Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Artist At Work

Conor's self portrait in clay and mixed media
One weekend not too long ago, Mary Beth Marsden, a local journalist, interviewed me about Conor and his art for a video she was putting together for Real Look Autism. A nonprofit organization, Real Look Autism uses videos to share ideas for working with children who have Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her website and YouTube channel also serve as places to share insights.

Mary Beth and I chatted about Conor's interests, his art, our mutual friends, the autism community. (She has a child on the spectrum as well.) As we talked quietly in the next room, her cameraman, John, filmed one of Conor's art therapy sessions.

"Is Conor always this quiet?" she whispered as we watched Conor and his therapist from the next room.

"No," I replied. "It depends on the day."

Some days my ears ring from all his chattering and sing songs, requests and scripts. Other days, the silence deafens me and I strain to hear a murmured 'yes' or 'please'. I'm never quite sure why this is so. Why some days he seems to grasp language so easily, and other days it eludes him as he searches mightily for it. Sometimes you can actually see the struggle on his face. Other times, it's as if he can't be bothered; there are more interesting things going on inside his head.

Is he tired? Anxious? Noncompliant? Out of sorts? Overwhelmed?  Preoccupied? Do the words move around in there, so much so that he can't find them some days?

Yes. No. Maybe. I think so? Probably. Who knows.

It's a mystery to me, as much of my son is. I've always admired those parents, mostly moms, that proclaim that they know their child best. Know them so intimately, in fact, that they can tell you, without a shred of doubt, what their child is thinking and feeling, what the best approach involves.

Too often, for my comfort at least, I feel my son is hidden behind a shroud, obscured from my ever knowing him thoroughly and intimately. I'd like to lift that veil completely one day. For now, we're stuck with peeking under it once in awhile. It vexes me, to be honest. I want to know what's in there, what is in that brain? There has got to be more in there than he can ever express verbally.

Conor's airport. He says this is the Southwest terminal.
He has plans for an American Airlines terminal now too.
Perhaps that's what made me try art therapy with Conor so many years ago. I had read about it in one of the very first Pathfinders for Autism newsletters, and art therapy sounded like a fun-but-therapeutic way to fill 45 minutes. Or maybe I was in my 'throw something at the autism and see if it sticks' phase. (We tried horseback riding and massage as well. He liked massage; I liked the horses. We stuck with massage. I miss the barn and the sounds of the horses huffing at me.)

Oh yes, of course, we tried Applied Behavioral Analysis, Relationship Development Intervention, biomedical treatments and other things as well. All had their place.

But art therapy? Seeing Conor become an artist while improving his functional, life, and social skills has been a uniquely joyful experience for me.

I've included two videos. First, is the marvelous piece from Real Look Autism featuring his art therapist, Cathy Goucher. Cathy co-founded Make Studio, and she has been working with Conor since he was eight years old. They did a really wonderful job. You'll notice, however, that Conor doesn't talk much in the video. For some reason, that day, he didn't have much to say. In the end, I think he was tired, and he didn't like the fact that art therapy was on Saturday instead of Tuesday. I guess.

In the video below, I asked Conor to talk about the hotel he is building with Cathy. (Pardon the sound of running water, I neglected to turn off the filters for the fish tanks. Sigh.)

Sometimes he says he needs help thinking of the answer. And at one point, Conor starts to list numbers he somehow associates with using the treadmill.  I have no idea what it all means (something about how long you walk on the treadmill), but I think it provides some insight into how... odd his thinking and verbalizing seems sometimes. Hey, at least he corrects me when I'm wrong about the levels in his hotel. And why am I so loud?

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