Autism acceptance through the lens of the arts includes an upcoming visual art show at the ARC of Southeast Iowa

Awesome Autism Awareness and Acceptance Art Project

The Arc of Southeast Iowa — Saturday, Apr. 16 from 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

"No Idea," by Lauren Pasbrig
“No Idea,” by Lauren Pasbrig

As an acting coach, I’m always encouraging children to own what makes them weird and different, because that’s what makes them interesting onstage. At the same time, I’m also counseling them to connect deeply with their scene partner and respond to a variety of social cues. For a lot of us, that’s simple and fun, but if you’re on the Autism spectrum, it’s a little bit trickier.

A big feature of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is difficulty with social interactions. If the social rulebook isn’t intuitive to you, it’s a bit like Alice wandering through Wonderland, trying to make sense of the bizarre and illogical order the world lives by. Many organizations offer social skills training, which is important, but also very difficult. Fortunately, caregivers and parents can help smooth the way with a more accepting attitude.

I feel the arts engender a more accepting, open-minded approach to people as individuals, which is a benefit to those who think and behave differently than most. Collaborative arts like theatre and music involve accepting another’s impulse without judgement, trying it on and adding your own spin. That’s an exercise that can help us all reach deeper levels of understanding, and I feel like it goes a long way towards helping people with autism feel more accepted and integrated.

A5 Exhibit
A preview of the A5 exhibit is on display at Hills Bank on S. Gilbert Street. Photo courtesy of the Arc of Southeast Iowa.

The upcoming Awesome Autism Awareness and Acceptance Art Project (A5 for short), offers another opportunity for diversity in giving autistic artists a chance to showcase their talents. The show will feature art of many different mediums from students (and possibly some adults) throughout Johnson county. There will also be art activities for kids. Admission is free. The event is at the Arc of Southeast Iowa (2620 Muscatine Ave. Iowa City), Apr. 16, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.

My first day working in special education was also the first time I met a student with autism. Not knowing anything about the condition, I did everything wrong. I smiled, offered my hand, and was greeted with a blank stare and an interrogation. “Who are you? What happened to the usual person?” I tried to make small talk — to no avail — and I stood too close. “Walk in front of me, not behind,” he warned. “I don’t trust you.” I laughed. He scowled. He was dead serious, but I assumed this was an awkward attempt at a joke because that’s what I would do when trying to warm up a stranger. But sarcasm and light ribbing were not in this person’s vocabulary. Fortunately, as we got to know each other — and as I began to let go on my preconceptions — these moments of awkwardness were easier to navigate.

There’s been a pushback in the autistic community lately against some of the depictions of autism as something tragic, something to be cured. Many advocates are pushing neurodiversity, the idea that in a species with such a broad genetic makeup there are going to be people born whose brains work a little bit differently, and that society can adapt. The dangers of trying to find a “cure” or pinpoint a culprit for the apparent increase in cases of ASD can be seen in the lingering effects of Andrew Wakefield’s long-debunked research. There are still people who believe that vaccines cause autism, despite the absolute lack of scientific evidence supporting that belief.

"New U.S. Map" by Benjamin Bishara
“New U.S. Map” by Benjamin Bishara

Autism is not something you can catch and not something you grow out of. According to the DSM-V, it is defined as a series of neurodevelopmental disorders that impair social interaction and commonly involve repetitive motions, behaviors or interest. Treatment is characterized not by attempting to cure, but to increase independence and improve quality of life. Neurodiversity advocates wonder if even “neurodevelopmental disorder” goes a little too far, and, given that we know so little about the brain, reject that there is a “right” way for it to function.

Dina Bishara, who is helping to organize the upcoming A5 event, explains this attitude:

“It means letting go of the idea that there is a ‘normal’ or ‘right’ way to be in this world, or that there is a normal brain, and that autistic brains are intrinsically disordered. It means that neurological diversity is natural and that autism has always been with us and contributes to the texture, mystery and progress of humanity. Autistic people are not part of an epidemic, they are not a tragedy, and they haven’t been kidnapped by an evil brain disease. The autistic kid in front of you is the real kid. There is not some other “normal” child hidden behind the autism … As autistic activist Nick Walker writes, ‘A healthy, thriving Autistic person looks very different from a healthy, thriving non-autistic person.’ And that’s okay!”

Musician and actor Atticus Dutcher gets caught up in his accordion playing. Photo by Susie Dutcher.
Student Atticus “Eddie” Dutcher dives into his musical expression. Photo by

Eddie Dutcher, 8, a student in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ “Just Right for Me” class, agrees. He says, “If I ever make a cure for anything, it won’t be autism because autism is a gift. It’s not something that should be cured … Neurodiversity is a step towards world peace. If we try to make people normal, we sort of make everybody the same. Being the same just means people who are different are rejected more and that is the opposite of peace.” In addition to theatre, Eddie also plays accordion and sings with the Family Folk Machine.

Tara McGovern, Eddie’s mother, talks about how her music background helps her be flexible and accepting. “There are many times over my last decade of parenting that I have fallen back on the expressive benefits inherent to music. An impromptu aria about putting on one’s socks is a common occurrence in our household and works a lot better than yelling. We sing a Taizé hymn to our boys every night. Specific to autism: we have used a lot of social story-type songs to get certain ideas across to Eddie that he doesn’t pick up as naturally as Liam [her neurotypical son] might. Musical theatre is a very meaningful vehicle for Eddie when it comes to understanding people’s motives and styles of communication.”

McGovern talks about how both “Just Right for Me!” and the Family Folk Machine highlight diversity in general, and neurodiversity in particular. “I’d love to see more arts organizations offer the degree of accessibility that we’ve found in these experiences,” she says.

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