By Amelie M. Dalporto
People often possess prejudices and invite judgement into their everyday interactions.
When we see someone who may interact with the world in a way that is different from what we have experienced, we tend to disregard what they have to say and who they are. Art is a form of expression that can guide self acceptance and help individuals share with the world their unique point of view. Anyone can be an artist. This phrase is true in part, but in order to be a great artist one must create from the soul and let go of their insecurities and fear. Those that speak through art and are free from restraint or curriculum can thrive and create something incredible.
I have always possessed a great affinity towards neurodiverse individuals, and grew up around many people who had developmental disabilities. Several of my family members and best friends have been diagnosed with fragile X syndrome, cerebral palsy, ADHD, and autism. As an individual with dyslexia, I recall finding some of the curriculum in elementary and middle school to be hard for me to work with. I remember when my family decided to get me IQ tested for dyslexia in fourth grade, my school argued that “nothing was wrong with me” and that I was “doing well in school.”
Yet what they failed to realize is that, just because someone appears to be doing well, learning disabilities can require someone to expend more energy participating in a typical educational course.
People with neurodiversities tend to view the world from a unique lens, and often thrive in a more creative space where they can form their own paths and express themselves without repercussion.
When I was 10, one of our closest family friends, Agapi Burkard and the Burkard family, created the Burkard school in 2017, a K-8 school for neurodiverse children located in San Mateo, CA. I watched the school be built from the ground up, and roamed the campus before it was flooded with learners. When the school was built, I saw classrooms that offered more lenience within their curriculums and gave students who may have struggled in a modern academic setting the room they needed to grow. All of these aspects of my life have shaped my view of neurodiversity, and have inclined me to further understand the incredible people that view the world in an atypical way.
Growing up art was a major outlet for me. I found it easy for my mind to assemble stories and worlds, and would write poetry and draw images that echoed my thoughts. When I realized how helpful art had been in my life, I began to wonder how many other people with developmental disabilities were using art as a way to better understand themselves and the world.
I began my most recent journey into the world of art and neurodiversity by watching Life Animated, a documentary in which Owen Suskind, a young man with ASD, regained and enhanced his verbal and emotional skills by memorizing and watching Disney movies. I was truly inspired by his story and in awe of how Owen was able to find his voice and relate to the world by absorbing and embodying animated stories. After watching this film, I began reaching out to people who had discovered or been studying how the arts can influence neurodiverse communities.
I met initially with Anne Torsiglieri, the associate Professor in the Dept. of Theater and Dance at UCSB, and a mother of two sons with ASD. Anne had written and preformed her own one woman show, A Train, that reflected how her life had been altered by her son. The show also had incorporated images created by autistic artists.
Following this insightful meeting, I spoke to Debra Muzikar, president of The Art of Autism and was in awe of all she had done and all she had to say. Her mission is to give a voice to the autistic experience. “It is important to get out to the public a different framework around autism,” she said. Debra described that art is a way for people with autism and other neurodiversities to demonstrate their individual views and emotions that can sometimes be overlooked and dismissed by society. She explained how when people think differently, and they learn how to express this, genius can be born.
Lastly, I spoke to Amber O’Niell, artist, teacher, and mother, who has an incredibly talented artist son with Down Syndrome named Andrew. She explained how people like Andrew are often forced to “live inside themselves a little more,” and that a creative outlet like art can be very therapeutic and useful for people to share their individual voices.
Additionally, I began working with PeerBuddies and visited Slingshot studios in Santa Barbara, an art studio designed for art practice and the fine arts. Slingshot aims to create a place where adults with developmental disabilities can come to produce art. When I walked through the doors of the studio, I was welcomed by a booming “hello” from many of the artists. I had never seen such an open and welcoming place, free of judgement and full of a blossoming creativity. I received a tour of the studio from Jessica Schlobohm, Slingshot’s Gallery Director, and was amazed by the beautiful space and art that filled it.
Jessica explained how Slingshot offers tools to individual artists, while allowing artists creative autonomy. People who come to Slingshot have the opportunity to create without the inherent fear of judgement or penalty and that makes their art all the more beautiful. I got the opportunity to speak with some of these artists as well, admiring their patience and dedication to their work. I met with one man who was nonverbal, and had worked on one of his pieces for three years. Another woman showed me her pottery and described the creative story behind each piece. Her imagination was such a powerful, youthful force like nobody I had ever met.
Though I had entered my research with an idea of how powerful art can be for individuals who find it difficult to fit into the rigid mold of society, I never expected to learn so much about the importance of self expression and be so moved by the incredible people I met. The community of neurodiverse artists is one of freedom and little preconception. It is one that is welcoming to all and one that allows room for creativity and a youthful spirit. It embraces many values that our society often seems to lack or reject.
I want to help create awareness about the impacts that art can have on individuals who struggle with communication, learning, or self expression. Art is a platform in which anyone can express themselves. Art is a universal language that defies the laws of other forms of conveyance and evokes emotion. Through art, people with autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, etc., can articulate to others how they see the world and help their communities and society better understand them and their own genius. I have learned more than I had ever imagined over the past few months and believe that these artists have an incredible message to share with our society, and that their work can help reshape our ideas of vulnerability and self expression.
Amelie M. Dalporto is a high school student and an avid artist, actress, and photographer. She has contributed her photos to her local newspaper, Noozhawk, and art pieces to her school magazine. She is currently leading Santa Barabara’s only Student Demand Actions group against gun violence and is working with Peer Buddies, an organization designed to help children enhance their social skills. Amelie is interested in social justice issues and hopes to share her views on topics such as women’s rights, gun violence in America, and disability or neurodiversity with her community.