"A Big Blue Hug": Father and son with autism connect through drawing and art
Published Saturday, September 23, 2017 6:58PM EDT Last Updated Sunday, September 24, 2017 11:43AM EDT
For the first few years of his life, Ellis Goldsmith was silent.
His parents thought he was “acting deaf”—closed off and unresponsive, unable to connect with those in his immediate circle, Ellis was not developing at the same rate as other children in his age bracket.
“It was like living in the house with a stranger who didn’t want to get to know you, wouldn’t look at you,” said Jason Goldsmith, Ellis’s father. “It was surreal and scary.”
Ellis was diagnosed with autism, and similarly to other children on the spectrum, he struggled with the ability to process emotion and express himself in day-to-day situations.
When most children have a repertoire of 5,000 to 7,000 words at the age of five, Ellis only had a grasp of about 20-40, a “terrifying” realization by his parents.
But one day, a staggering breakthrough was made: Ellis could think, could “talk,” through pictures.
Goldsmith began drawing to his young son, often crude drawings of household items or simple situations in an attempt to connect. And Ellis began to draw back in response.
“It changed our lives,” Goldsmith said. “It was the first time we had an actual language—our first language isn’t English or French, it’s actually drawing.”
And through those drawings, scrawled on chalkboards around the house or in felt pen on pieces of loose paper, Goldsmith noticed a subtle evolution in his son.
Ellis could "edit" —adding or taking away from doodles done by his father-- asserting himself in the process.
“It started off [with] just drawings of objects, then they became drawings of just him, then him and me, then him and his family, then him and his community, and then him wanting to make friends,” he explained. “You could see his evolution—his consciousness expands in the drawings, beyond what he was capable of at the moment,” Goldsmith explained.
Now 18, Ellis has produced some 20,000 drawings--- each one chronicling a moment of his life; a small indication of how he perceives and processes the world around him.
One drawing depicts his classmates cheering him on because he stopped crying at school—a sketch that marked the end of Ellis’s in-class behavioural issues, an event that Goldsmith calls a “tipping point” in his son’s self-awareness.
Another page is covered in drawings of broken eggs: a recollection from an early morning when Ellis smashed a dozen eggs on the kitchen floor. Ellis was able to point to the eggs drawn on his chalkboard, and look his father in the face for the first time, only to utter the words “uh-oh, broken.”
“It was a disastrous mess,” Goldsmith explained, “[but] as tough as things could be, his drawings were like little miracles.”
And they’re miracles he’s worked hard to preserve. In addition to a two-drawer filing cabinet packed full of lined and construction paper, Goldsmith takes the original drawings done by his son and transposes them, with colour, onto glass shadow boxes.
In the sunlight, the glass paint casts a spectrum of light on the frame, giving each piece a dynamic, 3D quality.
He called his company “The Big Blue Hug” after a doodle five-year-old Ellis stenciled onto a chalkboard to ask for a bedtime hug.
“Because his drawings are so expressive, innocent, and so honest, they’re a great way to reflect people’s experiences in general,” Goldsmith said. “The artwork’s not about Autism, it’s about people.”
Goldsmith, a former product designer, sells the art pieces on his website, or donates them to community organizations to bridge gaps, and restore some colour to the everyday.
And it’s a feeling mirrored by curators and project coordinators at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts – where a recent exposition and program launch both zero in on the intense connections between autism and art.
It’s Sensational! Les Petits Rois au Musee is an educational exhibition assembled over the course of two years, showcasing artistic creations by students with intellectual impairments.
The students, aged from 12 to 21, participated in tours and creative workshops at the museum with an end goal of enriching their social and sensory experiences, and creating works of collage, sculpture, and paint.
“[I see] a great joy,” said Louise Giroux, a program coordinator for the MMFA. “Here they were allowed to make a mess, or use a spray bottle so that colour would come out of it, or use a squeeze bottle—and it was just amazing to see their reaction, like ‘whoa, I can do this.’”
“But it’s not always happiness—sometimes it’s working through solutions—but that’s life, it’s processing,” Giroux explained.
“This can be extremely helpful in communicating feelings, which is one of the biggest challenges for people living with Autism,” said Steven Legare, one of the MMFA’s art therapists.
“Additionally, we have the creative outlet of art-making – so repetitive, compulsive behaviors can find fun, creative, and even delightful expression through different ways of making art, Legare explained.
This October, the museum will continue its intiatives as part of “the Art of Being Unique,” a program geared towards intellectually impaired individuals—bringing them closer to art in an employability placement program, as well as art training courses, special tours and museum workshops.
In one such workshop, groups will be taken around the museum and urged to look at sculptures of faces, and try to correctly identify what emotions the subject is experiencing.
Jessica Renaud, a volunteer with Autisme Sans Limites and student in psychology, explained that there’s an equal give-and-take between the members of the group, and those who are leading it. In attempting to connect emotions to art, youth with autism can have a greater visual understanding of feeling.
In observing the students surmount the hurdles of their disorder, Renaud says we can educate ourselves about the particularities of autism, and how it presents itself differently in every person afflicted.
“There are a lot of subtleties, and it is subjective – but you can tell if a person is happy or if a person is sad, if a person’s angry, you can tell from their faces. And that’s particular to Autistic people, who pay attention to detail,” Renaud said.
But despite the challenges, like the stretches of silence that Jason Goldsmith experienced, there’s a lesson – a takeaway—that endures.
“People are amazing, and we all need each other – and autism is just one variation of what it means to be alive on this planet. And autism can be a gift as well,” Goldsmith said.
“It’s really about your attitude, and I try to make art that shares an amazing attitude—based on a true story.”
For more information on Big Blue Hug, visit their website here.
For more information about Autisme Sans Limites and their programs, visit autismesanslimites.org