Art helps adults with autism communicate PDF Print E-mail
Written by DAVID DUPONT Sentinel Arts & Entertainment Editor   
Thursday, 04 April 2013 09:28
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Kendra Abbott working with Jimmy Koch at Bittersweet Farms. (Photos: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
At Bittersweet Farms staff are using art to help adults with autism unlock what's trapped inside them.
Released are childhood memories or fantasies about how they live now. It may mean being able to say that they miss their mother, or coming to grips with the death of a father.
While some arts and crafts, especially weaving, have been part of the curriculum since the residential treatment facility opened in 1983, the arts blossomed at Bittersweet Farms about five years ago when a grant allowed a bike shed to be transformed into a studio.
Now clients express themselves in pottery, painting, drawings, fiber and most recently fused glass.
Last month, Bittersweet Farms introduced a half-hour long video, "A Thousand Words," that documents art at work there. The video was the brainchild of Cora Walsh, whose son Conor Walsh lives at Bittersweet. Another son Richard Walsh directed and co-produced the video.
Dustin Watkins, the program director, states early in the DVD that for those with autism "lack of communication is the seed to larger problems. If you can't communicate, you're stuck. You can't get help. You can't work through anxieties and emotions."
The 80-acre farm near Whitehouse was founded by the late Bettye Ruth Kay, a former teacher in the Toledo schools. Tammy Chambers, an admissions coordinator who has worked at Bittersweet almost since its founding, said Kay saw how limited the options were for adults who after age 22 could no longer stay in the public school system. They could live in an institution or a sheltered workshop. Kay traveled to England to view a farm that served these adults and was  impressed by how well farming met their needs.
"They need to be in a setting that helps them understand the world around them," Chambers said. "In farming they're part of it. ... We build a rapport ... they feel they can be themselves, that they can share in the greater goal."
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Gino Temple working on a loom at Bittersweet Farms.
The farm has 32 residents. Bittersweet operates three other facilities, including one in Pemberville. While residents must be from Ohio, some people move to the state for a chance to join the farm, Chambers said.
Autistic adults who live in other Bittersweet facilities and in the community come to the farm for art activities, said Valerie French, the creative arts manager.
In "A Thousand Words," French spoke of one resident Patra Smilo who early in her stay would not cooperate in anything, not work in the greenhouse, not even her own personal care.
Finally she agreed to try art, and she opened up.
French says in the DVD: "She has told me many times that art has helped her figure out that ...  being mad is just not worth it, being angry all the time is not worth it. And she attributes that to her art."
Smilo creates whimsical "critters," each with its own story, that populate a place called Twitter Forest, a wooded place filled with distinct personalities, not unlike Bittersweet Farms. "Maybe these are the other people she lives with," Chambers said.
"She has a safe place for them all to reside," French said, "Each one has a separate personality and has their own specific traits and talents. I think that's how she sees the world now."
French recalled a particularly hard time for Conor Walsh. He was uncharacteristically moody, and in art he kept drawing pictures of his mother, who was away on a trip to Ireland.
French came out and asked him if he missed her. He did. The staff arranged for them to talk.
After Bronwen Shea's father died the resident obsessively drew a simple picture of solid blue sky and solid green earth, until one day she added an oval to the green and wrote "daddy" and "dirt," and then she cried.
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Jimmy Koch working on a painting at Bittersweet Farms.
Joe King often uses his art to remember growing up in Cleveland. He depicts the buildings and the school buses passing under his window. He draws swings that remind him of "sunshine and hamburgers ... with no onions."
He even drew an account of a time he drifted into Lake Erie on a piece of ice and had to be rescued by the fire department.
Art also helps those who are extremely sensitive to touch as they work with the various textures to create art. "It helps them subdue some of the tension that is usually involved in sensitivity to touch or sensitivity to different textures," said Jan Cline, a speech therapist.
The residents have also had a chance to work with fused glass with guest artist Matthew Paskiet, who is in his second residency at Bittersweet Farms.
"I learned that art happens," Paskiet said at the event to celebrate the release of the DVD. "I learned to let the expression come ... I learned how much is behind those eyes."
The residents create both personal expressive art, created for its own sake, as well as items meant to sell to the public.
"It's a method of releasing the energy out of our body, the feelings out, to come in the art room and do a piece of art," resident Beth Myer, said in the DVD.
Watkins said in the DVD: "When I look at their art and how they express themselves, the time they spent, the choices they made, that gives me an insight into them I wouldn't get anywhere else."
 

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