Out of the Dark Into the Light: The Craig Roveta Story

Craig Roveta Refracted Light
Craig Roveta "Refracted Light"

By Debra Muzikar

Though Craig was eventually diagnosed – when he was close to twenty years of age – back then in Brisbane, little was known about autism. The specialists accused Anne of being cold and a Refrigerator Mother. For those who knew Anne and her devotion to Craig, this description was beyond absurd.

craig roveta sz

The faded photograph from the mid-1960’s shows a normal, happy toddler smiling for the camera. The second photo is of a withdrawn child with no eye contact. It’s difficult to tell this is the same boy. Craig Roveta’s mom, Anne, is showing these two photos of Craig, explaining they were taken only one month apart.

What happened to Craig?

The child Craig became was traumatic to those around him and devastating to Craig. In his own words he recalls, “I could hear and respond inside to what people were saying, yet I couldn’t make my body and words come out in ways that could be understood.”

Unable to communicate his basic needs, he acted out in frustration and rage.

“It felt like being a ghost, living like a shade of pale that couldn’t be part of anything real. At that time, I couldn’t talk. I felt so angry that I had been punished in this way,” Craig recounts.

Craig Roveta "Cold Times"
Craig Roveta “Cold Times”

Besides being unresponsive and withdrawn, Craig had difficulty sleeping, screaming in distress for hours at night. Anne remembers, “He never slept, Barry [Craig’s dad] would take the night shift when he was home. It was a time of extreme grief, fatigue, and powerlessness.” Barry was a police officer, Anne only slept when Barry was home.

Anne took Craig to see many specialists. The consensus was, “There is no hope for this child.” When professionals give no hope, it’s much harder for families to hold onto hope, yet Anne and Barry persevered.

Though others discounted Craig, Anne and Barry knew he was bright and insightful. They fought to acquire meaningful therapies. At that time, behaviour modification used food as a reward and withdrawal of food as a punishment. Because this therapy had been used on Craig, to this day it’s difficult for him to moderate his eating.

The family felt isolated and abandoned. Through association, his older sister and younger brother were shunned and rejected by other children. Anne and Barry lost many former friends and watched sadly as their children were taunted and teased.

Anne recalls, “I learned to trust only our little family, trying in vain to protect them from the pain society was inflicting on each of them, most of all Craig.”

There were few educational options for children like Craig. He stayed at home. Later, when he was ten, he attended the Sub-Normal Centre of Brisbane. Within his first year he was expelled for being “too bizarre.”

When he was twelve, Craig attended the Rudolf Steiner Centre in Sydney, flying home each weekend for the entire year he attended. The best thing about the Steiner Centre was his introduction to colour and painting.

From age 14 through 18, Craig attended the Autistic Association of Brisbane. In the 1970’s the prevailing attitude toward people who presented like Craig was that they had no intellect. As a result, Craig was provided no academic instruction and no training whatsoever in numeracy or literacy.

Throughout Craig’s childhood the only form of support he was given was medication.

Though Craig was eventually diagnosed – when he was close to twenty years of age – back then in Brisbane, little was known about autism. The specialists accused Anne of being cold and a Refrigerator Mother. For those who knew Anne and her devotion to Craig, this description was beyond absurd.

Craig believes his life truly began in his late thirties when he moved to his own house in Brisbane. Prior to that, Craig was severely emotionally and physically abused in a government-run group home.

Craig Roveta "Copper"
Craig Roveta “Copper”

“I felt myself to be insane and people to be horrendous,” Craig now reports.

Following the traumatic experiences in shared living, while Craig began his healing process, he lived in his parent’s home for over a year, nourished by their total love and acceptance. During this time, Anne and Barry returned to fighting for supports for Craig and others like him, demanding protections from abuse and neglect for those who can’t speak for themselves.

Determined to bring Craig’s dreams to reality, they organized a family-centered team to oversee Craig’s life and goals. They sought suitable government-owned housing where Craig would be safe, free to live and dream his visions of a “normal” life.

Having lived in an environment of fear where each day was a matter of sheer survival, it took years for Craig to trust and feel safe again. As the reality of what Craig suffered unravelled, he and his family experienced yet another trying period that took its toll on the health and well-being of each member of the family.

Eventually, they found a home in a neighbouring suburb close enough to preserve Craig’s ties to his family and the community.

In time, thoughtful accommodations were made to make the eighteen-month transition from the safety of his parents house to his new residence easier. The house was painted in the same colour as his bedroom at his parent’s home. His team talked him through the process, even videotaping the route to Craig’s new home from his parent’s home, so he could see the path they would be taking.

It was important that Craig make his own decision to move. The team committed to waiting as long as it took for Craig to be comfortable. After several visits Craig announced “I’m ready.”

