Autism And The Arts At The Ohio Arts Council

VSA Ohio brings the arts to special needs communities(Photo: VSA Ohio)
VSA Ohio brings the arts to special needs communities(Photo: VSA Ohio)

Through the kindness of Erin Hoppe and VSA Ohio I was invited to spend yesterday morning as part of a round tale discussion on how the arts can affect those on the autism spectrum. This was a ‘focus’ group model, the event made possible by the Ohio Arts Council.

Our work was facilitated by Sharon M. Malley, Ed.D., Special Education specialist for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Arts. VSA was once known as Very Special Arts, and its national headquarters is at the Kennedy Center.

We were a mix of parents, arts professionals and funding sources. Representatives from Columbus City Schools attended and from the Haguland Learning Center, a Columbus based school for autistic children.

Others included Ben Shinaberry from the Dick and Jane Project and Robin Post from Shakespeare and Autism, the Hunter Heartbeat Method developed by Kelly Hunter of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC is in the midst of a fabulous collaboration with Ohio State University, using Shakespeare as a vehicle in teaching a variety of subjects to different constituencies.

Dr. Malley asked each of us why were there. I attended as a parent first, second as someone closely involved in the arts in Central Ohio.

What can the Ohio Arts Council do to improve arts education for the autistic?

People wanted more online resources, more information spread out. They were all worthy suggestions. I entered the autism community 20 years ago so my perspective is different. Twenty yeas ago problems like this didn’t exist. I thought there was now too much information (!) out there.

Remember, I said, how you felt five minutes after you were told of your child’s diagnosis. Did you feel like looking for websites?

Of course, communication is crucial and we all need to take full advantage of the web and social media. But specifically what can the Ohio Arts Council do?

I said you can have round tables like this one, bring together arts professionals with funding sources and decision makers. The arts council has access to elected officials, which caused groans throughout the room.

So does everybody else, but it should be possible for one of their staff to hear the needs of this community, and learn more about arts program designed to improve the life and employability of persons on the spectrum.

We live in a very rich community culturally. This classroom was filled with creativity during the session. 

Cary Johnston directs Shopworks Theatre Company. They put our kids to work in the theater. Settings are created where our kids needn’t follow rigid rules, which are impossible for them. There’s no anarchy allowed but the focus is how this particular artistic endeavor can provide, language, socialization, motor skills and a safe place. The arts do it all.

With the change is diagnostic criteria we are headed toward 10 to 15 percent of the workforce being on the autism spectrum. Give it 10 or 15 years. Thus, training and programs must be in place to focus special abilities in creativity, math, writing, movement, music and the visual arts

The Dick and Jane Project puts autistic kids together with a local musicians one-on-one. The kids write their own songs. I fell in love with this project. The point was made that these rocker/teachers usually have no information about autism. They approach the children with a let’s do music ready set go attitude. No pre judgement. Yay!

The creativity is in place. The links between the arts and education are often re-enforced through music, art and drama therapies. The missing link is an onging conversation between the teachers/artists and funding sources in the same room, even for one hour each year.

Personally, I miss he “Mothers From Hell,” who complete with T-shirts and a logo haunted the State House and school districts. I would have loved their input this morning. Thanks to the Ohio Arts Council, VSA Ohio and the young creative minds I met this morning.

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