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Art is a way these children communicate

At just 10, Chelsea Walsh already had a collection of fashion designs she had drawn, as well as a portrait and other artwork. What makes her creations all the more remarkable is that Chelsea is autistic.

"Many autistic children do have a gift," said Chelsea's teaching assistant, Ann Brown. "We're very proud of Chelsea. She's been been doing terrific, amazing things."

Chelsea's art is part of a collection of works by kids whose autism -- judging by their output -- wouldn't be readily apparent to an onlooker.

"We can bring out the best in them -- whatever their particular gift is, like art or music," says Karen Simmons, founder of Autism Today Web site based in Canada.

"They have a tendency to become very focused on their interests, which allows them to hone their skills."

Simmons, who has an autistic son, Jonathan, says that to help these kids with special needs, it's vital to "focus on the positives they possess, help their light shine," and that is exactly what Simmons does in her recent book, "Artism: Art By Those With Autism," a full-color collection of art from children like Chelsea Walsh, who lives in Ontario, between Toronto and Buffalo.

Kelly Heubusch, and his wife, also Kelly, of Buffalo, saw their 4-year-old son, Ryan, who is autistic and attends Summit Educational Resources in Amherst, begin displaying artistic talent at around age 2.

"The artwork of these children doesn't surprise me," said his mom.

It's all part of Simmons' philosophy of treating autistic children "like regular people as much as is possible, not in a degrading manner." She adds, "Be careful not to overprotect or mollycoddle them. Don't favor them, simply treat them with respect."

Simmons has just put out an illustrated memoir of her adolescent autistic child, Jonathan, "Little Rainman" -- autism seen through the eyes of the child.

"He's brought so much joy and hope to our family," attests this mother of six. "He's taught us all about compassion."

Simmons said she learned, at an advanced conference on autism in Toronto, that autistic individuals learn better through written scripts if they are verbal and through pictures if they are nonverbal.

"Autism occurs in many different degrees," she said.

Simmons said Jonathan was enrolled in an "early intervention" program at age 3.

"We are doing all that we can in many avenues of treatment which we feel are appropriate for him," she said. "We also keep our minds open to new ideas and stay with what's working. I believe that getting him started in an early intervention program is the key to progress. I had to get past my own denial, when people would say, 'He'll grow out of it.' "

Simmons, who defines autism as a "pervasive developmental disorder," said one of the common myths is that "people with autism don't have any feelings and emotions."

That myth was shattered for her when, after a moment of motherly discipline, her son turned to her and said, "You hurt my feelings."

e-mail: lcontinelli@buffnews.com

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