Angela Fernandez-Ayala, a high school student with autism, recently exhibited her artwork at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) as part of a collaboration between the museum and the Initiative for Girls and Women with Autism (IGWA) at the Yale Child Study Center. The partnership formed to use art as a way to develop cognitive flexibility, improve emotional expressiveness, and provide a fun social activity for teen girls with autism.
An autism diagnosis may include narrow and intense interests, which can cause difficulties for the teens; they are often extremely uncomfortable outside of that range. Angela, for example, has always loved to draw and paint, but tended to portray the same subjects over and over again. “I only wanted to draw bunnies and hearts,” she explained. Gently expanding interests and modes of expression can increase the quality of life for people with autism.
Art also fulfills an important objective of the IGWA: to bring teen girls with autism together for social and recreational opportunities. Kathy Koenig, MSN, who directs the Initiative, worked with Jaime Ursic to develop the program, which took place at the Yale Child Study Center. The program combines Ursic’s talent as an artist and teacher, with Koenig’s expertise regarding girls with autism.
Kids with Autism Doing Art
Ursic, who taught the classes, said the curriculum is similar to those for neurotypical kids – they start by looking at famous pieces, usually from one of Yale's collections, and learn about the artist, techniques, and history. Then they do a project that melds the materials and technique from the art. The difference was being prepared to help the teens break the confines of their established interests. This requires a special awareness and attention to the students - it would be too easy for a teacher to come across as dismissive of their interests.
Honoring current interests while encouraging expansion is a delicate balance. Ursic described a teen who only drew one cartoon motif over and over. When they did a project based on the famous Stubbs zebra painting, she encouraged the student to transfer the traits she liked in the cartoon to her zebra. The end result is a piece of art with a definite point of view, expressive of the artist’s interests and aesthetics.
From Angela’s point of view, Ursic offered a compromise – here’s what you need to do what you want, with a suggestion of adding one new thing, one new color, one new subject. And it was hard, at first. “All the creativity – it took a lot of effort to do it,” she said.
Creating and Discussing Art Increases Expressiveness
In addition to artistic exploration, the class is an opportunity for social interactions. “When Kathy and I started in January 2015, the girls would engage one-on-one with Kathy or me," Ursic said. By the end, the girls interacted with each other, texting and getting pizza outside of class.
Koenig was less sure if the friendships carried on afterwards, but positive about the cognitive and emotional benefits of the class. She said the teens became more confident in their artistic abilities and gained cognitive flexibility. “Educational research supports the view that creating art and expressing oneself in this way, with attempts to verbally express what one has created, has been shown to improve expressive ability. This is what I want for these teens – in addition to just having the fun of being together.”
Exhibiting Like A Pro
The art class ended with a formal exhibit in the docent room, titled “Artworxx,” during the week-long celebration of the YCBA’s reopening. After a grand opening reception for the students and their families, the art was on display for the general public for one week.
Everyone worked to make the event as close to a professional visiting exhibit as possible. Ursic and Koenig framed and hung the art, including placards displaying the title, artist, and medium. The students dressed up and invited their extended family. Staff and volunteers visited the exhibit before it opened, discussing the artwork all week. “It was great to see art that was made now in conversation with the artwork in the galleries,” Ursic said. Nearly 200 people attended the opening reception, which was described as “full of spirit,” and “a total upper.” Over 250 visited the exhibit during the week it was on view in the docent room.
Linda Friedlaender, Senior Curator of Education at YCBA, was thrilled with the partnership. With a grandson on the spectrum, welcoming patrons with different needs is personally important to her. “For me it’s a way to educate the public, to show there are people of many different backgrounds and abilities who can get a great deal out of coming to an art museum. It’s an example of how inclusive today’s museums can be.”
Angela said it was fun to talk about her artwork, and the cookies and lemonade were delicious. Even better, her artistic range expanded enormously. “She’ll draw anything now,” her father said, smiling as he described the creative and subtle ways her longtime interests show up in her artwork, a unique artistic signature.
Angela interrupted with the story of how the painting Unborn sparked her interest in drawing space, then paused and said, “I enjoy art more, now.”