New Jersey program serves autistic teens and adults
by Colleen Hordichuk, Art Therapist
Nine years ago, I joined the staff of my local high school as a paraprofessional in a brand new Autism program. I was chosen to be part of this new team because of my background in art therapy. It didn’t take long to incorporate art into the program because the students were surprisingly enthusiastic!
Using Art as Means of Expression
In 2011, one of my artists, Patrick, was recognized in the local paper, the Asbury Park Press, and a few months later he went on to win the prestigious New Jeresey Governor’s Award for Art. This young man used his art as a means of expression – literally. Every day, he wore his art printed on t-shirts and would start his conversations with, “Hi, I made this!” The art he created served as more than just an outlet for self-expression, it gave him an easy conversation starter!
Over the years I’ve been touched by so many incredible students and this past June, my annual high school art show showcased works of art from 42 students on the autism spectrum. I love having the opportunity to work with all these unique and talented students, but my true passion lies in the adult program I helped develop in my hometown at the Police Athletic League (PAL) in Howell, New Jersey.
Helping Hands Art & Exercise
Helping Hands Art & Exercise is a two-hour Saturday recreation program created specifically for the under-serviced, unique needs teens and adults of all ages in our community. The program began with two adults: my former aforementioned student, Patrick, and one of his friends. We’ve just completed our fifth year and have over 20 participants on the roster, with another four who have already requested to join the upcoming fall season. Some people travel up to an hour to attend our class because their towns lack appropriate programming.
Our youngest participants are in their teens, but most are in their 20s, 30s and occasionally even beyond. Everyone enjoys the unique program, which encourages a healthy lifestyle with exercise activities and the opportunity to meet peer mentors, along with the fun of creating art.
Many of our peer mentors volunteer because they hope to make a difference in someone’s life, but they are often surprised to find that working with and supporting their exceptional peers has made a profound and unexpected impact on them as well. Some have even been inspired to pursue a career in special education after working in our program. It’s incredible to witness how art can bring people together by creating a physical and emotional safe space for everyone to grow.
Because art is the highlight of the class, we hold periodic art gallery shows at the PAL. Our recent spring show had over 100 visitors with record-setting sales on original framed art, along with our new greeting cards and 2016 calendar. Past sale proceeds have gone back into program-funding and art supplies, however, our spring sale was so successful that my dream of being able to pay our artists finally came true!
Selling Art is Important for Self-Esteem
Selling art is a powerful moment for any artist, but it’s incredibly uplifting for our unemployed, adult artists and their families. I’ve heard virtually every parent of the young adults in our program say, “I just want my child to be happy.” Being able to help give these exceptional young adults an opportunity to find their happiness through art is an incredibly humbling experience that I’m grateful for every day.
Helping Hands Art & Exercise Program Guide is available on our website at www.HelpingHandsArt.com so that you may easily set up a program at your local PAL or town community center. Our newest venture will be a shop on www.etsy.com featuring our Helping Hands Artists with Autism greeting cards. You can email Colleen at info@HelpingHandsArt.com.
Colleen Hordichuk, graduated from The College of New Jersey with degrees in Art Therapy and Psychology. Designed and implemented an art component for a new autism program in the local high school. Colleen Co-Founded Helping Hands Art & Exercise program in 2012. She is the co-author of “Art: No Words Needed” Autism Parenting Magazine and co-author of “Everyone Deserves to be Healthy” Autism Parenting Magazine.
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