Getting creative on the spectrum
With World Autism Day just behind us, we take a look at some talented young artists WHO ARE autistic - and the role creativity plays in their lives
Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterised by difficulty in communication and reduced social skills. There are many different types of this disorder and autistic individuals can fall on any part of the spectrum. We meet some children who use creativity to express themselves in beautiful ways anyway.
STAR IN THE MAKING
Varun Raina is a talented singer, actor, dancer and filmmaker. He has released four music albums and acted in three short films. He is a student of both Hindustani and Western classical music, and has participated in music concerts at the Dubai Opera, Global Village and Atlantis, among other venues. Varun Raina is also on the autism spectrum.
When he was two and a half years old, Varun was diagnosed with borderline PDD(NOS) autism, an atypical form of the condition. Varun only mastered speech when he turned 11, but he was singing long before that. This inclination towards musical expression has defined his growth over the years.
Now at 21, Varun is a self-possessed and confident young man. Neena Raina, his mother and co-founder of Tender Hearts - a recreational institute for differently-abled children - explains how her son and others on the spectrum find themselves through creativity. "Recreational activities are good for all kids, for social and emotional development as well as educational outcomes."
In the process of teaching music, dance or any other form of art, teachers end up imparting many developmental skills. "The children don't even realise how hard they are working because they are having so much fun," says Neena. In the case of Varun, like with many other children, these skills have been acquired through various modes of creative expression. Having performed music in front of large audiences for over seven years, Varun has gained enormous confidence. Theatre gave him the skill to communicate effectively, so much so that it is his dream to go into professional acting. Forays into creativity can also lead to surprising results.
"We never thought Varun could dance as his body was very rigid, but after the dance classes over the last two years, he has become a good dancer," his mother notes. Pushing creative boundaries leads not only to the development of life skills, but to the uncovering of talents. This can then lead to a better future for atypical children, maybe even in terms of shedding light on a viable career path. It's a story that holds true for Varun, who undoubtedly has a bright future ahead of him.
SUPERHERO OF THE CREATIVE WORLD
"Jifu has always been special, right from when she was born," says Michel Bunnik, Jifu's father, talking about how his daughter was diagnosed. Jifu's speech was always slow and she kept to herself most of the time. When she was diagnosed with autism at the age of nine, her parents had an explanation at last, a reason for her behaviour.
As with other children on the spectrum, it was difficult for her parents to understand what Jifu was feeling, what she wanted or what she needed from them. Luckily for both Jifu and her parents, she found a way of communication that felt most natural to her - writing stories. Interpreting these stories, her parents are able to communicate with their daughter and understand her needs, albeit in an unconventional way.
"Reading the stories that Jifu writes, we can much better understand what is bothering her, or what her problems are," says Michel. "Drawing and writing is something I (have done) since I was very small," says Jifu, who is also enrolled at Tender Hearts for creative classes and discovered hidden aptitudes through them. "I have written many books about superhero adventures."
Although Jifu's creative inclination towards writing was a given, it came as a surprise to everyone when she showed a flair for playing piano, painting and even dancing. "I never knew that I was actually good in dancing," says Jifu. One soon realises that she is being modest, for she is not only "good at dancing", she actually leads some of the classes at the institute. Writing is her true passion though. Her father says that she wants to become a writer and illustrator, providing illustrations for her own works.
Confidence, communication and a sense of self: all these traits are more inaccessible to children on the spectrum than to neurotypical (not on the autism spectrum) children, and these are exactly what these creative explorations have brought this gifted girl. Jifu is the perfect example that the art reflects the artist, for she is no less than the superheroes she writes about.
DANCING HIS WAY TO HAPPINESS
Seven-year-old Suleman loves dancing. He even turns everyday motions into dance steps. His parents recognised this passion in their son when he was four, and tried enrolling him in multiple dance classes. He was rejected, every time, for not being able to listen to his teachers' instructions. "Suleman has a rare kind of autism," says his mother, Qurratulain. "Usually, regressive autism shows itself when the child is between one-and-a-half and three years old, but Suleman developed normally till he was three-and-a-half."
It was a very difficult time for Suleman's parents, when their son slowly started losing both his ability to communicate and his ability to understand what was communicated to him. They went "everywhere", trying to get a diagnosis. "You've got to go wherever you can, to whoever you can afford," she explains, looking back on that uncertain period in their lives. Finally, after six months, they got a proper diagnosis and could begin learning how to cope.
One day, Qurratulain saw a video of local dance teacher Vishakha Verma dancing with a girl with cerebral palsy. Hope sparked and she reached out to the teacher. To her surprise, Vishakha took Suleman in. He slowly started picking up steps and following instructions. He was learning how to learn. "I home-school Suleman and, I can tell you, teaching him is not an easy thing," says his mother.
However, with patience and the stimulation of a creative outlet, things kept improving. Autistic children, whether verbal or non-verbal, have a tough time with self-expression, which in turn can lead to anxiety. Dancing provides an effective physical and emotional outlet. Qurratulain says Suleman calms down after dancing. It even helps in his everyday life, with skills such as hand-eye coordination and focus. And, of course, it has worked wonders for his confidence levels. "On Women's Day, he danced in front of 20 ladies! Can you believe it?" she says, laughing.
Every child on the autism spectrum is different. What works well for some may not work for others, she notes. The takeaway from all this? Play to your child's strengths. Qurratulain believes that if parents focus on their children's strengths, the weaknesses are taken care of automatically. Suleman's progress is a clear example of the wonder a little creative expression can do for a child on the spectrum.
EXPLORING THE WORLD THROUGH ART
Anjana's mother Bhuvana is a special educator herself, and has a lot of insights on how art and creativity is highly beneficial for children and young adults on the spectrum. Anjana is a twin. She was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when she was two-and-a-half years old; her twin sister is neurotypical. The special advantage of artistic classes, according to Bhuvana, is that they don't pose any boundaries. "This limitless area of development does wonders for the anxiety and frustration that differently-abled children often face as they grow up," she says. In an academic setting, there is seldom opportunity for a child on the spectrum to set and attain individual goals. "Creative lessons of any kind provide differently abled children with a platform for achievement that is more individual and achievable to each child, thereby promoting an improved sense of self-confidence and assurance."
Bhuvana points to her own daughter as an example. Anjana's self-confidence sky-rocketed after she began her classes at Mawaheb, an art studio and gallery in Dubai that also holds classes for differently-abled people. Even before she joined these classes, however, Anjana had always been interested in art. "I always liked drawing and painting, from when my sister Niranjana and I started experimenting with it as a hobby when we were younger," says Anjana. "It was something that we could always do together, sitting in our garden and sharing our paints."
In the beginning, it was a challenge to find an appropriate art teacher, Bhuvana explains. They needed someone sensitive enough to be a good match for Anjana, and are happy to have found what they were looking for at last. "Becoming an artist has made me happier and more excited to welcome each new day. Especially coming to Mawaheb, every day feels like a new adventure when I get to paint and work with my many friends there."
Anjana's creative expression appears to affect her day-to-day life in positive ways. She learns new languages online and channels her boundless creativity into baking as well. "I didn't know that it was possible to be an artist and get to work and learn with so many other artists who are just like me," says Anjana. Clearly, creativity has a role to play outside the classroom. In the cases of these children, it helps them find themselves.