There is a Talmudic saying that “the eyes are the window to the soul.” I wonder what Talmudic scholars would think if I told them that I found that a window itself can be a way into a soul? This is just one more thing I have learned from my autistic son Nat.
Over the years, people have suggested art therapy as a possible way to get Nat to express himself. Back then we were always looking for therapies that would get at Nat and help him. We did years of music therapy… in addition to years of speech, language, sensory integration, and behavioral therapy. We tried a little Floortime, and we looked into auditory integrated training, as well as perhaps a week of the gluten-free, casein-free diet. (Blah blah blah, try try try, fail fail fail) but we never did try art therapy. I hated when people suggested it to me the same way I hated it when people say that “autistic people respond well to visuals.” It seemed to be one of those sweeping generalizations that had no bearing on who Nat was. I still get that feeling like a balloon losing air when people suggest things I should try for Nat.
Nat did not like art. We’d put crayons in front of him and he’d scribble, filling every white space on the page with the one color he’d chosen. To me, this felt hopeless, rote. It did not seem like he was expressing himself, or if he was, what was he saying? It was just painful for me at the time. I guess this is because I was judging him by how I would do things: if I had crayons, I’d draw something. A woman in a ballgown, a garden, an undersea scene. I suppose I could have said that Nat was more abstract, but it felt like a thin assumption. His scribbling was listless, phoned in. I know when he likes something and when he doesn’t. It just felt like art, for Nat, was not an avenue to pursue.
Today I drove out to Nat’s school with a pile of blue-colored tulle I’d bought. The tulle was for decorating the school gym for the prom. They are having another prom, just like last year, for the upper school. This year the theme is “Under the Sea.” I immediately had an entire vision of what they should do: swaths and swags of tulle, in blue, green, purple, waving from one end of the gym ceiling to the other, like the top of the ocean. Tiny lights (plankton? starfish?) to further delight. I was laying the tulle out along the floor of the gym with the school’s Family Services person, Jessica, who also seems to be the go-to girl for just about everything there. Jessica suggested I come with her to the art room to see some of the decorations the students have been working on.
The art room was a beautiful rainbow of sea-themed clutter: seahorses standing up on their own somehow; a big stingray spread out on the table between Crystal, the art teacher, and Norah, a mom. Crystal pointed me to Nat’s work — his class had also painted sea creatures on the school window. As I turned to look, I felt that same old soul deflation beginning. But there, in very recognizable form, were two stingrays fluttering through a thickly painted ocean of sea life. “He did it completely on his own,” Crystal said. “He copied this picture,” she said, handing me a picture of rays. “I didn’t know he could paint,” I said — shouted, really, with my voice cracking and tears pushing behind my eyes — while they all looked at me sympathetically. Norah, the other mom, said, “Yeah, they never show you at home what they can do.”
Just when you think God has closed the door on something, He opens up a window.