Art Breeds Autism Awareness

Lucy Gellman PhotoOn any given weekend, Angus Fussiner and his dad, Saul, dive into a suite of activities — soccer, jujitsu — laced with an almost rhythmic routine and social aspect that helps seven-year-old Angus, who is on the Aspergian end of the autism spectrum, get to know other kids his age in safe and comfortable settings.

Last Saturday was different. Holding a soft, stretchy pink toy meant to quell stress through sensory pleasure, Angus sat at a table at Chapel Haven, spreading peanut butter on a pinecone with almost surgical precision. At his right, Linda Freidelaender, senior curator of education at the Yale Center for British Art, took a big whiff, smiling at the scent as Fussiner continued his quest to coat the cone, which he planned to cover in birdseed once all sides were sticky.

“I like birds, even chickadees,” he said when complimented.

Fussiner’s pinecone-painting signaled a new activity in Chapel Haven’s Autism Art Education program, a collaborative effort between the organization, which works with many affected by autism spectrum-disorders and intellectual and social disabilities, and the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA). Milling about Chapel Haven’s upstairs rec room, educators, curators, and volunteers worked side by side to ready an “enchanted garden” with birdseed-kissed pinecones, freshly painted birdhouses, bright new bulb planters, and a 2016 mural in time for spring’s March 21 arrival.

The special session was an outgrowth of Out to Art, which brings Chapel Haven students and residents into the YCBA’s galleries for two hours per week, 44 weeks per year, to talk about the works on display. Started as a collaboration between Friedlaender and Chapel Haven’s Art Director Tina Menchetti 2011, Out to Art ran into a roadblock when the YCBA closed for renovations in 2015 (it’s slated to reopen in early May). The solution, both Friedlaender and Menchetti agreed, was to bring the art to Chapel Haven. When Chicago-based artist Margot McMahon put forward several ideas about making art for children and teens, the two were hooked. 

“This program is about trying to make the museum more inclusive, and open to people with all kinds of backgrounds and abilities,” said Friedlaender, who has worked in New Haven for 35 years. “We want to help provide public, social learning space for all different individuals and make them feel comfortable, safe, welcomed in a space that neurotypical people use all the time … and to show that programs can be designed to meet the needs of a vast spectrum of people. That’s basically it.”
But for Fussiner and other kids on the autism spectrum — as well as their parents — it marked an opportunity to make art and to play in a setting that was all about celebrating spring, instead of fixating on how a social situation might get sticky or stressful, or about how a parent might have to intervene and explain that their child fell on the autism spectrum.

“We have been coming here for two years,” said Stacy Bunjiro, watching as her son Alex, 11, painted his birdhouse with a marbled grey-green and flecks of orange. “I’ve known Alex was on the spectrum since he was about four, and with something like this, he can come, he can be himself, he can be with other kids — I don’t have to explain ‘he has Aspergers, he has autism.’ They just accept him as he is.

“I grew up around art museums, being exposed to art museums, and I always wanted to find a venue to expose my kids — but I was afraid because Alex has Aspergers and doesn’t always know how to behave in a museum, and my daughter has ADHD … I’m always a little hesitant to take them to museums that aren’t very hands on, touchy children’s museums, so this was the perfect opportunity.”

Around her, a small army brought that into reality. Menchetti ran across the room from activity to activity, sporting a paint-splattered blue apron. Freidelander spent time at each table, toting a small box of stress balls and sharing advice on birdseed and planter colors. Members of Students for Autism Awareness at Yale (SAAY), such as Zachary Williams, a junior studying psychology whose own struggle with Aspergers motivated him to join the group in 2014, tried to “inspire social communication” through art. 

During the afternoon, the morning’s small handful of attendees gave way to close to 30 teenage and adult participants, immersed in a slate of activities for the “enchanted garden” that included weaving birds nests and wreaths, readying bulbs in fresh soil, and building a long-necked bird sculpture with McMahon, who is on sabbatical in New Haven.

“This helps me calm down when I’m stressed out,,” said Rachel Warden, 25, a participant in the afternoon’s activities who works at Chapel Haven’s satellite center UArts several days each week. “It makes me feel better. And I like using both my hands.” Earlier in the day, she had painted a pristine blue and green birdhouse with lavender trim; now she was transfixed by the sculpture.

“Come join!,” McMahon urged, getting under a thick piece of tubing that would become the neck of the bird. Warden smiled and leaned back just a little. Then she looked to her left, where a bright mural for the garden was nearly finished. Smiling, she walked across the room, picked up a paintbrush, and began to add to the work.

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