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How Art and Autism Brought My Life Full Circle

This guest post is by Charles Mooneyham, an adult on the spectrum who is an ABA therapist and the founder of Saint Louis Art for Autism LLC. This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. Have a story you want to share? Email us at InOurOwnWords@autismspeaks.org!

My life started to come full circle in 2006 when, as a struggling artist, I took a part time job in a local school district as an ABA therapist. I excelled in the position and my employers said I had a natural ability to identify with and relate to the children. It is true that I saw myself in every child I provided services to, but what my employer did not know was the fact that I was once just like my kids. I received in home therapy for an unspecified diagnosis from 1980 until about 1983 and remained a resource room kid until middle school.

The reason why I say unspecified diagnosis is because in 1977, people were not as aware of the range of the spectrum as they are today. I am not going to self-proclaim that I have autism or Asperger’s, as many celebrities do today. Back then all my IEPs I could find just labeled me as learning disabled (LD). What I will do is simply tell you what inspired me to get where I am today.

I was an awkward kid, walked on my tippy toes or pigeon-toed, and my emotional regulation was nonexistent. My parents used to have to restrict what television shows I could watch because I would repeat whatever I heard. They always said I was just talking to hear myself talk (what we now call echolalia or scripting). The majority of these memories didn’t resurface until I started working as an ABA therapist.

Any time I would work with a new client or learn new behavior modification strategies, fragments of my childhood that were suppressed, as a result of shame, would resurface. It was all too familiar. I remembered the dread of having to leave class during some lessons to go to the resource room, listening to the other children heckle at my resistance to go. The only comfort was in knowing that the work done in the resource room would be rewarded with Skittles candy.

The guilt set in early. For instance, in the early 80s my parents told me not to tell anyone in the family that I had a therapist because the rest of the family would think something was wrong with me. Then the years of tears that came to follow as result of report card day, when all the kids would clamor around to show off their grades. I would go show off my A or B only to have the other kids say my grades didn’t count because of the LD stamped next to them in bold text.

 

So I learned to lie about it at a very early age, especially if any of the other kids didn’t know what the LD stood for. Being told I was not smart enough followed me all the way to high school, and the feeling that I was not smart enough followed me well into my young adult life. In the town I grew up in, the “cool kids” played sports and the semi “cool kids” got to run the concession stands at the games. I recall one time when I was asked if I would like to work the concession stand. I was so excited that I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mother. After years of dealing with my over emotional tantrums regarding the bullying surrounding my “learning disability,” she told me that I was not allowed to do it. She said that I would not be able to make the correct change fast enough and people would end up laughing at me.

Art has become an outlet for emotional regulation and a coping mechanism to deal with a lot of these stressors.

I was somewhat gifted at drawing from an early age and by the time I was 16, I was published. By college, I was showing with nationally recognized artists and celebrities. I digress, for many years the fear of not being smart enough held me back, until I took that job as an ABA therapist. I saw the courage, gain and talent in my kids. It was in 2006 when I started to dedicate my life to autism.

In 2013, I decide to go back to college to further my education in the field psychology and autism studies. Despite the fear of not being smart enough, due to the fact I spell phonetically which serves a daunting reminder of my past, a professor of mine pushed me towards Behavioral Neuroscience. I started to see the connections between neuroscience and ABA, which only intensified my passion for the subject. It was shortly after this that I started working for a private consulting company. I saw how many kids, talented kids, went without services due to financial constraints. This is when I launched Saint Louis Art for Autism.

In many aspects, art laid the foundation in my life for self-esteem, leisure skills and my first taste at accomplishment. This is the first time I have ever spoken publicly about my educational past. Hopefully it will give some insight into my passions and how and why I brought two passions together. The fundamental idea behind Saint Louis Art for Autism is to raise awareness of our trust fund, do something fun for the kids and give parents a chance to be proud of what their kids can accomplish and not to sell them short.

To this day, I still need to remind myself to make eye contact when speaking to people. I still struggle with social cues as to when it's my turn to talk and need to be reminded when my volume is to loud when I do speak. But I have a career, I am married and have had many successes in my life. 

I am thankful for that...

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.