05/07/2012 01:14 pm ET Updated Jul 07, 2012

Art Lessons: One Mom's Journey to Hope for Her Son with Autism

"All art," says Mia McNary, "comes out of emotion."

As an artist and a mother, McNary has a full repertoire. She knows the joy of the accomplishments of her three children: Patrick, 13, whom she describes as a "deep thinker"; Mary Jane, 10, who is "super creative" and Colin, 12, who recently learned to tie his shoes. What would be a relatively simple feat for another child took five years of daily work for Colin, who has autism and lives in an out-of-state therapeutic residential facility for children and young adults with severe disabilities.

McNary also knows fear and worry, which she captured in a large tableau of a handsome blond boy who appears fractured like his mother's broken heart. The painting commemorates the day she and her husband, Tim, were told of Colin's diagnosis and given a prognosis so dire it left little room for hope. "That painting was never meant to be displayed. It's too raw," McNary admits. Her friends, however, insisted; the emotional honesty of it was simply too compelling.

Throughout Colin's life, McNary has been a tireless advocate, gaining access to help and resources for her son and ultimately finding the right environment where he can obtain the support and development he needs. Moving Colin to a residential facility four years ago at the age of eight meant letting him go, but never giving up. McNary captured that moment in a painting entitled "Colin Leaves," which features long brushstrokes that depict movement, change, and transitions to a new life and a better future.

Art is McNary's solace and vehicle for expression. Through her studio, Masters in Art (the acronym spells her first name) in suburban Chicago, she offers a lifeline to other parents of special needs children. "My focus is on the parents because they are so under-served," says McNary, who studied art at Carnegie Mellon and in Florence. "Everything goes to their children."

McNary taps her creative skills to help parents who need a cheerleader to tell them that they are not alone, that there is a way forward no matter how hopeless things may appear now. Deeply therapeutic, the creative process allows parents to express their feelings without judgment, especially the anger, frustration and isolation that they often try to hide.

Here is a lesson for all of us: No matter what our emotional burdens may be, art provides a necessary channel of expression. We can create change externally because we experience a shift internally that allows us to see new possibilities.

The common refrain among the mothers who are the majority of the youth and adult students McNary has taught over the past three years is, "I'm not an artist." Yet, with McNary's gentle coaching and permission to tap their deepest feelings, art emerges.

At a gallery showing for the Masters in Arts students, the paintings and drawings on display were surprisingly good and highly emotive. An autumn landscape depicts trees that represent family members. A frayed and frazzled shoelace speaks of seemingly simple tasks that become herculean challenges, which, with time and patience, can be mastered.

Art assignments allow parents to explore common experiences, such as "Mask Mom," whom McNary describes as thinking "she can do everything for everyone else, yet is hollow inside her soul from the sadness of knowing her child is not talking at age seven"; "Different Not Less," to explore the differences and uniqueness of being a family with autism and "Constant Motion," which makes it "hard to keep things in order when you are being pulled in so many directions at all times of the day."

An advocate on behalf of the organization Autism Speaks and a frequent speaker to groups, McNary opens her studio and her heart to others, enabling them to discover the gift of their own creativity. In images and the stories they tell, parents find a way forward and give themselves hope for the future.

Inspiration is everywhere, even in the simplest things. On a recent visit to see Colin, McNary and her husband took their son out for a day of small pleasures, like eating a doughnut. As McNary watched, Colin took one perfect sprinkle and put it on his tongue. Then he turned to her and smiled. As McNary tells the story, an image begins to form: a painting in waiting.