. He was very closed off. I don’t remember him ever asking for anything, did he?

Maria Teresa Canha

Not much.

Briant Canha

He didn’t ask. He was really out of it. So, just jump forward a little bit here. We entered his art in the art exhibition in Florida. And without them knowing that he was autistic or anything, he won the first prize. He was real happy, we said, wow, this is kind of cool that he is able to do this. We said, let’s start figuring out ways that he can use his art more and people just kind of liked it, and we said okay, well what if we start doing animals, pet portraits? Pet portraits.

So he started. We asked him, “Hey Justin, we got a photograph of someone’s pet.” And this was the pet. This was, this was Bella. Bella is a breed of dog called a lickaholic. (laughter) You can tell by the tongue. And that’s exactly what Bella looks like. And the owners were really thrilled with this, and they paid, I don’t know, 20 bucks or 30 bucks, you know, and it was great. So he started doing these pet portraits. And we had a mass of pet portraits, after pet portraits, after pet portraits and then, you know, Maria Teresa went out and did an exhibition of pet portraits in some diner in Rhode Island, I don’t remember. What was it, Model Diner or something?

That was cool. So, you know, he starts doing the pet portrait stuff and he used them as gifts. We’re running out of time?... We’re running out of time. Okay, so he’s doing the pet portraits for various people. This was the pet, this was the portrait that he did in Florida. He also liked to work on the computer. He was doing very simple things on the computer. Sesame Street, a lot of crazy stuff like that.

Now this is getting a little bit more sophisticated. At this point, I gave him a copy of Flash. Okay, this is Justin’s website. You’ll see his animation. I gave him a copy of Flash and he just started doing his animations now.

Audience Member

Oh my God.

Briant Canha

Now, these are, this is pretty complicated stuff. I just sat Justin down, I showed him to go from one to the other, and you know, he went on and on. And then, he did some that were really quite… Like for instance, I told you how long could he sit and do this, this is hundreds of frames long. He was fascinated with Jonah and the Whale. He made up his own animations. (laughter) So now these animations…his art became more and more interesting, etc., and I’m going to show you some of that.

But what really interested the art world, the gallery owner, was the animations. He saw the animations and he said “Wow, this is really cool.” We thought he’d be interested in the artwork, but he was really interested in the animations. Flash is a particularly interesting program to work with. It’s as simple as working with Paintbox, the Microsoft program. It’s that simple, but it’s vector graphics, so you can blow it up as large as you want. It makes beautiful prints, etc. A lot of emotion there.

Audience Member


Briant Canha

So at this point, Justin is still doing his markers and we brought him to an art teacher, who gave him some charcoal. Now he’s doing charcoal. And like within one session, this is what he’s doing from a photograph. I think it was mentioned on the panel that you don’t really know where it’s coming from, what they’re going to do. Maybe the child is using breath on the window, or some sand or play-dough. You don’t know what they’re going to come up with. You give him charcoal and all of sudden, he’s got something like this. And this also interested the people in the gallery.

So, he got into that. And we brought him – I mean I have to cut it short now, but we can talk to you later about how we got interest with the gallery and that commercial piece of it.

I mean, Justin can do stuff for the gallery relatively quickly. It’s not a problem for him. He just cranks it out, not particularly. I’ll tell you the truth, Justin’s not particularly interested in doing it. He does it. Give him a photograph, he pumps it out, the gallery likes it, end of story. What he really likes to do is the cartoons. So we look for ways that we can use art for a career for him.

Here are some illustrations that he is now doing for Paula Kluth. She has a book on autism called “Just Give Them the Whale,” so Justin has illustrated the book. He’s gone to a number of different other commissions, so he really likes doing this. And it’s great…

Audience Member

You were terrific.