"Look At Me"

"Look At Me"
monotype and screenprint

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Autism Art Project Celebrates 1,000 Ausome Things #AutismPositivity2013

I used to think that preschool graduations were ridiculous.  That was before Derek.  That was before autism.

My perspective has changed.

They say a picture is worth 1000 words.  My son doesn't have 1000 words.  By definition, Derek is still considered "non-verbal."  Does that matter?  Not at all.  Derek has found ways to communicate.  If he can't find the words verbally, he'll take my hand and show me what he wants or point to things. If you ask me, his smile alone speaks volumes.  So do his eyes.

When I look at this picture, I don't see a little boy with a cheesy grin in a cap and gown.  I see a million other moments that led to this one, great moment.  I see a 2-year-old struggling to learn how to use PECS.  I see a child with so many sensory issues that putting a hat on his head hurt him.  I see the same boy with tears streaming down his cheeks on his very first day of preschool.  And I see a child with big, shining eyes chasing after bubbles and finally saying his first word, "bubba."

The cap and gown are symbols of how much Derek has accomplished; how much he has overcome in the past few years.  My son learned more than just the ABC's and 123's in preschool.  He discovered how to interact and play with other children.  He figured out how to follow directions and ask for help.  He learned how to dress himself and use the toilet on his own.  I could go on and on...

I couldn't possibly be more proud of this little boy.  

He deserves a cap and gown.
He deserves cake and ice cream.
He deserves a party.
He deserves all that I have to offer as a parent.
He deserves every opportunity that the teachers and the school can provide.

He deserves the world.
(Because he's ausome.)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Put on a Happy Face

Being bipolar has its ups and downs...

That was my attempt at a joke.  I do still have a sense of humor.

But I'm not going to sugarcoat things.  I'm writing this post because a lot of autism parents struggle with depression.  I'm kind of an expert on depression.  I've been battling it since I was nine.  Most of the time, I have a pretty good handle on things.  I take my medication, I see my doctor when I am supposed to, and I fool myself into thinking that I have things under control.

(Control.  That's a funny word.  Does anyone really have any kind of control over their lives???  No.  Life changes on a dime--especially in Autism Land.)

Something happens.  Something unpredictable, something unplanned, something that throws my life completely out of whack...and I don't know how to handle it.  I am unable to function.  I begin to spiral into darkness, and there is nothing, and I mean nothing, I can do to stop it.

Being manic can be fun.  I get so much done it's scary.  I can stay up for 3 days straight and I do artwork all night and I clean the entire house and I talk a mile a minute and I do crazy things like go on spontaneous road trips and jump out of airplanes (yes, yes I did).

Depression is another story.  When the high ends and I crash and burn, it isn't pretty.  I'm very rarely manic.  I am diagnosed as being bipolar II, which means I have more depressive episodes than manic ones.  I've been told I'm hard to live with.

*Just a sidenote--these episodes happen very rarely now, since I take my medication regularly, like a good little girl.

Want to know what happened this month?  It was something pretty stupid.  But it was enough to scare the crap out of me.

Derek got sick.  (He gets sick a lot, so it really shouldn't have been enough to set off an episode for me.  However...)  Derek had a low-grade fever for 9 days.  I had to take him to the doctor twice because he developed an enormous lymph node on his neck that seriously freaked me out.  It looked like a tumor.  So, of course, I thought my son had cancer.  (Have I mentioned that I had cancer as a baby?  So I have an irrational fear that my children will get cancer as well.)  Derek was miserable.  It took antibiotics to get rid of that monster.
The giant lymph node

After that, I had trouble recovering.  I went into what I call a "funk" of depression.  I just couldn't shake it.  Anything and everything stressed me out more than normal and I cried at the drop of a hat.  Simple things became difficult.  It took all of my energy to get out of bed in the morning and get my kids to school on time.

And, then a few more things happened.

I was summoned for jury duty.  (I eventually got out of it, but it took a trip to the courthouse, several phone calls, a doctor's note, and a letter from me to the judge.)

I had to give a speech at an award's ceremony.  

I attended an autism conference.

All of these things would normally be no big deal.  Some of them would actually be fun, if I were my "normal" self.  But when I'm fighting depression and barely making it through each day?  These things are overwhelming and exhausting and terrifying.  That's what happens when you have a mental illness.  Even simple, every day events like picking up your kids from school and making dinner become challenges.  All I wanted to do was sleep.  

