Matt began his art as all children do – scribbles with crayon, lines on a page – what I call his “primitive art”. I felt his drawings revealed his mind and always looked at his art with a deep interest, trying to find the meaning behind each drawing. The drawing of multiple V-shaped lines in rows was finally deciphered to be “the 3-Vs” – the large power lines that traversed the mountains near our home. It was that “light-bulb” moment that led me to investigate every drawing there after.
I had showed Matt how to trace a picture, allowing him to draw anything he wanted and have the end-product look similar to the original. He was unhappy with his own simple renderings and was easily frustrated when his art didn’t quite meet his own high standards. Tracing gave him a new found pleasure in art. At school he couldn’t trace. He had to do his school work before he could enjoy his one true joy – drawing. Everyday Matt would return home from school and I would unpack his back pack to get out his papers and read the teacher’s or aid’s messages. Each day I found the most interesting drawings on the back side of his assignment papers. Unable to trace, Matt had to recall his favorite items from memory and draw what he saw in his mind’s eye. These were of course very child-like drawings, not up to Matt’s standards of perfection. Years went by as I watched him teach himself how to recall detail in order to perfect his art.
His ability to draw from memory was learned – Matt taught himself. He would sit in is room and draw the same picture over and over. Each time a line was drawn at the wrong angle or too long, instead of erasing he would crumble the entire sheet into a ball and toss it away. He had to have perfection. His hands would draw slowly at first, getting each detail just right. Then he would repeat the process over and over until his hands could fly across the page and draw the most intricate of pictures in under 5 minutes.
This isn’t all that unusual if you think about it. Lots of people train their hands – crochet, knitting, driving a stick shift. Practice over and over allows you to perform a function without looking, allowing a person who crochets to watch the television, or a person driving a manual transmission to keep their eyes on the road. Matt’s love was drawing and he trained his hands to draw without thinking. This allowed him to draw any time and anywhere without having any of his beloved train books in front of him or his favorite movie on the TV. He began taking paper and pencil with him where ever we went – always ready to draw if the need overtook him. Drawing calmed his mind, allowed him to focus on the minute and decreased his fear of new surroundings and sounds. He used his art to communicate as well, telling me what he needed and what he was thinking. Matt had found a way to make peace with his world.
As Matt got older his interest veered more toward animation. The cartoons he watched became a daily need and the characters became his imaginary friends. He would repeat the lines of each character and add a few responses from himself. His new friends began to show up in his art. Again, Matt would practice drawing each facet, his hands moving slowly at first. He practiced drawing just eyes, then just facial expressions, and then body gesture. Page after page of practice allowed him to then combine these pieces to show any situation and every type of movement. Each new drawing became more and more detailed. Between the ages of 12 and 16 Matt learned to draw himself and began putting himself in his drawing with his cartoon friends.
Self portraits take time to master. Matt would look at himself in the mirror above his dresser and make various expressions. He wanted the hair to be just right, the expression to convey just the right emotion. As part of a new drawing Matt was learning new social skills. He used his animated self to interact with his animated friends, converse, and display both sad times and good. Watching him interact with animated characters concerned me – was this new behavior a good thing or a bad thing? I chose to think of it as a good thing – after all, he was learning to interact, even if it was not with real people. I’m glad I decided to just let it flow out of him this way because I soon realized his ability to interact with real, live people was improving dramatically. Matt had used the safety of his art to practice social skills and emotion. After getting comfortable with his animated friends he could now test his new-found skills on family members and school mates. Matt found a way to enter our world without overwhelming fear of the unknown – it was truly amazing to behold.
Matt has never stopped learning. Autism is not a static condition with children doomed to always be as they were at 2 years old. They learn, they change, they adapt to the new situations. Autism causes fear of the unknown, but given a supportive environment they learn to move past the fear and attempt the incredible – entering our world. I look at Matt’s drawings now and see a progression of determination and talent. I see a child growing and learning and emerging from beneath the dark cloud of autism. Would I have been that strong? Could I have done what he has done? I don’t know if I could have done all that he has.
Matt still takes paper and pencils with him where ever we go. Most times it is like taking a safety blanket and the items are never used. Sometimes he sees something and just needs to draw it – like the various street signs, or the beach at Hatteras, but these drawings are for later use in the stories he writes. You see, Matt’s art needed dialogue because it is animation and all comic books and cartoons have a story line. So Matt not only draws, he writes. Where in earlier years he could only communicate through his pictures, he now can communicate through words. The sentences are clear and the paragraphs well written. Art has transformed his mind. His ability to communicate in sentences, the continued use of eye contact and displaying the correct body gesture are all a result of his attention to detail, the tons of practice and the animated friendships he developed through his art.
If I could pinpoint one pivotal moment in Matt’s life that changed everything it would have to be the day that I put Matt in my lap, placed a pencil in his hand, placed my hand gently over his and we began to draw. I didn’t know it at the time, but that one act, that simple, 15 minutes of attention, gave Matt the one thing he needed to transform his entire life. I am in awe.