- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2008

There is something very Paul Gauguin — impenetrable colors and primitive forms — about Kevin Hosseini’s oil paintings.

Which is very impressive in and of itself considering that Kevin is only 13 years old. Add to that the fact that he’s autistic.

“I’ve painted for three years. … It makes me feel good,” says the Carpinteria, Calif, resident who is working on a large oil painting with bold blues and greens. “It’s an ocean scene,” he explains.

Kevin’s and about three dozen other young autistic artists’ works will be presented in a coffee-table book, “Artism A-New,” due out in October (submissions are still accepted through Aug. 15 at www.artismtoday.com).

“The book is our way of shining a positive light on people with autism,” says Karen Simmons, founder of autismtoday.com and publisher-editor of “Artism A-New.”

“We so often [as a society] point out their deficiencies, but kids like Kevin are so talented and we want to focus on their gifts,” Ms. Simmons says.

As it turns out, autistic children often have a high occurrence of “special abilities” in music and art and other areas associated with right-brain function, says Dr. Darold Treffert, who has studied autism and savant syndrome (special abilities that stand in sharp contrast to overall limitations in people with disabilities) for the past four decades.

“The incidence of special abilities is about one in 10 in autistic kids,” Dr. Treffert says. “Compare that to one in 1,400 among kids with other developmental disabilities.”

In autistic children, there is left-brain (associated with abstract thinking) dysfunction and it is possible that the right brain starts compensating for this deficiency, Dr. Treffert says.

Sometimes, parents are fearful of honing music or art abilities in autistic children, thinking that it will impede their ability to do everyday tasks such as tying shoes or making beds, he says.

Research, however, has shown that training the talent doesn’t stand in the way of “eliminating defects.” On the contrary, they go hand in hand.

“Training the talent is a conduit to normalization,” Dr. Treffert says.

In other words, children with autism who are allowed to train their special ability will improve overall.

“The brain is not a fixed system,” he says. “There’s constant renewal of cells and synapses.”

This is true for neurotypical (normal) children, too. If normal children study music when they’re very young, their IQs and math skills likely will improve. So, if one area of the brain improves it is likely to rub off on other areas, too.

This is much like the musculoskeletal system: While working your triceps your biceps will benefit also.

“It seems the brain recruits other areas,” says Dr. Treffert, adding that, aside from positive brain development, engaging in art and music and other right-brain abilities can also have therapeutic effects on autistic kids.

“I think that to be able to focus on their ability instead of their inability builds pride and self-esteem,” says Dr. Treffert, who praises the “Artism” initiative. “They love it. … We all like applause.”

And it can also help create a positive identity — an identity that doesn’t highlight the deficiencies, says Debbie Hosseini, Kevin’s mom.

“If they become known in the community as a capable artist, it will help them feel less isolated,” Ms. Hosseini says.

“Some people with autism are completely nonverbal and are at particular risk of becoming isolated. Art can be their way of expressing themselves and connecting to other people.”

Ms. Simmons, whose autistic 17-year old son Jonathan Sicoli’s sketches and clever metal sculptures (he welded a metal computer case for example) will be represented in the book, says she hopes “Artism” will help autistic kids get their “art to the world,” maybe even allowing them to make money off their art.

Kevin, for example, has sold at least 42 paintings, fetching between $100 and $800 per painting, says his mom.

“The recognition makes him very happy,” Ms. Hosseini says.

But isn’t this exploiting?

“I don’t think so. It will just help them get meaningful work,” Ms. Simmons says. “Otherwise, they’re at risk of ending up at sheltered workshops and being treated like second-class citizens.”

Dr. Treffert agrees. “The money and experience can help them build up funds for when their mom and dad aren’t there to take care of them anymore,” he says.

And who doesn’t like making money on what they enjoy doing the most?

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