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Children with autism express emotions with art

7 Feb, 2022   /   Shanghai, China

"We are a large minority group," a muffled voice rose from the corner as I passed by while visiting the Being Art Museum in Pudong last month.

My curiosity was piqued, so I followed the voice to a room in which lights glowed dully and reflected off mirrors on the wall to the accompaniment of the monologue.

It's a collaborative artwork by artist Wang Zhiyi and Xu Xiang, who has autism. In the shadowy room with the flicker of red and green lights, the recording of Xu is on repeat.


An exhibition of artworks by young people with autism has attracted many visitors to the Being Art Museum.

"When I look at the mirror, I find a man with the 'think different' mindset," he spoke slowly and clearly. "It's hard to express my feelings. Whatever I feel is like an explosion in my heart. Intense light and strong smell make us anxious. We wave arms or make noises when our attention starts to wander. We gasp or scream when we are excited.

"We are still not treated equally," he continued in a flat monotone, but there were overtones of a thirst for acceptance. "We may think and behave differently, but we love our home as much as you do."


An art project involving autistic children and their contemporaries

It was not a wretched patchwork, but a subtle blend of the avant-garde with an elusive naiveté, which encouraged a contemplative experience.

"Amazing," a woman next to me said, taking a deep breath. "I hadn't expected such a high-quality piece of art."

Plainly, she was blown away by Xu's words.

"I think I need to learn more about people with autism," she told me.

As I reached Xu and told him about it, the young man in his early 20s got the giggles.

"I'm so happy to have my voice exhibited," he said. "I will go to the museum with my parents to experience the exhibition."


The collaborative artwork by artist Wang Zhiyi and Xu Xiang

Xu is one of 100 "special artists" whose artworks such as painting, embroidery and ceramics are on display at the museum. All of them are students or graduates from the Pudong Special School which teaches young people with intellectual disabilities.

Like Xu, some of the exhibits were done in cooperation with artists or their contemporaries, such as students from the Shanghai Pinghe Bilingual School and Yew Chung International School of Shanghai (YCIS Shanghai).

"I'm much more relaxed when I'm with them than with others," artist Hu Weiyi said. "They are more direct, with an outward display of affection,"

Lei Jia, curator of the exhibition, added: "The exhibition gives them an opportunity to show themselves and associate with others so as to raise more awareness and get more help."


A painting by Huang Yujie and Zhang Xuemin

Gu Yinyi, an art teacher at the school, appreciated the opportunity to participate.

"One of my students took her mother to the exhibition," Gu said. "She was so elated when she returned. She told me with extravagant gestures how popular her painting was, with her eyes glistening."

Jin Ye was lost for words after finding her son's painting on display.

"They are simple and sincere children. They are eager for our patience and recognition," she said, in a choked voice.


A painting by Yang Yijun

China has an estimated 10 million people with autism. Increasing media reports may have helped open a long-closed door, but only a crack.

Many people simply think of people with autism as reclusive, perhaps a bit eccentric. In fact, it is a poorly understood neuro-developmental disorder marked by impaired communication skills and repetitive patterns of behavior.

"We hope to break the stigma of autism," Lei said.

She found art provides a perfect introduction and it's therapeutic.

"Art education, or art therapy, encourages them to open themselves up to us," Lei said. "They need a chance to integrate with society, so our care and understanding really matters."


Ceramics made by autistic children

That's exactly what the Pudong Special School has been doing for years.

Currently, it has about 500 students, aged from 8 to 18, and more than 40 percent of them have autism, with the number increasing.

Art is a compulsory subject at the school, and a variety of genres are on offer, such as painting, paper craft and tayin, or rubbing. For art aficionados, they can take optional courses, highlighted by intangible cultural heritages. It has proved productive.

Their works are easily associated with Piet Mondrain, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, which really surprised Lei.

"They've shown quite complicated skills, much like the professionals," Lei said.


Clip art shows the participants.

Wang Zeyu, an arts teacher at the school, believed autistic children have a gift for arts.

"Their sense for colors and patterns is so unique," Wang said. "Every one of them has a strong individual style. We need to lead them to discover and explore their talents."

Exhibition Info:

Date: Through February 16, 10am-5pm

Venue: Being Art Museum

Address: 135 Hongfeng Rd, Pudong New Area

Admission: Free


A photo montage of the children

What the teachers and students say

"Dragon of Love" is a giant work created in cooperation with students and teachers from the Pudong Special School and YCIS Shanghai. It resembles a flying dragon, with positive overtones.

Its introduction reads: "When facing tough times in your life, close your eyes and imagine your dragon. The dragon that lives inside you, and which always stands beside you."

Here are what participants say about their feelings.


The mural project "Dragon of Love"

Haruka Osltey (YCIS Artist-in-Residence)

Over the past 15 years working with children from different age groups and backgrounds, I always enjoy seeing that every child has their own unique way to express their ideas.

What I have noticed working with autistic children is that they are very focused on their specific interest.

One girl was repeating the same pattern since she loved the shape of a flower. Then there was another boy who were excited to paint on a wall directly, and his focus was counting the number of his brush strokes. He was very proud to see the big area that he painted in one color. The mother of the boy told us that she was very happy to see him engaged in something so deeply.

Our team had a wonderful time working with them though we only had one day of interaction.

My boys who were (age 9 and age 6) didn't even notice that they were any different from other children around them.

I intend to make this mural to be about the whole community without boundary and separation. I felt very happy to see them all painting together side by side, enjoying their own lines of expression.

We were all there to create something powerful and beautiful together for the Chinese New Year.

We all have our own unique views in life, and I wish that this "dragon of love" communicates the idea that we are individually unique and together we can accomplish anything.

One of the art teachers, Ms Anita Dai, who joined us also expressed the same view.

She said: "I think collaborative projects like these are so great because you can clearly see the unique touches from different individuals – the brush strokes, designs, color combinations all vary – but put all together, they create a very cohesive whole. Without the variation from all the contributions, would the dragon be as successful?

"We hope our mural communicated to the viewers that we are here for each other."

Lou Ling (YCIS Y5)

Everybody was so happy to work on the art project and tried their best to finish his or her part. I saw the works from other children and I think they are great. From the experience, I learned that every child is uniquely talented and everyone can be an artist in his or her own way. I also believe that every child should be loved and loving.

Lin Carina Ruiyu (YCIS Y8)

I can only imagine what it's like for an autistic child to be stuck out there in the big, wide world of many unfamiliar faces and loud sounds. When I painted, I guess I took for granted being able to understand all my teachers and their hand movements as we were there painting. If I was an autistic person, I don't think I would be able to do that. I had a talk with my dad and he helped me see how difficult life might be for the family and friends of a child with autism, no less the child themselves. And while I didn't know much about autism at the exhibit, I saw those cool colorful paintings in the hallways and I thought, "Hey, it's cool that despite their challenges, those children are able to express themselves so freely." I'm proud to support the community.

Hyesoung Lee (YCIS Y9)

The reason why I fixed my mind to participate was because there was beautiful artworks created by the children with special needs. I thought this can be a great opportunity where art is bonding every culture and people. Even though I participated for a short amount of time, I was able to see the meaning behind the site and learn how art can connect everyone.

Source: SHINE