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Facing autism: Painting with the colors of the spectrum

Lisa K. Salerno is a sleep-deprived, yet surprisingly energetic artist and mother of two currently living in Southern New Hampshire. More information on her autism awareness project and other art works can be found on her website: LisaKSalerno.com.

I can still clearly remember the day my son Alex was diagnosed with autism.

It was in November of 2012, and he was just 2 years old. We had made an appointment to address some concerns we were having: He wasn’t responding to his name. He didn’t play the way “typical” children did. His eye contact was poor, and he was already diagnosed with a speech delay. I also remember running late to the appointment due to the challenge of having a boy who refused to keep any shoes or clothes on. His wardrobe consisted of footed-pajamas, with the feet cut off, and the zipper in the back so he wouldn’t strip in public, which surely led to funny looks from strangers. It’s a good thing, as an artist, that I’ve never cared much about what others had to say…

Carrying him up the sidewalk toward the clinic, I got a glimpse of his sweet smile as he relished the feeling of the wind on his face. I admired the little dimple on his chin and how the wind took the soft blond hair from his forehead and blew it straight up to the sky. No matter the outcome that day, I thought to myself, he would still be perfect to me.

Two hours later came the diagnosis. I’m still not quite sure how we got home that day. Instead of panic, my initial reaction to any unpleasant situation is to float above it and watch it like a dream until I can process it. So, I must have floated home.

Autism. Such a scary word, and to add to the stress it came just a week before an art opening I’d been anticipating for 2 years. The show was great; but would I ever have the time or energy for my art again? I didn’t for an entire year. I grew frustrated with how little others understood autism. I felt so isolated and had not yet found my tribe of like-minded families. It seemed as though I had walked though a veil, and on the other side of that veil was a world filled with sleepless nights, appointments, and hours of ABA. There was no going back! However, part of me didn’t want to, because where I was standing at that moment was so much deeper and more meaningful than what came before.

When I was finally able to dive back into my work, I needed to find a way to incorporate our new story into my art. So I started painting my son. I wanted everyone in the world to know what a wonderful boy he is, regardless of what diagnosis he had been given.

I took some of his IEPs, progress reports, and evaluations, and tore them all up--as a way of rejecting the idea that my son can be tested, analyzed and labeled on these documents. His spirit is much too big to fit in a stack of papers! I collaged them into the background and also on his clothing (under his charming caterpillar drawings) as a statement of how he has to wear this diagnosis everyday… but just look at that smile on his face!

There is so much strength in this boy. No twenty-page report can even begin to capture the essence of who he really is. Then, like a protective mommy, I used my paintbrush to create a safer distance between the paperwork and his face, for I want others to see as Alex as an individual first. The rest is just background.

I have also been painting Alex’s friends, whom I have also grown to love. Each child their own strengths and positive attributes to be shared, and each family has a unique story that needs to be told. Each portrait is painted in one dominant color to be displayed together to create a full “spectrum” of color, as in “on the spectrum”. I’ve been posting the paintings and stories on my blog to raise autism awareness as well as to reach out to and empower those who care for these unique individuals. I want everyone to know that a life touched by autism is still a life filled with joy and beauty.

More than just awareness, I want to contribute to a culture of acceptance. I also like the concept that portraits have been historically reserved for ‘important’ people, so I’m making a statement that individuals like my son also deserve to be seen as important and understood.

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.