As a writer, artist and illustrator, I believe we put life to narrative as a way of making sense of the world, to find truths that resonate but using fiction as its lens.
But the power of art and creativity to illuminate the world for others is not simply a cultural benefit, but also a deeply important tool to help the authors themselves navigate their way through their own emotions, experiences and journeys.
Over the last year, as I have come into closer contact with children who fall somewhere on the autism spectrum, my appreciation for this creative tool has deepened considerably.
Autism has been steadily gaining more exposure in popular culture over the years, often tinged with explosions of political incorrectness, like the delightfully craven Ann Coulter choosing to use the word "retard" in a tweet about President Obama's debating skills, as if she somehow had not filled her quota for controversy that month. Many others have made far more eloquent and powerful rebuttals to her already, so I don't want to go into it too much here.
The one thing I will say, is that while her using the word is offensive in and of itself, it's also especially ironic in it's idiocy. Because the one attribute that sets people on the autism spectrum apart from the rest of the world is their fundamental inability to comprehend ridicule. Their emotional innocence is such that not only would they not choose to be contemptuous and make a joke at another's expense, but it wouldn't occur to them to do so in the first place. It's a form of arrogance and cruelty that is beneath them. So Coulter should be congratulated on her finding the one hateful word that actually describes the very people who are better than she is.
But enough of that tangent. This isn't an article about ignorant people. Nor is it an article for ignorant people.
It's an article about how I met my friend AmberDawn Miley.
When I visited Iowa earlier this year, to deliver a speech to students at TEDxYouth@DesMoines, I had the truly unique experience of watching one such child have a decidedly unorthodox Bar Mitzvah (the first one I'd ever attended, admittedly, so I had nothing to compare it to). This child was Zander "Wolf" Leman, younger brother of social entrepreneur Talia Leman, whose awesome book I illustrated this year.
Here is one of those illustrations.
Zander's behavioural difficulties (which his family choose not to label) make him a singularly unique soul, endlessly creative, with a brain that can create entire worlds as vivid and real as the one he lives in. It was his undiluted uniqueness which inspired his sister and set her on the path to creating her non-profit Randomkid, and he figures heavily in the book.
Through the course of drawing hundreds of illustrations of Zander, and getting to know him in person, I was surprised by how connected we became, and his family informed me that it probably had a lot to do with my drawing skills. You see, Zander can't draw, his motor skills can only permit him to draw a stick figure and not much else, and yet his brain is so endlessly infinite in it's ability to create characters and the universes they occupy.
In being able to bridge the gap between what Zander saw in his mind and the blank page, I did my part to open up a world that until then only existed in his head. It was a humbling realization, and made me very aware of the power art can have in making sense of a flexible imagination and bringing it out of the ether.
And Zander's Bar Mitzvah was something to behold indeed. A cross between Jewish tradition and a lecture on the morals and values passed on by the philosophers Spock and Yoda. Using the heroes of his favourite shows and films, Zander was able to articulate his coming of age in a way that he could process. It was a testament to the great work that his family had done to broaden his awareness of himself, and also to the tolerance of the congregation who made room for somebody a little "different".
During the Bar Mitzvah ceremony, I sat next to a girl named AmberDawn Miley.
I had only met Amber a few weeks prior, though she knew me as the artist who was visiting for the TEDx conference. Not only had I drawn a cartoon of her that made it into Talia's book, but she and some fellow students at the Central Academy collaborated with me over Skype to design the T-shirt and poster for the Conference (below), including the creation of a superhero named Van Hanlon, which she went away and wrote an entire back-story for.
I remember finally meeting her in person at the Des Moine Playhouse. As I waited to go in for the run-through of my speech I noticed her and went over to say hello. She was pretty much exactly how she seemed on Facebook, a geeky-looking, hyperactive teenager with glasses, overflowing with affection and an inability to pause during talking. She seemed genuinely happy to finally meet me, and we spoke animatedly for about fifteen minutes, a quarter of an hour that flew by because we were just as verbose as each other, veering from one tangent to the next as we covered everything from the conference to our favourite Doctor Who villains. Two excitable, super-geeky souls that were able to keep up with each other's rat-a-tat conversational style.
But what I remember the most about that first meeting was not the conversation itself, but what happened moments after.
