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HeARTs for Autism®
Supporting Families and Raising Awareness for the Autism Spectrum Disorders

Spring 2006 – Exhibition Review

An April 2006 exhibit at BOI's of New Hope helps raise awareness about autism.

By Megan Sullivan, Reporter for Time Off, Article from Time Off Online

"Why does my head feel this way?" Kevin asked his mother after he finished a finger-painting. In the painting, a side profile of a boy's head was surrounded and filled up by busy swirls of paint. At that moment, it struck Philadelphia resident Robin Schwoyer – art was a means of communicating with her son, who has autism.

Creative expression has proved itself helpful in his treatment of Asperger Syndrome, a high-functioning form of autism. As an ordained Episcopal minister, Ms. Schwoyer had experience with family and social ministry in her community and had been asked by many parents to consider starting up an autism awareness and education group.

Last year, with the help of Svetlana Gradess, Veronica Parker and Nora Perry, Ms. Schwoyer founded HeARTs for Autism, a Northeast Philadelphia grassroots organization. Now Ms. Schwoyer can help other families communicate with their autistic children through the expression of art, the way she and her children Erika, 6, and Steven, 5, communicate with Kevin.

In celebration of National Autism Awareness Month, BOI's of New Hope Art Gallery has donated its main gallery show room to HeARTs for Autism. Artwork by autistic children, their siblings and parents will be on view April 7–30, 2006, as well as pieces by professional artists hoping to raise funds for the group.

Members of HeARTs for Autism had their first art display at Rockledge-Fox Chase Business Association's Clothesline Art Festival in Lions Park in September. The show at BOI's of New Hope, however, will be the first exhibit in a gallery. BOI's Owners Lonn Braender and Bruce Oswald offered the main gallery space to Ms. Schwoyer after learning about her group.

About 75 pieces, most 8-by-10 inches, will hang during the benefit exhibition. Mr. Braender would like to display the small artworks on large cardboard puzzle pieces, which are international symbols signifying the mystery of the disorder. In addition to the works by artists supporting the cause, such as Danielle Borradaile, Kate Malfara, Dorian Mitchell, and Cal Massey, works by three autistic savants donated by a national autism group will be on view.

Christophe Pillault, who lives in France, is one of the savants – a person with autism who has extraordinary skills not exhibited by most people. Mr. Pillault, 21, is unable to talk, walk or feed himself, but he uses his hands to paint beautiful and expressive paintings that can sell for up to $4,000. Malaysian artist Yeak Ping Lian, 11, draws colorful and cheerful pictures, such as a drawing of a rooster featured in the show. The third featured savant is Scottish artist Richard Wawro, who died in February of cancer at age 53. Mr. Wawro's works are detailed and dramatic drawings from memory including natural scenes and landscapes. Owners of his artwork included Pope John Paul II.

All proceeds of sales made during the exhibit will go directly to HeARTs for Autism. The group serves over 250 families with the help of many volunteers, hosting programs that use arts and crafts to try to break down some of the communication and social barriers these children face. In addition to family and sibling painting programs, a parenting component is offered, which involves meditation and breathing and provides a spiritual space. Families are also assisted with advocacy and education outreaches occur.

Ms. Schwoyer says one in 150 children are diagnosed with autism, but it is the least funded disability in the U.S. "(We want to) lift up awareness and look for support in the community," she says. Because autism spectrum disorders are "invisible" disabilities, parents of autistic children are often met with fear, resistance and judgment from other parents who don't realize their children have a disability.

Autism occurs as a result of a neurological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain. This impacts development in the areas of social interaction and communication skills. "No one knows how to make it go away – it makes you feel powerless," she says. Ms. Schwoyer is currently meeting with politicians to be an advocate for better services, as finding the best treatment for each individual case of autism is often difficult, as well as finding the best educational options. HeARTs for Autism brings together parents who are similarly confused and discouraged by these barriers, in addition to the communication barriers they face daily with their children.

"With HeARTs for Autism, the thing that strikes me is the art in heart," Ms. Schwoyer says. "It's interesting that artists see that. What the families experience, though, is the word heart."

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