When I was in 8th grade, there was this girl, Mary. She wasn't in our school the year before, and no one knew much about her... except that she was different. She didn't get social cues or sarcasm, and didn't recognize when some of the other kids were joking at her expense or messing with her.
In 1983, none of us had ever heard the word autism. Sitting here 33 years later, though, knowing what I know now, and having the experiences I've had, I'm fairly certain Mary was on the spectrum. We just weren't told. It wasn't discussed. I'm pretty sure my parents weren't informed either. While my parents taught me always to be nice to people as a general matter, we were never taught in school about differences, acceptance, and working with other kids' special needs. We weren't educated.
I'm so glad we are now. I'm so glad that now, special needs are recognized, diagnosed, discussed, and made known. Today, I have a family member on the autism spectrum, and multiple friends with children on the spectrum as well, including one who's a terrific face painter in Minnesota. Today, I've gotten fairly savvy at recognizing when a child has special needs, and know that the child's not just being entitled or bratty, that something else is going on. With the help of those friends, especially the Minnesota face painter, I've learned so much about what it means and what I need to do to work with and around it. Sometimes it's got to be the quickest, simplest version of a design. Sometimes it needs to just be cheek art or arm art, not full face. Sometimes the face painter will need to describe what's being done as it's happening, or warn the child when his or her face is about to touched. Sometimes, the painting has to go unfinished, even if it's an unrecognizable blob, just because the child is done and can't sit for more than that. It's all OK, and it's all about the kids.
I also know that compromise can be difficult for a child on the spectrum, and we as face painters need to work with that. I was part of a group face painting at a NY Jets event a year or two ago, and the sheer number of people there was insane, so we were limited by the organizers to only a few face paint options. A boy who'd waited patiently on line with his mom got to me and asked for Batman. I told him I was very sorry, but I wasn't permitted to paint Batman as this event. And then I realized, when I saw mom's face and the storm brewing behind the boy's eyes, that there was something more to this boy. It wasn't his fault, of course; he had special needs, and I needed to work with that.
"Well, here's the thing. I can paint swirls, since that's on the list, but I'm not a very good artist, and sometimes my swirls come out looking like Batman. I hope that's OK with you."
Last June, I face painted at a Fight 4 Autism walk in Hawthorne. Despite the intermittent downpours and resulting low turnout, it truly was an amazing event and experience. I got to meet the nicest people, paint a bit, and have some fun. What I remember most, though? Not what I painted. What I painted honestly wasn't relevant that day. My best memory of the day was a boy on the spectrum who found his favorite music Youtube videos on my phone, and hung out with me, dancing and having a blast.
That event led to the grand opening of We Rock the Spectrum gym, in Waldwick. I painted there for five hours, and it was terrific. And because my friends have given me such great information, and because I've gotten to paint these children before, I know. Although I have, somewhere in the back of my mind, delusions of grandeur that I'm an "Artist" and want everything I do to be "Art," it's not about that. So at that grand opening, while some of the kids had the patience and ability to sit for their requested Venusaurs and Laprases,
not all could. Some weren't into painting at all, some needed something really small and quick, and some were very, very specific. One girl requested a balloon with several strings on it in all different colors she chose as I painted. The resulting simple, hairy-looking balloon with clashing-color strings may not have been artwork that made me proud, but the big smile on her face when she saw the mirror sure was.
Because in the end? It's all about the kids.
And now, awesome news! The gym has rebranded itself, and is now 1 Gym 4 All!
Their mission is to spark children's curiosity to explore new activities and social relationships, and in addition to the gym itself, they host art and music programs, summer and holiday camps, and private parties!
The best part? I'll be painting at their new grand opening on December 3, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m.! Please come check out 1 Gym 4 All, like them on Facebook, and enjoy! Hope to see you there!