Sunday, February 28, 2010

Friday kids

On Fridays, I have a class of eight kids who are in a special program for the autistically impaired. There are seven boys and one girl, and they range in age from six or seven up to eleven. I have known most of them for a few years now. They used to be "mainstreamed" with the general population, sitting close to their aides, and not particpating much. Now, I see them as a separate group: eight kids and three aides for 3o minutes, gathered around a big table.
My first few lesson plans failed miserably as I groped to understand what would work with this population. I realized pretty quickly that a lot of what I relied on with my other lessons was not going to fly with this bunch. For example, you can't read a book to autistic kids and then expect them to be inspired by it and create art that reflects that. You can't present material or themes, like a video about fish, and say, "Ok, now, let's all make some fish of our own!" Slowly I am learning that the kids are most engaged when they can spend some time playing with the materials and the media unimpeded by my directions, guidance (beyond the bare minimum) or expectations. The challenge is to let go, let go, let go, just like it always is.
For example, an early success involved cutting long strips of black paper, and gluing it onto white paper. Cutting is a laborious process for some of these guys, some of whom have poor coordination and next to no hand strength. For others, it comes easier. Soem cut strip after strip and glued with varying amounts of white in between; others crowded the black strips together, overlapping the thick and thin, making textures and depth. They were beautiful, and I thought of Franz Kline. Earthenware clay is also a winner: one of my guys loves to slap and hit the clay, while another loves to flatten it and then feel the smooth contours created by his fingers; our lone girl loves to make birthday cakes, adding candle after candle; still another, who is a tiny, fragile little boy, pokes little mouse holes with his fingers and grins with obvious delight. During a recent painting session, one boy created the work above. I can tell you that the marks he painted were carefully executed. He worked carefully and with deliberation, choosing colors, placing his marks, choosing his brushstrokes. I think it is quite beautiful.
There is also a consistency of style and manner of exploration that seems to cut across media.
I am eager to recieve the next visual communication from them all.
It is not surprising that this class, of all of my thirty per week, is the one most likely to fill me with gratitude, with wonder, with joy, with great affection for this bunch of originals. I can hear them coming up the hall: hoots, giggles, shuffling of feet, a strange little barking shout. They show me, in their own way, who they are. They remind me that we all are just this different, just this unique, just this deserving of respect and acceptance as one of God's creatures on the earth.

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