I read about things like the bombing at the Boston Marathon and the explosion in Texas and the death of Gavin, the little boy from over at Chasing Rainbows and I think, What is wrong with me???  I have no right to be depressed.  I have it so much better than so many other people.  I need to count my blessings.

Having a chemical imbalance in the brain sucks.

I don't know what it's like to be autistic.  But I do know what it's like to be bipolar.  And being the bipolar mother of an autistic child is HARD.

What am I trying to say?  That it's ok to cry.  Cry behind closed doors if you have to.  Cry in the car.  Cry in the shower.  It doesn't matter.  Nobody is perfect.  Nobody has it all together.  Even the people you think have it all together--they don't.  There is no such thing as a perfect parent.  The best thing you can do is just take care of yourself first, and then love your children to the moon and back.

And here is the most important thing--if you think you need to see a doctor or therapist, don't be afraid to ask for help.  Do it for your kids, if not for yourself.  They need you.  (If you don't have kids, do it for your spouse, or parents, or somebody!!!)  If you end up needing medication--it's nothing to be ashamed of.  There are millions of people on medication for mental illness.  There is no shame in having a mental illness at all!!!  It's just something we don't talk about.  But I'm talking--because someone out there is listening.


Monday, April 15, 2013

Autism is a Masterpiece

What does autism mean to me?

There are so many answers.  I could talk about my son.  I could tell you about my day to day experiences with a five-year-old little boy with big brown eyes and a beautiful smile.  I could also tell you about his struggles to communicate.  And how far he has come in the past four years.  

Instead, I'm going to tell you what autism means to me as an artist.  

I don't think autism is a puzzle piece.  I think Autism is a Masterpiece.
Let me explain.

For almost two years now, I've been making artwork about kids on the autism spectrum.

When I'm trying to create a new print about a person, I do everything I can to capture their personality.  I find out what they like to do.  If possible, I meet them in person--several times.  I know what you are thinking--that spending such a short amount of time with a person doesn't really allow me to see what they are really like.  But children, especially autistic children, are honest and open.  They don't try to hide who they are.  I LOVE THAT ABOUT THEM.  

Every single child (and adult, for that matter) that I have met, is unique.  

Sure, some of them do some of the same things, like line up their toys or play with the wheels of cars.  But some like pizza.  And some only eat dry, crunchy foods (like my son).  Some love water (swimming, baths, sprinklers, etc.) and others can't stand to be wet.  

If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism.  It's true.
I don't know how my son's mind works.  But this is how mine works:  I see the world in color.  Everything is a painting.  Everything is beautiful, if I look at it the right way.

If you shine white light through a prism, it refracts and separates the light into seven colors:  Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.  Every single color is important.  Every single color is beautiful.  But, in order to make a rainbow, you need all of the colors.  

I tend to think about people in the same way.  We are rainbows.  We all have different aspects of our personalities that make us who we are.  Give each of those traits a color--for example, say that "compassionate" is the color pink.  And "patience" is the color blue.  "Determination" is red.  I think about all of this when I am working on a portrait.  I ask myself, "What colors should I use?" to accurately capture someone's personality.  I usually end up using a lot of colors.  And since I'm a printmaker, I can even create new colors just by overlapping the layers.  

And then I try to do the impossible:  I use all the colors of the rainbow to recreate a 3-dimensional, living person on a 2-dimensional piece of paper. 

I have not created a masterpiece yet.  It is an elusive goal, that I will never reach because I consider the person to be the masterpiece. 

In a way, I'm like the artists in the past who studied and copied the works of the Old Masters.  They did it to learn from the best.

So do I.  

Through art, I can show the world what autism really is.  I can give names and faces to the numbers.  I can show the world how I see autism:  as a beautiful, colorful masterpiece.

"Aiden:  Spinning"

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Speech (and the Award)

Okay, so some of you have been asking about the award I won.  More specifically, about the speech I gave and what I said.  

First of all, I will tell you right now that I hate giving speeches.  With a passion. I had to give one at one of the first art shows for this project and I bawled.  I barely made it through the speech.  I have a hard time talking about things I really care about.  And I care about Derek and the other kids in this project a lot.

So, I was determined, when I found out that I won an award and had to give a speech, that I would not cry this time.  Easier said than done.  

My table

I'll give you a little background about the award.  It was given to me by Moonshell Arts and Humanities Council for having a show in Hall County, Nebraska.  That was one of the requirements.  That I either live in Hall County, that I showed work in Hall County in 2012, or something to that effect.  I had a show in Alda, NE (part of Hall County) last winter.  So I qualified for the award.  And my wonderful friend Brad nominated me.  That was all it took.  

