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Art for Autism allows artists to communicate without words

Photo Courtesy of Thompson Center

Paul Backes has high-functioning autism but doesn't let this disorder affect his artistic ability. His art will be displayed at the Art for Autism Exhibit.

September 29, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Paul Backes, 14, has been drawing since he can remember. Every day, Backes, who has high-functioning autism, meticulously creates illustrations of places, such as the Tiger Hotel and Jesse Hall, from memory.

This young artist will display his illustration of Jesse Hall at the Art for Autism Exhibit at the Perlow-Stevens Gallery from Oct. 5 to Nov. 14.

Backes isn’t the only artist to contribute to this exhibit. People with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders from across the state, ages 3 to 51, have sent artwork to the Thompson Center, a resource for people with these ailments. The show will display about 40 two-dimensional pieces that range from abstract paintings to detailed depictions of nature.

An example of these artworks is Rye Shade’s piece “Light Saber,” a vibrant, abstract illustration of his favorite toy. Calling himself “a great artist,” Shade, 8, makes art to convey his emotions, his father, Scott, says.

“This is an opportunity for (people with autism) to communicate without having to use their voices,” Jennifer Perlow, co-owner and executive curator of Perlow-Stevens Gallery, says.

The exhibit recognizes artists for their “abilities rather than their disabilities,” says Cheryl Unterschutz, senior information specialist at the Thompson Center. With their artwork in a gallery, artists build self-esteem by displaying their accomplishments and developing fine motor skills by working with art materials.

In turn, the artwork educates the public about autism by challenging misconceptions and showing talent in people with autism, says Jacque Sample, a clinical instructor of the Missouri Health Profession Consortium Occupational Therapy Assistant Program.

“Most people enjoy art and are joyful around it, so (this exhibit) is a very relaxed, non-threatening way to talk about what can be a difficult subject,” Sample says.

The proceeds will benefit Friends of the Thompson Center, a parent-run group that provides funds for endeavors such as a resource library with educational books on autism.

Reflecting a line of Perlow-Stevens Gallery’s philosophy, “Art shouldn’t be intimidating,” this exhibit allows people such as Backes and Shade to be accepted as artists, not just artists with autism.

“Art is for everyone,” Perlow says. “It doesn’t have to be fine art to be shown in a gallery, and it should be accessible.”

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