In honor of Autism Awareness Day, we’re bringing Siobhan’s story back from the archives. It was originally published on December 14, 2007.
My daughter Siobhan is three years old and she paints with her hands and fingers. Big deal, you’re thinking, right? Actually, it is a big deal. Here’s why:
Siobhan was diagnosed with Autism at the age of two and a half. She is relatively non-verbal, and soon after her diagnosis she began to eat only dry, crunchy foods. She has a fit in the bath tub when it’s time for soap and shampoo. She screams if the family dog licks her hand. Basically, my daughter cannot stand to touch or even come in contact with anything wet, slimy or squishy.
We started painting with a brush as a form of “art therapy” to try to get her used to different textures, and possibly to start trying new foods. At first, Siobhan would only use a brush, and any paint that got on her hands had to be wiped off immediately. We went on like this for some time, because she enjoyed the activity. One day, out of the blue, she threw her brush down on the floor and started beautifully blending the colors with her hands. I couldn’t have been any more amazed.
Since that day, we have let her start painting on canvases. She quickly progressed as a little artist, and started to gesture to or even say the name of the color she wanted next for her painting. She chooses her colors very carefully and puts a lot of thought into it. If I make a mistake and give her the wrong color, she will throw the canvas on the floor, or scrape the paint off with her hands and fling it. After cleaning up many huge messes, I realized that if I hold the colors in front of her two at a time, she will tap on or grab the color she wants when I get to it. I’ve also started letting her choose what shape or size canvas she wants to use. When Siobhan is really pleased with her work, she flaps her hands with excitement, which leads to splatters on many of her paintings. She brings me her smock or asks for “colors” about once or twice a week.
In October, we were asked for four of my daughter’s paintings to display in Rhode Island (my home town) at the Neurodevelopment Center’s Autism Project Art Gallery. Recently, a local paper did an article on Siobhan and her unique paintings. The story was quickly picked up by the Associated Press and then it was all over Florida and several other states as well. About two weeks later, I was contacted by the Good Morning America show. They wanted to do a story on Siobhan. We were so excited that there was a positive story about autism having such an impact on people! I agreed to let them do the story if it was minimally invasive. My daughter doesn’t like artificial lights, loud noises, or anything out of her normal routine. A close friend in the film industry offered to do the taping for us, since Siobhan was already very familiar with him.
I lined up all of Siobhan’s paints on the kitchen table, set up her baby wipes, paper towels, and canvases. (She still doesn’t like to get too much paint on her hands, so I need to wipe them often.) Once we were set up and she got her smock on, she was ready to paint and the film started rolling!
Even with minimal lighting and just one camera set up, Siobhan was uncomfortable and distracted. She did two paintings during the filming, but I could tell she was very anxious, and she wasn’t into it or enjoying it the way she usually does, so we stopped after that.
The next night I was interviewed on film. I was asked to tell Siobhan’s story, how the painting came about, and the progress she has made. I talked about our Etsy shop, SiobhansDream, and what we do with the money we make from the sales of Siobhan’s work. One of the ways we use the money she makes is to purchase more art supplies for her. It also helps us to cover the costs of some of her special diet, treatment, and therapy needs. We also donate to various Autism-related charities, so that Siobhan can help other families like ours.
And all I have to say to people who think art therapy doesn’t help is this: My daughter uses more words when she is painting then at any other time. And Siobhan – who wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t dry or crunchy, and won’t touch anything wet or squishy other than her paint – started eating ice cream a few weeks ago.