The girl excused herself breathlessly and vanished back into the crowd of students, and almost instantly, as if conjured out of thin air, an adult took me aside. Clearly with the best intentions at heart, she explained: "That's Amber. She gets very chatty, and I just wanted you to know, if she annoys you, let one of us know and we'll take her away from you."
I took a split second to scan the face of this person, and then did something I don't get to do enough...reject the premise. I love rejecting premises. I responded, with a deliberately chirpy, almost naive demeanor, "Why would I find her annoying?" Smiling the whole time, politeness oozing from my pores. Equally polite, but somewhat thrown, she corrected her statements accordingly, and I walked away.
Here's Amber on the TEDx stage with me:
So a little bit about AmberDawn...
AmberDawn has Aspergers, in her own words "hanging on the edge" of the autism spectrum.
More incredible than simply overcoming her own behavioural challenges, is how invaluable she has been in helping to care for her two younger brothers, both of whom suffer from more severe autism. She also manages to help guide friends of hers whose aspergers are more defined than hers, including our mutual friend Zander. Witnessing the patience she exhibits in his presence, the kind of patience that is informed by her own knowledge of herself and what she's learned, is humbling to behold, and it is a patience that many supposed "right-minded" people fail (or choose) to observe.
She had a far-from easy beginning, growing up in a poor family and facing challenges that no child should have to contend with at their age. Walking home one day she witnessed a gang crime, an event that forced her entire family to move for their own protection. Writing, for her, has not only been a passion and an outlet for her abundant creativity, but an intrinsically powerful escape from the harsher corners of reality, and a source of healing and relief from the things she has witnessed and experienced.
Of her ambivalent relationship with her own mind, Amber admits:
I've been both the victor and the victim.
Growing up both smart and extremely socially awkward, and unable to find someone else like her, she "lived in" books. Immediately labelled as a nerd (the majority of kids with Aspergers are highly intelligent), she was also by her own admission "loud and obnoxious". Prone to tantrums, her anger was never about being denied things, but more about her inability to properly get her points across, to articulate what was inside her mind in ways people could understand and relate to.
This goes a long way to explaining how the world of reading, and eventually of writing, helped to open up and decode the world for her in a way interaction sometimes couldn't...
A fellow blogger and friend recently made me aware of a quote by David Foster Wallace, who said that writing "is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved." Well, for those whose behavioural issues can create an overwhelming sense of otherness, this is even more true, as it was for Amber.
Writing's been an escape, a portal, a way to heal from everything I've experienced. When I write I forget about what has happened around me and I write what I want to happen, the happy endings I wish to see, what I want people to become. Many of my female characters are just different versions of me, they struggle and they overcome and that's what I'm doing now.
This sense of struggle and overcoming, present in characters either based upon friends she knows, or direct manifestations of her own feelings, runs through all of her writings.
A three hundred year old warlock who looks sixteen and tries to hide his black wings and demonic ancestry from others reflects her feeling of being an "old soul" in a young body, as well as her hesitance to share her condition, or "otherness" with her peers. A young woman with high fashion ambitions, left raising a baby in the absence of an MIA soldier husband, reflects her desire to do something meaningful with her art in the face of the adversity in her life, as well as a nod to her mother who raised a family on her own.
Even Amber's own witness relocation is reflected in the story of a female demon hunter who is removed to Brooklyn to train with others of her kind, after witnessing another crime, in this case the murder of her mother at the hands of her father (Amber never knew her father, but she informs me she was all the better for it).
And then there's Van Hanlon, the super hero from the TEDx T-shirt, the smart kid in school with neglectful, mostly absent parents, who acquires powerful telekinetic powers and advanced mental abilities and uses them to help others. Van Hanlon IS AmberDawn, a shy kid who wants to do something great with the gift he's been given but not to be recognized for it. His powers reflect her own "gift-ability", one she believes she was given for a reason, to create a change in her own life and in the lives of others.
He also exhibits a fierce desire to protect and fight for the ones he loves, much like AmberDawn. As she eloquently stated in a recent Facebook status: "Oh my brother makes you uncomfortable? Oh really, well bye have a nice life!"
Being Aspergers has both helped and hindered me. It's helped me push past the normal "shy" barrier. Kids with Aspergers have problems identifying social cues, like if you're annoying someone or not. I've used my writing to help me understand when I'm annoying someone, or when someone is frustrated or angry with me. My characters are always very upfront with their emotions and they're always very difficult with expressing their emotions. So writing's basically been my escape, my healing and my enjoyment.
