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Emma's Art -- Painting with Autism

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Emma has never shown a great interest in painting, unless it meant stepping in paint with her feet and rubbing paint on her body. A few summers ago Emma demanded, "paint" and when I brought out all the supplies; butcher paper, an easel, paintbrushes, she ignored all of it and proceeded to rub paint all over herself. Within minutes my mother's family room resembled a giant canvas, with me frantically running around with wet sponges trying to keep the mess to a minimum. This was then followed by about an hour of bathing, cleaning Emma's body, washing her hair and face all of which were covered in paint. (Not to mention the inside of her mouth as she had licked the paintbrush several times before I was able to stop her.) Once Emma was clean, the tub then needed to be scrubbed. It reminded me of The Cat in the Hat when the parent's leave and the demonic cat shows up to wreck havoc on the otherwise tidy home, much to the children's horror.

For Emma the entire activity was less about "painting" and more about the sensory pleasure derived from having wet paint on her feet and body. I reasoned that this was a good way for her to express herself and attain fine motor mastery as well as have fun. But after the third morning of painting I had to take all the paint away because Emma became so perseverative -- she had to have certain colors on certain parts of her body -- making her increasing anxiety palpable. It hardly seemed worth whatever pleasure she obtained from the original pursuit.

Last night we had friend's over for dinner. Both Jody and Michael are artists and so there was a great deal of conversation about art and studio visits, painting etc. Nic, my son, who has been an avid artist since he was about two, announced he was going to paint something. Whether his sudden inspiration was in part due to our conversation or from the fact that another friend had recently asked to purchase one of his paintings cannot be known. Regardless, out came the paint, paintbrushes, glass of water and paper. Emma wandered over to the easel where he was working and said, "Do art?"

Nic magnanimously agreed to let Emma paint too. We produced fresh paper for the easel and Nic and Emma painted together. After awhile, Nic came back to the dining room table, as Emma continued to paint. Below is a photograph of Emma and Nic's work. It shows one of Emma's favorite subjects -- birthdays and birthday cake. Nic wrote "Happy Birthday" and made Emma's name darker than the light blue she had written it in.

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Periodically as Emma worked, she would say, "Art!"

Not only was this significant and exciting because Emma was keeping paint on the paper and not on her body, but also because she collaborated with her brother, wrote her own name independently without help or prompting, as well as continued to paint on her own.

This morning Emma asked, "Paint?" We produced the necessary supplies and again, Emma painted, with a brush putting paint to paper.

Art has informed my life. Being a jewelry designer, having found the medium I love and being able to express myself while creating a thing of beauty is as close to perfection as I have experienced. I have, up until now, assumed Emma's "art" took the form of music and singing. See "The Performance", "Talent Show", and to hear Emma singing, listen to the audio clip, "Emma Singing".

That Emma may find joy in other types of art is something I have often hoped for, but not dared expect.

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