Children With Autism Express Themselves With Art At Wynwood Gallery

Jul 27, 2015

Alba Prieto says life with her son Daniel can be a “roller coaster.”

“One day you’re up, one day you’re down,” she says. “But at the end of the day, at the end of the roller coaster, you feel super excited about what you have been doing.”

Daniel Varela, 10, was diagnosed with autism at 3 years old. It’s a spectrum disorder (one with varying degrees of severity) that can make communication and social interaction challenging. 

When talking or writing isn’t possible, Daniel and other children on the spectrum often use art to express themselves. On Friday, a gallery in Wynwood displayed some of their pieces alongside those of professional artists who are also on the autism spectrum.

The event, Art for Autism, held at the Pan American Art Projects gallery, aimed to raise money for free services that the American Autism Association (AAA) provides. These include recreational programs and resources that can help families -- especially low-income and single-parent households -- navigate the condition.

Aside from fundraising, the event bridged two communities: children and professional artists with autism, such as Vito Bonanno and Trent Altman, says Eliane Abou-Assi, executive director of AAA. 

“It’s kind of this combination, this intersecting of two communities within one community, bringing these children and saying, ‘Hey, you can do this. Here’s people who are doing this,’” she adds. 

The young artists, many of whom attend Learning Links, a special needs school, displayed paintings of flowers and trees with bright colors. Michelle Alvarez, a recreational therapist, says they came up with the idea after going on a nature walk with them.

Daniel Varela painted a tree that was showcased in a Wynwood gallery Friday. He was inspired to make it after going on a nature walk with one of his therapists, Michelle Alvarez.

Alvarez, 34, helps run a therapy company called Speak Easy for Kids that offers speech, occupational and recreational therapies. She also teaches at Learning Links.

Alvarez adds that art helps develop fine motor skills that can come from handling brush strokes and rubbing oil pastels together to make different colors. Children on the autism spectrum may also have trouble with motor skill development.

“The strokes going up and down build your wrists, help build technique,” she says.

Alvarez says that events like Art for Autism can be empowering for children with autism and their families. She adds that Daniel’s parents were not aware that their son had painted something on his own.

“To see him take pride in his work tugs at my heart,” Alvarez says.

Prieto, 41, says her son Daniel has a strong interest in art. She placed him in two arts camps this summer – one of which took place at the Perez Art Museum Miami, where Daniel interacted with all kinds of children.

“We consider that helps him with socialization. That is one of the most difficult parts of the condition,” she says. “How are we going to expect our society … to understand conditions like autism if we keep our kids hidden.”

Daniel just finished the third grade at Gloria Floyd Elementary School in Kendall. Prieto says she wanted him to learn in a regular classroom. 

She admits that this decision hasn’t been easy. Prieto recalls that one of the biggest challenges for Daniel was the pressure that came with taking Common Core standardized exams.

“This year, I asked the school to stop with the pressure. I don’t care if he passes this test or not. That test is not going to demonstrate that he’s prepared or not,” she says.

The Pan American Art Projects gallery displayed Trent Altman's "Mystical Tree of Life" alongside kids' artwork. Altman is a professional artist who has autism.
Credit Alexander Gonzalez / WLRN

Outside of the classroom, Daniel receives speech, occupational and recreational therapies, academic tutoring, acupuncture, and karate and swimming classes.

Prieto stressed that these additional services come at a significant financial cost. When people ask her about saving money for college, she answers that she’s using that investment for the present.

Monica Martell, 32, says she’s familiar with this kind of financial strain. She has eight-year-old twin boys and says her insurance only covers 40 speech therapy visits a year when her sons have to go three times a week.

“It can be very expensive to a family,” Martell says.

In spite of these obstacles, Martell and Prieto are of proud of what their children have accomplished.

“It’s beautiful to see the acceptance, the recognition that they’re getting like anyone else would,” Martell says.