As more children are diagnosed with autism nationwide, one sector working to respond is the arts community. Here in the Roaring Fork Valley, Ascendigo Autism Services has partnered with the Carbondale Clay Center, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet and the Aspen Art Museum to provide workshops or special performances for kids with sensory disabilities. This is all the more important because of the isolation many of those living with autism experience.
Even running small errands can become a big deal for Nereida Munoz and Juan Torres. Their 12-year-old son Alex has autism, a sensory disorder. He can get overwhelmed by lights, noises and colors, leading to what Munoz calls a meltdown. Munoz says if it happens in public, she has to not only worry about taking care of Alex, but about how they’ll be judged by strangers.
"We receive looks from other people everywhere," she said.
Alex was diagnosed with autism when he was 6. Torres says, at first, they were in denial.
"You expect to have a healthy kid," he said.
After coming to terms with the diagnosis, they turned to Ascendigo. They found Alex could still have a taste of a classic childhood because Ascendigo gives him a chance to go to camp, have outdoor adventures and make art.
Peter Bell is the president and CEO of Ascendigo. He says there are lots of benefits of art for those with autism, like social interactions, motor-skill development and stress-relief.
He says when museums hold workshops or special days for children with autism, they might dim the lights or lower the volume on sounds.
"What many of these organizations have done is to understand how their setting, whether it’s a gallery or theater or whatever, how that will feel for someone who has autism," said Bell.
At the Aspen Art Museum’s recent workshop with Ascendigo, the museum’s education program manager Annie Henninger outlined some ways the crafts session will meet the varying needs of the kids in attendance.
“Please make yourselves at home. We have gloves here for anyone who does not want to touch paint with their fingertips, beanbags, noise cancelling headphones if anyone is sensitive to noise," she said.
Henninger encouraged the participants to use their art to break down barriers.
"It's a phenomenal way to meet a new friend, meet a new family and take a look at someone else's artwork and celebrate the way we all express ourselves differently," she said.
The room was completely full of kids and parents, Ascendigo volunteers and teachers from the museum. Neat piles of paper and craft supplies sat on three separate tables, where most of the kids were seated. Soon, they dove into the materials while a therapy dog wandered between the tables and chairs.
Marla Butler was in attendance with her daughter Colby, who was lounging in one of the beanbag chairs the museum had available. Butler said that the welcoming environment here stood in sharp contrast to how Colby is often received other places. Everyone here gets it, she said.
"I don’t have to explain anything to them. On the airplane, we get dirty looks. No dirty looks here," she said.
Butler said that making art is an outlet for Colby.
"It’s definitely a way for her to express herself. A nonverbal way to express herself, which is so important for these kids," she said.
Juan Torres and Nereida Munoz’s son Alex sat nearby, intent on gluing cotton balls to a piece of construction paper.
“I’m making a monster face,” he said.
His parents came to check out Alex’s artwork. Torres’s large frame looked even more outsized as he sat in one of the small chairs. He gently brushed Alex’s dark hair from his forehead before proudly pulling out his phone to snap a picture of the final product.
Both the kids and the parents seemed relaxed. Behavior that might garner strange looks in the outside world, like a child talking loudly to himself, didn't get a second look.
Nereida Munoz said she hoped soon everyone will be just as accepting.
"If you see a kid in the grocery store or any other place that is misbehaving, don’t judge. Don’t judge. You don’t know what’s going on with them," she said.
But for one day at least, Munoz and her family were surrounded by art and understanding.