If you walk into Audrey Olsen's house, you'll find masterpieces in every room. There are decorative flower arrangements on the table, festive hot plate tiles hanging in the windows and an eclectic collection of paintings displayed in several rooms. All were created by her favorite artist, her daughter Sherry. Sherry, 39, of Carol Stream has accumulated a house full of masterpieces over the years.
Like any artist, Sherry, who is developmentally delayed, is immensely proud of her work. She enjoys the creative process, seeing what she can create, and then sharing it with others. But interestingly enough, it is not the final pieces that keep her engaged. For Sherry it is the social nature of the art classes she takes that she enjoys the most. It allows her the independence to focus on her own projects while connecting with people with similar interests.
"Sitting around a table while working on an art project is a tremendously social way for a person with special needs to experience art," says Western DuPage Special Recreation Association (WDSRA) program manager and art therapist Dana Stewart. As they work on the project they have the opportunity to share ideas, see what others are doing, talk about their choices and to broaden their creative abilities. "I have seen so many of my students get inspired by each other." Dana has also witnessed Sherry building many friendships through WDSRA art programs.
There are other benefits that children and adults with special needs can gain from the art experience. Projects that provide some sort of framework, like those usually found in a class setting, can offer an opportunity to learn how to listen, follow directions, work step-by-step and exercise patience. For those individuals that find this part challenging, this can be another venue to practice those skills.
Then there is the opportunity to make choices. Sometimes that means creating an orange bunny. Peggy Schuda's daughter Lizzie, 29 and living with Down syndrome, knew bunnies could be white, brown or black and yet she chose to make the bunny on a recent ceramics project orange. "She did it her way," chuckles her mom Peggy. An artist herself, Peggy believes that it is important that the vision comes from within the artist and knows that sometimes that may mean an orange bunny.
She also scoffs at the thought of someone thinking they have no artistic talent. "It's not about talent. Art is about expressing yourself," says Peggy. "And we have the opportunity to learn what is inside a person through their art." She smiles as she thinks about the things she has learned about Lizzie through her art.
Art is personal by nature. Every part of the journey is a choice that has to be made by the artist. From the medium to the subject to the colors, every choice is a little insight into what the artist is feeling at that particular moment in time. It can provide a goal to work toward, encourage creativity and self-expression, and a finished product they can be proud of. Sometimes it means an orange bunny.
So how do you introduce your child to art and tap into their expressive selves? It can be easier than you think. Schools incorporate art it into their curricula across a number of subjects. Approach the assignment with enthusiasm. Park districts and Special Recreation Associations offer an extensive selection of art classes. Sign your child up for a class. Businesses offering artistic options are popping up everywhere, from ceramics studios to jewelry making studios. Make a family outing at one of them and model the creative process for your child.
Of course, artistic projects can easily be done at home too. It can be as simple as finger painting, drawing, modeling with clay or stringing beads. Provide a space that encourages creativity and can support a little mess. Show samples of what a finished project could look like. Along the way, be sure you give your child the freedom to make choices because this is where self-expression reveals itself. Invite siblings and friends to join in. Encourage them to talk about what they are doing and share ideas with each other.
When completed, applaud their new masterpiece by displaying it proudly. Ask them to tell you about the choices they made. When friends and family stop by, let your child see you show off their masterpiece. Have your child tell them about it. Seeing others admire their work is a powerful boost to their self-esteem and ego.
The creative process can be a tremendous outlet for expressing thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes. It can give your child a new means of expressing themselves. It can give you an insight into yet another part of your child. And yes, sometimes it means ending up with an orange bunny.
• Sherry Manschot is the marketing/public relations manager at Western DuPage Special Recreation Association. She leads a parent network of special needs families at WDSRA. Manschot can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about WDSRA can be found at wdsra.com.