COLUMBIA — A few years ago, Tom Backes was in the car with his son, Paul, when he was asked a question.
“Dad, how do you get rid of autism?”
“I guess when you start acting like everybody else,” Backes responded.
Paul thought about his father’s response, and after a few minutes, said: “I don’t have autism, I have enthusiasm.”
Paul, 15, was 2-and-a-half years old when he was diagnosed with autism. Not too long after, his enthusiasm found a focus in drawing. He started after seeing his older brother draw, but seeing the penguin house at the St. Louis Zoo was the first time Backes remembered that Paul began to really take interest in the hobby.
“We came home and he drew penguins,” Backes said. “He can draw just about anything.”
Nine of Paul’s pieces are part of the Art for Autism exhibit sponsored by MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders. Last year at the event, Paul’s portraits of Jesse Hall and The Tiger Hotel were purchased by MU’s Provost office.
The exhibit, which will be displayed in a hall gallery of the downtown Perlow-Stevens Gallery throughout October, showcases artwork by patients of the Thompson Center as well as their friends and siblings.
The Thompson Center helped celebrate the gallery’s fifth year with a reception honoring the artists Friday night. The event featured a silent auction of some of the pieces, with all of the proceeds going to the Thompson Center.
From penguins to buildings: Drawing in detail
Paul, who lives with his father, his mother, Carol Backes, and three siblings in St. Thomas about 20 miles south of Jefferson City, has been drawing avidly ever since he first put pen to penguin. Now considered high-functioning, he draws buildings, highways and self-portraits along with other images that he says are pretend. His favorite drawing is of an intersection called “Interstate” because he is able to remember with particular clarity a certain kind of interstate interchange.
“With Paul, his autism makes him able to see details that most of us gloss over, and he is able to reproduce those details with accuracy,” said Cheryl Unterschutz, senior information specialist for the Thompson Center.
Paul creates most of his drawings from memory quickly and with intricate detail. His portraits of the Boone County Courthouse, Daniel Boone City Building, Faurot Field and Memorial Union were finished in less than 20 minutes each.
Paul said he feels calm when he is drawing. His father has noticed that it relaxes him.
Art can be seen as a form of therapy for children and adults with autism because it is a way for them to express themselves without using verbal and social communication, which are common struggles among those affected by the disorder according to Autism Key, an autism resource site.
Unterschutz also said art reveals the vast abilities of those with autism.
“Art is a way that anyone can communicate,” Unterschutz said. “Those with autism may use art instead of language to communicate because they don’t have the social or interactive skills of the typically developing person.”
Art therapy: Drawing to communicate
Kimberly Matthews also sees art as a means of communication for those with autism, as she has experienced it with her son, Thomas Jackson, 9.
“You can determine a lot based on what comes out of his drawings,” Matthews said. “His verbal communication might be a weakness, but sometimes I can get a lot more out of a drawing to gain information or understand how he’s feeling.”
Thomas is another patient of the Thompson Center with mild high-functioning autism. He was diagnosed in 2005, when he was just shy of 3 years old.
“It was crushing,” Matthews said about hearing of her son’s diagnosis. “I was really pretty numb.”
Within two or three months of his diagnosis, Matthews realized she wasn’t getting information to be able to help Thomas. That’s when she began to seek advice.
She attended the AutismOne conference, an annual autism resource and information conference in Chicago, in May 2006. There she heard about art and music as types of therapies for children with the disorder and how beneficial it can be.
“I’m creative, so I realized the importance of encouraging the right brain and creativity and was already engaging my kids in art,” Matthews said. “It just happened to work well.”
Matthews said she encourages the use of all media, like sparkles, pastels, paints, crayons and markers for Thomas and his sister Malinda to create artwork.
Malinda doesn’t have autism, but she is aware of her brother’s disorder. They both attend Blue Ridge Elementary School, where Matthews said they have a phenomenal team of teachers and therapists.
Along with Paul, Thomas had multiple pieces of work in the Art for Autism exhibit, his favorite being a picture of a sports car. He likes cars and wants to design them someday.
Running a dark blue toy Ford Mustang back and forth along a table at the reception, Thomas said he feels happy when he’s drawing. “I will live free and live wild,” he said.
Thomas currently has 12 hours of applied behavioral analysis, one hour of speech therapy and two hours of martial arts each week. He also participates in Cub Scout Pack 704, but Matthews said he still draws every day.
With the help of the Thompson Center, therapists and Blue Ridge staff, Thomas has come a long way since his diagnosis and is getting better all of the time, Matthews said.
“My son works very hard,” she said. “I’m pretty proud of him.”
Backes said after he answered Paul's question about getting rid of autism, he realized he didn't want his son to be like everybody else.
“Everybody can find something they’re good at and proud of,” Backes said. “Paul’s finding out what he’s good at, and that’s his artwork.”
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.