When strangers came to visit my booth, they asked, “Did you really take all of these photos?” They did not know that an autistic person could do that kind of work. They were surprised!
By Malcolm Wang
I am really lucky that I live in a small town that has a lot of exhibition opportunities for young artists. One fun opportunity was the street fair called Spectrum Fest in downtown Northville, Michigan. Spectrum Fest is a day of family fun hosted by the non-profit Living and Learning Enrichment Center. The festival features music, food, Autistic vendors, and autism friendly vendors.
I bought my own ten by ten foot booth, and I shared it with Dylan Somberg, who is also a self-advocate and artist. I first met Dylan at the Autism Alliance of Michigan Conference when I was a keynote panelist there. I felt excited about sharing a booth with Dylan there, because he is a great artist and I was able to take turns with him watching the booth and enjoying the festival. When I shared the booth with Dylan, I did not have to worry about getting too tired from sensory overload.
Dylan and I split the booth in half and we each displayed our work in our section. People who came to the festival said hello to me and many of them bought my work or Dylan’s work. Old friends and teachers came to see me. I asked to take a selfie with them and hug all of them. When strangers came to visit my booth, they asked, “Did you really take all of these photos?” They did not know that an autistic person could do that kind of work. They were surprised!
The reason for the festival is so that everyone can understand that an autistic person like me can work and enjoy being part of the fun. The Living and Learning Enrichment Center is a nonprofit organization that helps autistic teens and young adults develop their interests and work skills. I am a client at the center, and I enjoy the weekend hangouts, the writing class, and summer camp.
The idea behind all the programs is to follow special interests. So at the hangout, I always go to the singing room because I love to sing. There is also a quiet room and a room where people play video games sometimes. In the writing class, I share my short stories and listen to other people’s stories. At summer camp, I went to visit local businesses and learned about different types of jobs in my town. My brother is a youth mentor at the center, and he is starting a Pokemon club, just to play the Pokemon trading card game. I think people learn best when they are doing something they enjoy. The Living and Learning Center also has an art class, a rock band, a Dungeons and Dragons club, and a Japanese Anime club, along with many other fun programs.
Another reason for the festival is to help the Living and Learning Center grow new programs. In September, the Mod Market will open in Northville. This will be an Artisan Market that employs autistic adults and features products from autistic makers. My town needs more awareness so that the Living and Learning Center can do projects like this.
I consider Rachelle Vartanian, the director of the Living and Learning Center, and Pam Travis, the assistant director to be my good friends. I feel like I can go to them to ask questions anytime. I asked them why the Spectrum Fest is important. Rachelle said, “We started Spectrum Fest to have a fun family day that celebrates differences. When people get older, it’s often hard to find services. We wanted an event that would have many different vendors who offered many different services for families who may not have known these services were available. For example, social security experts, therapists, schools, and much more.”
Pam said, “It’s also a wonderful event that brings people together to enjoy food, listen to music, and have fun. With more awareness, there will be acceptance. Many times people are uneducated about things.”
I am writing this blog to encourage other autistic artists to try a street fair, especially an autism friendly festival like Spectrum Fest. I had to be careful to accommodate my disability at the fair. I brought my mom as a support person and I shared my booth with Dylan, because I knew I needed extra support. I had a small sign at my booth that said, “Free hugs, free handshakes, free autism acceptance,” so that people would understand how I communicate. I took a lot of breaks during the day to accommodate my disability. I had to leave at seven o’clock because I was so tired. Some people might need noise cancelling headphones.
The Second Annual Spectrum Fest is on Saturday, September 21, 2019 in downtown Northville, Michigan. There will be live music all day long, and the Killer Flamingos will play at nighttime. I will be there in my blue booth and I am requesting a booth far away from the music so that way it will be quieter for me. There is a Facebook Event page with more information about Spectrum Fest. Spectrum Fest is a celebration of autism.
I am a high school student in Novi, Michigan. I have been taking photographs of nature for six years. I have exhibited at the Novi Civic Center, the Northville Art House, University of Michigan Matthaei Botanical Garden, Barefoot Theater in Livonia, Michigan and the US Department of Education. I was diagnosed with autism when I was three years old.