“Ash Wednesday”, Russell Amenta, artist with autism
(March is National Disabilities Awareness Month)
“Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no
birds sang there except those that sang best.” — Henry Van Dyke
We all assume certain things about others. Those assumptions are usually based on something we know about them–whether they’re up bringing or professions or conversations you may have had. I try to be nondescript in many situations because people do make assumptions. And having a child with a disability automatically puts you in a certain “box” of perceptions, mostly wrong. In my professional life, most don’t know my situation and when it does come out, it is a shock. My views about those with disabilities and the fine arts are not so revolutionary but are different from what many would expect.
I have seen folks with disabilities give performances in several performing art disciplines that are nuanced and passionate and have moved me beyond what I expected to feel. These were far from perfect but watching people who are not supposed to understand subtext give surprisingly complicated performances inspires me to look deeper at this population.
If we want our children to become full members of our communities, all avenues have to be open to them, even the artistic ones. There are things that must be in place first, of course. Meaningful employment, housing and transportation plus any health issues have to be addressed. And, just like everyone else, people with disabilities have their own tastes. My son Russell’s love for his CD of Luciano Pavarotti singing with Sting and Zucchero (an Italian pop star) may not be your son’s or daughter’s cup of tea but Russ loves it! Sometimes, in our frustration with our children and disability, we forget they are people with likes and dislikes and talents and an inner life we may not understand. We get caught up with other things, which may or may not be more important, but we forget. Art and music touch our inner self; reach us on levels deeper and richer than everyday life. Why can’t the arts reach our children at those same levels?
How many times, in your own life, have you turned up the radio on your way home from a stressful day, letting the music wash away the stress? Or have you sung along with it? Loud. Have you doodled or drawn when you were bored or upset? Do you pick up your knitting or crochet to release stress or be creative? Do you sing in your church or temple choir or attend performing arts events in your community, and do you feel connected to others through your singing or listening? What about dancing? Do you take a ballroom class with your partner (or do you WANT to) or line dance at your favorite country western place? I am proposing our loved ones deserve the same outlets, the same way of handling stress or feeling connected, what ever their level of functioning. Artistic expression is a basic, human thing and our kids are people.
My autistic son is artistic. It sounds funny, I know, but he is. At 12 months of age, he could match pitches, something that is difficult for most children under the age of 6 or 7 years to do. He has a sense of style and color and something we call “Russell Feng Shui”, his version of how his surroundings should be. He loves music, of all sorts, and has quite a collection of CDs. He enjoys movies, mostly Disney, but has a sense of what he likes and plays those over and over again. He has long been interested in coloring, painting and collage work and can be occupied by his artwork for hours some days. We don’t consider art “busy work” or something he is doing just to “do” something because it gives him such joy. It is truly an outlet for him to communicate who he is, to us and to the world.
Russ has perfect pitch, as does one of his brothers. Years ago, at a youth symphony concert, Russell was sitting with us as the high school group tuned and tuned–and tuned. He started to hum–his brother, Ben, looked me dead in the eye and said, “he’s humming the pitch they’re trying to tune to, Mom!” He loves to listen to our piano tuner tune our grand–and will hum pitches that should be before they’re tuned. One tuner told me he hates people with perfect pitch–I told him not to hate Russ, it’s the only thing he can do. You see, Russell is not able to speak, and his humming of those pitches is the only way he has ever communicated with any sense of purpose.
My question to you is why shouldn’t he be artistic and musical? His mother and brothers are musicians, as well as a grandmother, a great-grandmother and an uncle. He has two aunts who are artists and designers, as well as cousin who was a landscape designer. A grandfather was a nationally known dancer and ballet master. His father is a music lover and played music in our home from the time he was in the womb and beyond. Just because he is disabled doesn’t cancel out his heritage of an artistic lineage. He is a person, not a disability, and his artistic bent is separate from his autism.
Someone asked me a few years ago, as I was preparing to direct a new, elite chamber choir, if I could tolerate those not really musically gifted singing in my choirs. It was an odd question, and this person did not know my background, especially since I think I am a better person, teacher and yes, conductor, because of Russell. I have had to look past certain things and be creative in my solutions and hope I come across as tolerant and supportive rather than too quick to judge those with less abilities. And, I have had to love unconditionally. It was then I remembered the quote of Henry van Dyke. Everyone should be able to participate in the arts, whatever their level, whatever their interests. Our world is enriched because of their participation. It would indeed be a very silent wood if they weren’t encouraged.