by Debra Hosseini
Often I write about artists on this page. This story is personal. It’s about Kevin, my son.
Nineteen years ago today in a hospital in Bakersfield a beautiful baby was born. In the suitcase I took to the hospital, I packed one of the soft pink outfits set aside for the new addition to our family. The last three ultrasounds, the doctor assured me I was having another girl.
Emily would join Justine and Kathleen in our family. We were thrilled.
Imagine our shock and delight when we heard, “It’s a boy.” Instead of an Emily, we had a Kevin.
Today, nineteen years later, Kevin had planned a celebration with family and friends at a local pizza parlor in town where he has a part-time job. In preparation, Kevin spent many hours talking about the party and who he was going to invite. He wrote and rewrote his guest list. Invited were friends from his transition program, family and past paraprofessionals who’ve worked closely with him.
“I want an ice cream cake, Mom.”
“I want music CD’s and clothes.”
Kevin also wanted people to dance at his party.
Today instead of pizza and cake, Kevin’s spending his birthday in a psychiatric ward twenty miles away. Visiting hours are 6:00 – 7:00 PM. He’s allowed no gifts. No dancing. Cell phones and cameras aren’t permitted.
He’s been away from home for over a week.
On the phone this morning, I was reluctant to remind Kevin that today was his birthday. I didn’t want to cause him any more distress.
Instead of celebrating, I feel today is a day for me to write, process, and reflect.
What many people may not realize is that the Art of Autism project is inspired by Kevin and his colorful, textured art.
This is Kevin’s story.
When Kevin was born I was 36. He’s the youngest of three. He came into this world with trauma. He was turned the wrong way and required an emergency C-section.
He developed normally until around 15 months when he started losing words and retreating into himself. I was so busy with three children and work I didn’t even notice. A neighbor who was an early intervention specialist did. This was the first of many people who came to our family to help Kevin.
“I notice your son riding around the block on his tricycle. It doesn’t seem he’s talking much,” she said.
She arranged for Kevin to receive early-start intervention which consisted of a play therapist and a speech therapist coming to our house a couple times a week. Not long after, the diagnosis of autism came.
At the time I thought maybe he’ll outgrow it. It wasn’t until he was six that I realized he probably wouldn’t outgrow autism.
Kevin qualified for a grant with the UCSB Koegel Autism Center. The therapists spent many hours playing games and creating structure for Kevin. They also provided training for me.
Kevin’s favorite toy as a child was Brio trains.
“Under the bridge,” the therapist said pushing a little train under the bridge.
“Under” Kevin would repeat. Kevin’s reward for good behavior was visiting the train station. We spent hours watching trains.
The Koegels had stellar therapists. Kevin worked hard on developing skills such as not going into a tantrum when he lost a game, and not screaming when we weren’t in the fast lane on the highway.
Kevin and John Marc, a chess champion, spent many hours in front of the chessboard. Kevin became quite competent at chess.
One therapist taught Kevin how to surf. For years, Kevin would spend most of his summers in a wetsuit on Carpinteria city beach. He was able to participate in regular surf and kayak camps with typical kids.
“He caught a wave today,” the surf instructor told me. Kevin’s skin turned a deep chocolate brown and his hair developed blonde streaks from the sun in the summer.
A friend loaned Kevin a drum kit and he took drumming lessons at Mike’s Drums Store in Santa Barbara.
One day I went to pick up Kevin from surf camp and he was drumming in a make-shift band. His surf instructor was on the guitar and another on the bass. They were playing a Jack Johnson surf song.
“He’s got a little rhythm going,” the instructor said.
The day Colin arrived Kevin’s art career began. For four years, Kevin spent many hours with Colin pouring over art books learning biographies and techniques of the masters. Under Colin’s supervision, Kevin practiced different techniques on canvases.
We set aside an entire room in our house for his painting. The oil paint splattered on the walls and the tile floors. I felt the mess was a small sacrifice for the fun it brought to him. He loved texture and would layer his oil paintings with sticks and sometimes leaves.
Kevin still loves bright swirling colors and lots of paint on his canvas.
Keith, another therapist, had a dog named Bella that Kevin became enamored of. Keith used to joke that Bella, like Kevin, was autistic. They’d spend hours walking on the bluffs in Carpinteria. Kevin’s painted several paintings of Bella.