Of course, Amber is just one example, and she lies on the more manageable side of the autism spectrum, so just how valuable can creative exercises be for children further along in the other direction? Well, it just so happens that I am embarking on a project to find that out.
Today I returned to my old high school in Oxfordshire to visit a classroom of autistic students and teach them a little bit about what I do as an artist. Our first lesson: Character Design. Even in this first exchange, the impact of introducing storytelling is rather amazing. To see a classroom of students who were riled up and chaotic fall into silence at the sight of a visual story in comic book form. To slowly earn the students investment with every caricature I drew for them. To see them light up and begin engaging in the brainstorming exercises, and find confidence to call out ideas.
It is fascinating to see how students with varying degrees of autism find their way into creativity. It is different with each one. Some don't have to be told to dream up weird and wonderful things, from fish-head spacemen to flying dogs, some start off with drawing and others need to be prompted with multiple choices and collaboration, to create without even knowing they're doing it. It is a thrilling and very humbling thing to see how lucid and engaged an autistic child can become when you introduce an artistic element.
Here's one of the characters we created together:
And the more I spend time with these incredible but challenging young people, the more respect and awe I have for those who spend their lives working to improve their quality of life through education and support.
People like the teachers at Exceptional Minds, A Non-Profit Vocational Center & Animation Studio for Young Adults on the Autism Spectrum, which I also had the privilege of visiting in my travels to LA this year. Their mission: creating a world in which individuals on the autism spectrum are recognized for their talents and abilities and can achieve their full potential. Providing customized instruction in the fields of multi-media, computer animation and post production, the studio equips young autistic animators with the skills they need to find their place in the industry.
One of the mentors I met was veteran animator Howie Hoffman, who has taught children how to animate and produce shorts for years, and is an invaluable presence at EM. He is the first to say that his students are among the most talented and gifted artists he has worked with, citing their unique gift-abilities as the reason.
As he told me:
My thought is that everybody is a genius in his or her niche-- and for many on the autism spectrum, art is that niche--even animation specifically, if not digital animation! Perhaps it's the love of cartoons or a lasting childlike innocence, but the philosophy of "do what you love, and what you are good at" makes animation and autism a great match.
Equal to his commitment, though, is his belief that even more remains to be done.
I am interested in playing to the student/artist's strength-- not changing their weaknesses. In wanting to bring in work from the "real world", I want to change the world, not the student.
But is there something deeper to be learned here? The benefit to people like Amber is clear, but what do these exceptional people teach us about our own lives? As with everything, I can only speak from my own perspective...
When I think back to growing up as a twin with an artistic talent, I recall that I was very socially introverted from a young age, mostly because I existed in a weird bubble with my brother Stephen. Though we were not on the spectrum (at least, I think we weren't), it was very hard for us to break through our solitude as a double-act, and communicating through writing and drawing became the buffer between us and the outside world.
Telling stories not only improved and refined our skills as artists, but it also helped us overcome shyness, symbiosis, and a debilitating stutter.
When I consider that, one important fact stands out to me: A good 95% of the artwork we produced, literally hundreds and hundreds of images, characters and stories, will never be seen. With the exception of our rusty friend above, and the odd other, most will never see print or grace a blog, and yet every drawing took us one step closer to our individuality. Not one of those images were wasted.
The slogan of Exceptional Minds is "Creating the future, one frame at a time...", but I believe that writing and artistry and craft has an even more invaluable purpose: to create the PRESENT. One frame at a time, one story at a time, one sketch at a time...
AmberDawn's characters might never reach the eyes of a mainstream readership, and for that matter neither might my drawings, but to focus on the end product, the accolades, or the "value" of what gets created is to undervalue the creation itself. To ignore the immeasurable good it does to the brain and to the soul, as we day-dream and doodle our way through life, teaching ourselves lessons, instilling values, and discovering new strengths as we go.
For myself as a young child, for AmberDawn, for Zander, and for every child who is trying to figure out how they relate to the world, the creative process is a moment by moment miracle. It's value cannot be understated, especially when it comes to those who need it the most.
And so I shall leave you with an illustration I have done for something my friend composed, about the reasons she does what she does, and what it does for her. She says it better than I can, so I hope you like it, and pass it on.
Here then, is AmberDawn's short poem "Stage":