Students with Autism Create Inspiring Portraits of Celebrities

Chris Hall is a teacher trying to make a difference in the lives of his students with autism. At Joseph Lee School in Boston, Massachusetts, Chris teaches a class called Sensory Arts, a program comprised of 153 students with autism from the ages of 3-14 years old. The program has received acclaim for the students work creating mosaic’s of famous celebrities. We sat down with Chris to discuss his program in more detail.

Thanks for taking some time out to talk with us Chris. First off, can you tell us how Sensory Arts was founded?

Sensory Arts began three years ago as un-named class for the expanding autism program at the Joseph Lee School in Boston. Our principal, Kimberly Curtis-Crowley searched for a teacher to create a class that would incorporate gross motor skills, fine motor skills, and include art somewhere in the mix. My love of art, as well as my passion for working with students with autism, made me the perfect fit for this position. I named the class Sensory Arts, and it is a mix of art, music, dance, and performing arts.

How did you get your start with teaching? Did you always know you wanted to teach individuals with autism?

I began my educational journey at Massachusetts College of Art and earned a bachelor of fine arts with a concentration in photography. For the next nine years, I worked as a home delivery driver for an online grocer while earning my masters in elementary education. My first teaching job was a long- term substitute position as a sixth grade general education English Language Arts teacher. I was eventually laid-off when the teacher returned, so I ended up taking another long-term substitution position as a one to one paraprofessional with a student with autism in a substantially separate classroom, and it changed my life. 

I quickly discovered that my creativity allowed me to find adaptations and modifications to help my student overcome his obstacles, providing me with a huge sense of accomplishment every single day. This was when I realized that I was destined to teach students with autism, and I was going to do whatever it took to realize my goal. Soon I was enrolled in another masters program, but this time, it was for teaching students with severe disabilities. 

Can you share with us what inspired your student's mosaic called the, "World's Largest Mosaic of Ellen by Students with Autism"?

Over the past three years, my students have been featured on news stations, websites, and printed media all over Boston, giving us the opportunity to share our story with our local community. For our latest project, “The World’s Largest Mosaic of Ellen by Students with Autism”, what we are really trying to do is spread our message of hope and accomplishment to the entire world, and show them what students with autism are truly capable of achieving. Too many times, we turn on the television and hear negative story after negative story about autism; why not provide people with an inspirational story about students with autism? We chose to honor Ellen because she has always been known for rooting for the underdog, providing recognition to extraordinary individuals, showcasing positive stories of accomplishment, and not to mention her awesome dance moves. Most importantly, Ellen has helped us appreciate ourselves for who we are as individuals, celebrate our differences, and to accept people for who they are inside. That is why we created this massive mosaic consisting of 33,264 tiles, and stands at 7.5 feet wide and 8 feet tall.

Have your students created other mosaics? 

Three years ago, I wanted to really challenge my students and do something big for Black History Month, something that would showcase my student's talents. I planned to make a 6ft x 18ft construction paper mosaic using over 12,000 pieces of paper that would provide the modifications necessary so ALL students could have an equal part in this collaborative effort.  Everyone thought that I was a little too ambitious; however, when they saw the results, they were speechless.  At that point, I knew that I needed to push my students even further in order to change people's expectations of students with autism.  Since then, we have created over 12 larger-than-life mosaics of such people as Barack Obama, Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah, Rosa Parks, Ellen, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and Lucky the Leprechaun from the Boston Celtics, just to name a few.  

As an educator, what do you hope your students, along with our community, gain from these sensory art projects?

With all of the projects that we create, my goal has been to change the public's perception of autism. I want to provide the public with a positive view of autism by showing them what our kids are truly capable of accomplishing when given the proper supports, materials, and patience.  In Sensory Arts they will always create something that they are proud of, and something that their parents can brag about. 

For me there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the smiles on my students’ faces when general education students compliment them on their latest work. We are trying hard to bring our school community closer together, and with each project our students create, their differences are becoming harder to see. 

I have only been teaching students with autism for three years now, and so far the key to my success has been simple: challenge them, be positive, treat them with the respect and dignity that you would anyone else, hold them accountable for their actions, and let them know when you are proud of them. In other words, treat them like kids.  

What's next for you and Sensory Arts?

With Autism Awareness Month coming up in April, we are currently fundraising to purchase the materials needed to make our biggest mosaic to date. For the first time we will not be creating a portrait. Instead, I am creating a design that will consist of over 100,000 tiles and incorporate the Boston skyline, puzzle pieces, and a blue light bulb. We really want to “Light It Up Blue” in a big way this year. 

You can learn more about Sensory Arts on their Facebook and Twitter Pages.