Bright vermilions and brilliant yellows brushed in large strokes over a sheet of paper; multicolored feathers stuck into foam, creating the illusion of hair; yarn crisscrossed innovatively to create an imperfect grid — the “Changes in the Face of Autism” gallery offers newfound perspective and a study in vibrancy.
Having a younger brother with his own share of mental complications as well as many close friends with autistic siblings, I have an intimate view of mental illness. I have seen what it does to families and to challenged individuals. But regardless of how familiar I am with mental disability, nothing parallels the understanding one can achieve by seeing how the condition looks from the inside.
“Changes in the Face of Autism” was created by autistic adults from the greater New Haven community with the help of Students for Autism Awareness at Yale and an organization called Chapel Haven. The gallery, on the second floor of the Slifka Center, contains a mixture of mediums. A long sheet of paper covers half of one wall, depicting an abstract, dreamlike scene with swirls of color and carefully placed puzzle pieces. Below it, a bicycle tangled up in yarn and decorated with other materials is propped against the wall. Two drawings decorate the wall opposite the gallery entrance: One appears to be a study of a building while the other features multicolored stick figures randomly placed on the page. The rest of the works are variations on one project: sculptures with tubular bodies made of wire and decorated with assorted materials, with a foam head on top.
Although all the works share a vibrancy and a youthfulness, each is highly individual. For each work, I could not help but imagine the personality of its artist. The architectural drawing on the far wall displayed a unique attention to detail and perspective hinting at an artist with a penchant for spatial design. Meanwhile, the large drawing amalgamated many individual brushstrokes to create an abstract landscape with small details that reveal the presence of multiple artists: a bicycle or the upper body of a confused, primary-colored child. It belies the artists’ age, showing a very loose perception of the world and a great appreciation of color.
Many people with autism have difficulty communicating and expressing their emotions; society often considers those with autism and other mental conditions to be less capable and less perceptive. This exhibit offers a useful corrective, showing not only that people with autism communicate and express emotion, but also that they also have a lot to say and feel. Their so-called impediments in no way prevent them from being people.
I truly enjoyed this small, albeit important exhibit. This gallery could have easily become a depressing reminder of the struggles of the mentally challenged; instead, the kaleidoscopic quality of the artwork beautifully illuminates the world inside of an autistic person’s mind.