Seated in front of an easel, student Jhovan Stevenson, 17, holds a colour palette in his left hand and brushes strokes of pastel hues with oil paint colours on a canvas. He peers intently at the painting, and continues to paint the petals of pink flowers.

His mother, homemaker Shamini Stevenson, 56, praises him for his cheery colour choices.

“I’m not sure what he sees in the details. However, looking at his art pieces, I’ve realised Jhovan notices what most people take for granted. He has (an eye for) detail and the end result is always beautiful and artistic,” she says, admiring his drawing, which features water lilies in a pond.

Jhovan was born premature. In the incubator, he developed an infection that affected his right tibia. Today, he requires custom-fitted shoes as his right leg is 3cm shorter than his left. He is semi-verbal, has attention deficit disorder and suffers from hearing impairment, too.

However, the teen bears the surprising gifts that autism can offer. His colour resolution, detailing and strokes have allowed him to create lovely art pieces, some in the style of the French artist, Monet.

Jhovan attends a vocational training centre for people with special needs in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. Besides speech and occupational therapy, his parents introduced him to art. Little did Shamini realise there was a budding impressionist artist in her youngest son.

Within a year of art lessons, Shamini could see her son’s artistic strengths and the positive effects of his new-found skill on him. Jhovan’s ability to focus and enthusiasm for painting increased, more so when he saw his works on canvas.

“Jhovan loves art, especially experimenting with colours and engaging with his creative side on canvas. He looks forward to his art classes and helps to pack up his art materials hours before each lesson,” says the mother of three proudly.

Shamini is relieved to have found the spark that ignites her special child.

“Jhovan loves to work with colours and express his thoughts through themes surrounding nature and water. Art and attention to detail fascinate him,” said Shamini. She added that her daughter Cassandra, 23, has also helped to develop Jhovan’s interest in art.

World Autism Day is celebrated on April 2, and April is Austism Awareness Month. During this time, efforts are made to raise awareness about people with autism. This year’s theme is Towards Autonomy And Self-Determination.

Drawing autism

Art therapy helps to promote mental and emotional growth through drawing or painting. These lessons are conducted with hopes of moulding life skills and facilitating self-expression.

One of the distinctive characteristics of autistic people is their inability to communicate. They cannot express themselves through words. Hence, art is an avenue for self-expression.

According to The Art Of Autism, art therapy can also help special needs individuals develop their social skills, enabling facilitators to connect with students. Working together on group projects fosters cooperation, teamwork and a sense of acceptance.

Art therapy is also effective in addressing sensory processing disorder, a condition where individuals may find certain sights, sounds or smells too distracting or disturbing. By doing art, autistic people are more likely to develop tolerance towards certain textures or fragrances they might usually avoid.

A picture paints a thousand words

Jhovan’s art teacher RK Rajeshre Shrees, 50, helps her students visually express the thoughts they cannot articulate verbally. She considers them extraordinary thinkers with a vivid imagination.

“Each autistic student is blessed with creative skills. Some paint using vertical strokes, while others use dots and horizontal strokes. To further hone their talents, they are encouraged to apply three basic techniques – colour blending, tone and texture – in their art pieces,” says the art teacher, who has 12 mentally and physically disabled students, between 18 and 50, under her wings.

From Rajeshre’s interaction with her students, they appear to be like one big happy family. They follow her instructions with ease and sit through their two-hour art lesson without fuss. The secret, says Rajeshre, is to shower kindness, patience and affection on them.

“To tap into their potential, teachers and parents must find ways and solutions to help them. Shouting or scolding don’t work. It boils down to treating them with respect and love,” says the former senior assistant of a primary school who quit her job to serve the underprivileged and needy.

Autism

Dharshini Ganeson (right) is intent on ensuring that her youngest child, Preeya Nanthini Doraisingam, has the skills to fend for herself.

For the past 10 years, she has focused on teaching art to autistic children in the Klang Valley.

Rajeshre works on an outline for each art work and explains to her students what is required. The diploma in art holder gets students to paint with lighter tones and apply basic art techniques.

“Mixing the colours, adding texture and tone come naturally to them,” says Rajeshre, who intends to hold an exhibition of her special students’ art.

A means to independence

Senior communications manager Dharshini Ganeson, 58, believes exhibiting special artists’ work is important to further increase autism awareness in the community. It could also enable these special painters to earn a living, too.

Over the years, Dharshini has sent her youngest child, Preeya Nanthini Doraisingam, who is diagnosed with dyspraxia, to various therapies. They range from speech, music and art therapy to drama and horseback riding.

Nanthini, 26, has also completed vocational training in living skills and hotel training at the Westin Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. Armed with these skills, she can therefore get a job in a laundrette or handicraft store.

Under Rajeshre’s tutelage for the past four years, Nanthini has completed 12 paintings, in various styles. She has sold a painting and the money earned is in her savings account.

“Earning a living is important as one day these children will have to fend for themselves. If we don’t teach or train them, whether it is in art, culinary skills, laundry or baking, then they will be depending on others to help them out. Even if parents have money saved, it may not be able to last several decades. The biggest concern is when parents are no longer living to care for these children,” explains the mother of three.

Discipline is vital

Dharshini says parents must remain committed and dedicated to assist their children with special needs.

Autism

Teaching Chuan Teik Kean (right) to express himself through art is akin to feeding her son’s soul, said Connie Yee.

“All special children can be trained and taught many skills. But the important aspect is discipline. Many parents are under the impression their children will remain that way forever and I disagree with that.

“From a young age, Nanthini has undergone all types of training, including speech therapy for years to improve her speech skills. However, it is only later in life that we see the results,” explains Dharshini, who worked as a lecturer for 15 years.

Business development director Connie Yee, 55, adds that it’s vital for parents to tap into their special needs children’s abilities.

“Never give up. If we don’t make the effort to find out what their skills are, we will never know what they are capable of. These children can learn skills to help them,” said Yee, whose 19-year-old son Chuan Teik Kean is autistic. Yee believes autistic children should be encouraged to explore their interests.

“Don’t neglect these children. Find out their interest, be it music, reading, art or a physical activity. These activities help them to hone and develop their skills. Through art therapy, Chuan is able to showcase his artistic talents,” she said.

Since enrolling in Rajeshre’s art classes, Chuan has shown good progress in his strokes and colour blending.

“Essentially, it gives him a chance to express himself. He’s doing something he likes and it gives him the opportunity to learn and explore. It’s good to feed his soul.”