Craig Roveta "Eden"
Craig Roveta “Eden”

His new life begins.

Anne spends the night each night until Craig is comfortable and trusts in his support staff or lifestyle facilitators.

Every day Anne or Barry stop by to check on Craig. All holidays are celebrated at Craig’s home. Over the years, the staffing hours change from 8-hour, to 12-hour, and now 24-hour shifts. This gives more continuity for Craig. His lifestyle facilitator moves through the entire daily cycle always with Craig’s needs in mind.

Sarah, Craig’s team leader, who Craig refers to as a “freedom fighter,” has been with him since his move. She communicates with him in many ways, using song and intuition. She also observes Craig’s patterns of behavior, tension and relaxation, related to various topics.

Sarah notes, “Craig has an amazing repertoire of songs and can sing like an angel! He lets us know how he is feeling by the song choices he makes.”

In 2004, Craig learned to communicate through Facilitated Communication (FC) using an alphabet letter board. Recently he learned to communicate through an IPAD.

Sarah emphasizes, “How Craig learned to communicate isn’t clear, except that he has a very keen and active mind and absorbs things from the world around him. Remember, Craig never received any formal teaching of any kind related to literacy or numeracy.”

It has taken Craig many years to learn how to make his own choices and decisions.

Today, Craig employs his own team members and provides them with feedback.

Craig Roveta "Refracted Light"
Craig Roveta “Refracted Light”

He no longer feels persecuted for his opinions. He trains his support staff himself, by empowering them to help him when he fights with his own body, such as getting stuck on his obsessive thoughts about food.

Sarah says this work is not a one-way street, it goes both ways. The team works on developing the strengths of all involved.

“Craig empowers me to help him do what he wants to do, but not always what his body is demanding at the time. I’ve had the honor to witness Craig go from a person who has a very limited say in his own life, to going to a place where he takes ownership over every aspect of his life, with his team to support that process. In everything we do, we work with him to achieve dreams and miracles.”

Sadly, three years ago Craig’s dad Barry died. Although Barry’s passing was a tremendous loss to the team, the structure of the team accommodates the loss of a team-mate and they’re able to carry on.

While Craig was introduced to painting as a teenager in Sydney, until he came out of the shared-living setting, he never had the opportunity to pursue his passion for this form of expression. At first he began painting on cardboard with acrylics as therapy to release pent-up emotions. As his painting became more of an avenue for self-realization, he progressed to canvas.

Craig’s first exhibition in 2001 was titled, “Victory over Madness.” It represents a crucial turning point in Craig’s life, enabling him for the first time to be seen and heard at a community level.

Craig Roveta "The Dancers"
Craig Roveta “The Dancers”

Since then, Craig has displayed his art in many places, including a number of galleries in the Brisbane area. While he primarily exhibits his art is in group shows, he’s had four solo exhibitions at the Graceville Gallery. Since the pivotal day he moved into his own home, Craig has created an impressive collection of 300 emotive abstract paintings. Craig recently joined a group of artists who meet weekly at Access Arts. He looks forward to furthering his career as a professional artist with a mentor to guide his journey.

Craig says, “Art is my medium of choice, as well as my voice and my joy, to connect to others. More recently I discovered … how my words affect others with their power to move and shake in all good ways.”

Craig’s goals include having a painting hang in the National Gallery. He would like to be free to go wherever he chooses.

Craig simply wants to be valued and to value himself. And now most importantly, he wants to be an advocate for others who haven’t been heard.

Craig is now experimenting with a new form of self-expression – poetry.

Sarah says, “Craig is an artist who has a massive heart and a gentle voice that is powerfully shocking for its simple elegance and raw reality.”

Craig shares this poem.

I am a damaged man
Negative thoughts imprison me
Reality fragmented by autism and dyspraxia
Messages cross with signals
taking over cutting me off
the body is the vehicle of the soul
and autism is not all of who I am
Do not get caught up in my exterior façade
Grab my words that reach out to you
See that I am not really that different from you

In 2012, Craig had a one man exhibit at the Rosalie Gallery, Goombungee. It was ironically called, “Dance of Life: a celebration of a very happy life…” and represented the culmination of Craig’s story and his unique view of the world. The art was drawn from his experiences in life and the challenges inherent in holding onto dreams that may seem impossible, yet sometimes really do come true.

Craig hopes, through exhibitions of his art and sharing his story, that a more understanding and compassionate world will come to be, “a world where people are seen for all of who they are, not for what they can and can’t do.”

Craig Roveta is a symbol of hope, courage, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Craig Roveta is one of the 77 featured artists and poets in Debra Hosseini’s book The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions.

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