Last Saturday night, I attended the awards ceremony.  12 other wonderful people received awards.  I heard some very inspirational stories--and some great speeches. 

This was my speech, give or take a few words:  

First of all, I just want to say thank you.  

Most parents take certain things for granted.  They take a newborn baby home from the hospital, expecting that child to do certain things as they get older.  

Like coo.
Clap their hands.
Make eye contact.
Say "mama" and "dada".

My son did none of those things.

This project really began in 2009, when my son Derek was diagnosed with autism.  He was not even two years old.  He sat at a table for hours driving his toy cars, and I wondered what was going on in his mind.

We put Derek in an intensive therapy program called ABA--Applied Behavior Analysis--and, although the road has been long and bumpy, my son has made great strides.  He will enter kindergarten in the fall, with the help of a full-time aide.

I began making art about my son soon after he was diagnosed.  It was my way of coping with all of my emotions.  I came up with the idea for the project when I met another family with a little boy named Aiden.  I realized  wanted to make art, not just about my son, but about other kids on the spectrum as well.  I wanted to show the world how beautiful autism is.  

I had one big problem though--I was an artist without supplies.

So, I decided to see if other people would be interested in my project.  I launched it on a website called Kickstarter, asking for donations to help me get started.  

I never expected the amount of support I received.  The city I live in threw a pancake feed.  Friends, relatives, and complete strangers visited the website and donated money.  

Over $6,000 was raised.  I had enough to buy a small Takach etching press.

Since then, the project has grown in ways I never could have predicted.  In less than two years, I've completed 25 pieces.  There are now 40 something kids in the project, from 19 different states.  And through my blog and fb page, I connected with other parents, some autistic adults, and I've met lots of the kids.

And the project is still growing. 

At some point, I plan on writing an illustrated book about this project, and all of the kids involved.  I want to put names and faces to the numbers.  

So, thank you for your support and for this award.  

And a very special thank you to my son, for being my inspiration.  

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Brook and The Special Olympics

Brook practicing
This is Brook.  His family lives about 30 minutes away from me and I've met him on several occasions now.  The monotype I am currently working on is about this incredible young man.  Brook is involved with Kearney Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program.  KTHRP is a non-profit organization "dedicated to fostering the physical and mental well-being of individuals with Special Needs.

According to Brook's mother, horse therapy has "helped Brook work on his focusing skills. Also he has become responsible for the care of the horses, ie grooming, brushing, cleaning hooves, and learning how to place the saddle.  (It has) also given Brook a sense of pride and accomplishment in working with the horses and competing in the Special Olympics.  Because of the level of focus required to ride the horses, Brook is very calm and quiet when riding." 

I had the opportunity to watch Brook compete, and it was incredible.  My son Tyler came with me, and he loved the experience just as much as I did.  The Special Olympics are very inspirational.  And I was intrigued by the "silent clap."  Whenever a new rider was introduced before performing the audience raised their arms silently to cheer.  They did this again when the rider was done.  I was told they do this so the horses don't get spooked, but I couldn't help but think it was perfect for autistic individuals who are sensitive to sound.  (See picture below.)

If all goes well, I'll finish my print of Brook this week or next.  Stay tuned.  :)

Anyway, I think it's a wonderful program, and I hope Derek will be able to compete some day as well.  I'll be silently cheering as loud as I can. 

Getting ready to compete

Tyler had the chance to sit on a horse also.


About to compete again.

Tyler watching from my lap.

The silent clap.

Brook with his medal

Monday, April 1, 2013

Between Brothers

"But Derek doesn't PLAY!" Tyler yelled. Then he ran to his room.

This was on Friday. I had just told Tyler to put the Ipad away and do something else--like read a book, paint a picture, or play with his brother. 

"He tries." I whispered to myself.

When I was a kid, my sister and I did everything together. We went sledding. We climbed trees. We went to the park. We jumped rope. We played hide-and-seek. My sister was my best friend. I wonder often if my boys will ever be as close as we were.

Then, once in a while, tiny miracles happen to reassure me.

Derek and I were playing outside today. Tyler had gone inside to get something, but the window was open. He came up to the window and yelled to us, "I love you!"

Derek yelled back, "Uv oo Ty-er!" (Love you Tyler)
Then he reached his arms up and gave the air a hug.

Tyler came to the door and asked me, "Did he?"
I said, "Yes. He told you he loved you." (He's never done that before.)

Tyler smiled from ear to ear.
My son has been waiting 5 years to hear those words.
It was worth the wait.