One day Kevin visited an art gallery in Santa Barbara and much to his therapist’s amazement had a long conversation with the curator about different artists. Not many eleven year old kids know that much about art.
In fourth grade, Kevin for the first time walked home from school by himself. I drove to the corner and parked behind a tree so he couldn’t see me. When he turned the corner, I moved my car down the street. I continued watching to make sure he knew the correct route home. I did this for a couple of weeks. One day he caught me.
“Mom, you don’t have to watch me. I can walk by myself,” he said.
For the next three years, Kevin walked the ten blocks home from school. He also rode his bicycle and skateboard around our small town. He was doing well in the alternative family school.
Before long, we found ourselves inundated with art canvases that Kevin completed in his therapy sessions. We began to donate his art work to nonprofits in town. He won student art contests. When he was twelve, I entered him into a regular exhibition with seasoned artists, and the juror chose his painting!
I felt Kevin’s hard work and all the hours of therapy would afford Kevin to live an independent and fulfilling life.
When Kevin was thirteen and in seventh grade, he came home one day and went to bed. He stopped talking and retreated into himself. He started pacing, flexing his arms in contorted positions, over his head. His body would jerk like a wave. Sometimes he’d go into a rage and throw things. He talked about another Kevin. He felt that the remote to the TV was controlling him and talked of an orange box that gave him messages.
I received alarmed emails from the special ed teacher at school.
“What’s wrong with Kevin?”
“Schizo-affective disorder,” the doctor said. The doctor prescribed seizure medication and an anti-psychotic.
Our world began to unravel. Kevin was no longer safe by himself. He needed twenty-four hour supervision. He could no longer be trusted to walk home from school. He would go into stores and steal things right off the shelf. The only interest he sustained was his art.
We couldn’t seem to find the right combination of medications and therapies to help Kevin.
At age fifteen, Kevin was picked up by the police and put into juvenile hall.
“He doesn’t belong here,” the captain said. “All the kids are trying to help him. They know he doesn’t belong here.”
After two nights, he was transferred to a psychiatric hospital where he spent almost two months. Then to a crisis home 120 miles away. We drove the two-hours to visit him each week.
He was put on medication that seemed to help him. He attended school again. Our family was hopeful when he came home at age 16, his junior year in high school. Kevin had learned good habits in the group home and he was appreciative to be back home. We were hopeful again.
His art continued to receive accolades. Curators took notice. Three of his works were displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in the Ukraine. Other pieces found their way to galleries in New York and Massachusetts.
Kevin made it through his junior and senior year and was excited to attend City College this Fall in a transition program. Last year his art was recognized by VSA and was at an exhibition at the Smithsonian. He has two pieces now on exhibit at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Kevin has hopes for his art. After he painted this one earlier this year, he said “This one’s so good it’s going to get me to Paris.” Not long after Kevin went to San Antonio for the “Yes I Can Awards.” He won an award for visual art.
A few months ago Kevin started to unravel again. Each day has become worse. We’ve been working with a prominent psychiatrist (thanks to the Billingtons) to adjust his meds. He receives cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness therapy and has a behaviorist who comes to our home twice a week. He still paints.
Last week Kevin voluntarily checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. The first few days we were hopeful.
“I’m here because they’re going to help me,” he said on Monday.
On Thanksgiving he took a turn for the worse.
Yesterday, he had an awful day. They gave him emergency medication which knocked him out.
Today when I talked to him he said, “I want to come home. I want to have a birthday party at Giovanni’s. It makes me want to cry.”
“When you come we’ll have a big party for your birthday,” I tell him.
“Will it be a dance party?” he asks.
“Yes, we’ll have a dance party when you come home.”
Instead of gifts today, I would love if people would keep Kevin in their prayers and send him light and love on his nineteenth birthday.
Kevin Hosseini’s website is www.kevingallery.com. His facebook page is www.facebook.com/kevinhosseiniart Kevin’s always had angels who help him. This is a collaborative painting he completed with J. Dan Gibbs called Angel for the Normal Films documentary “Arts: Possibilities, Disabilities, and the Arts.”