Celebrating and creating

By Patrick Rumaker, NJEA Staff

An art opening in New York City might feature choice white wines and rare cheeses. Guests draped in designer fashions may move among the works of a promising young painter as they endeavor to divine the artist’s vision. The residents of Lakewood and Brick townships enjoyed an art opening of their own last November, but with bottled water and cupcakes. And while the labels on the guests’ clothes reflected more economical choices than their New York counterparts, the art on display still reflected the work of visionaries.

The artists are students with autism and multiple disabilities at Lakewood Middle School. They had worked throughout the spring, summer and fall of 2017 to create 43 works of art to be displayed in the Brick Township Library. They are preparing for another show in April, this time at the Lakewood Public Library, to coincide with Autism Awareness Month.

The show is titled “Art and Autism: Celebrating and Creating.”

“The students are using disabilities as their capabilities,” says Lakewood Middle School art teacher Diana Ehlers. “This public art show demonstrates how far our students have come and how they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone and used it to make these beautiful works of art.”

Ehlers, who teaches art to sixth, seventh and eighth graders throughout the school, works with special education teachers Julie Bruno, Danielle Young, Brenda Douglas and Carmella Quick to find the best ways to bring out the best in their students. The program is supported by paraprofessionals Grace Tront, Sue Rivera, Diane Weber, Chante Jackson, Michele Donato, Andrea Levine and Melissa Pick

Inclusion and focus

Art and Autism began in 2013 as a fundraising project that sold student creations through a private Facebook page. Works of art were sold to faculty and friends at school. The money raised was used to fund field trips and purchase items that supported occupational instruction in the classroom such as baking supplies and hygiene products.

“Over time we saturated the school staff art market and finding new buyers among staff and friends was a challenge, so we decided to slow things down,” Ehlers says.

At the time, Ehlers was teaching one class of students with multiple disabilities and autism for 43 minutes each day, while teaching students in the schools general education program the rest of the day. Later an additional multiple disabilities/autism class was added. Two years ago, the students in the special needs art classes were combined and included in the general education art classes.

In the general education art classes, students with autism and multiple disabilities are able to focus on the adaptive techniques and modifications they need to create projects like those of their nondisabled peers. But while the move to inclusion enabled the students with special needs to learn alongside their peers, Ehlers missed the dedicated time she previously had to focus on the specific tactile skills of her special needs students.

“I started to recognize how valuable the time was that I had spent with the students as a group, where I could challenge them to work on their mobility, tactile sensitivities, and artistic skills,” Ehlers says.

Ehlers now carves out time in her week to work with the students in their self-contained classrooms. Late in the evening, after her own children go to bed, she scours the internet for ideas that will challenge the students, but lead them to the successful completion of projects that produce compelling works of art and new experiences.

The students are using disabilities as their capabilities. This public art show demonstrates how far our students have come and how they’ve stepped out of their comfort zone and used it to make these beautiful works of art.

Discovering a venue

A resident of Brick Township, Ehlers makes regular trips to the local library there. The Brick Township Library is only one mile from Lakewood Middle School. On one trip in February 2016, she discovered a seniors’ art exhibit in the front room.

“It dawned on me that this would be the perfect place to show the public the beautiful creations these amazing and hardworking kids were making,” Ehlers recalls. “I went in the room and counted 43 hooks on the wall. We now had a goal: create 43 pieces of art.”

Ehlers scheduled an art display with Brick Public Library for the month of November, giving her students and her colleagues eight months to prepare. They planned to not only showcase student work, but to educate the public on educational programs such as applied behavioral analysis (APA) and on the role of a paraprofessional in the special education setting.

From March through October 2016, including the summer, students worked to produce the pieces needed for the show. Teachers and paraprofessionals used the opportunity to advance goals found in the students individualized educational programs (IEPs). Students worked with a broad variety of media and used some imaginative strategies to meet the challenge.

Using disabilities as capabilities

Diego has been using a wheelchair most of his life. He often did not want to interact with other students because he was self-conscious about the chair. With his mother’s permission, staff suggested to Diego that he use his chair as a tool for his art.

On a large sheet of bulletin board paper, paper plates with various colors of paint were strategically placed near several paper canvases. Diego rolled over selected colors and used his wheels to apply them to each canvas, consciously choosing his streaks and blends.

“At first, Diego was hesitant because he’s particular about his clothes, but the other kids cheered him on and he embraced it,” Ehlers remembers. “His peers made him feel like a rock star.”

Many students with autism are sensitive to touch.  When Ehlers accompanied the class on a trip to the beach at Seaside Heights, she noticed that some of the students were hesitant to even take their shoes off because the look and feel of sand was uncomfortable to them.

“I saw one of our paraprofessionals take over an hour bringing one of our students closer and closer to the water until he finally dipped his toes in,” Ehlers recalls. “It was a huge moment, and it took the paraprofessional’s dedication and patience to get him there.”

From that experience, the idea for using feet to paint came about. Every student picked a few colors of paint, which staff applied to the students’ feet. Being defensive to touch, some students were very hesitant. The tickle of the brush and the squish of the paint between their toes were new sensations for everyone.

“But once we got past the tickling sensation and allowed them to step on the paper, they had a blast,” Ehlers says. “The results were just beautiful: blended colors and foot prints that looked as if someone had danced on the white paper.”

One student initially did not want to participate because his disability leads him to be very self conscience. But after he saw how much fun and excitement it brought to the other students, he finally decided to take a turn.

“It was a beautiful moment,” Ehlers said. “He chose the colors red and blue and created ‘American Feet.’”

One student who had a one-to-one aide had difficulty completing any of his work. For weeks he labored to complete a project that involved making slashes of color with color with crayons. Finally, as a last resort, a crayon that was expected to be too challenging for the student was offered to him. With assistance from paraprofessional Diane Weber, he finished the project using the new tool.

“With Miss Diane’s help and that discovery it was amazing!” Ehlers exclaims. “We’d been spending over a year with this student. Who would have known that if we’d given him this material—one that we thought he couldn’t handle—he could finish it!”

Joey is a student who is easily distracted. He also loves WWF wrestling shows. Joey also needed to practice fine motor skills. His art project, “The Big Show,” addressed all three needs. While singing the theme song, “The Big Show” from WWF, Joey unwrapped a shopping bagful of crayons. He glued the pieces to his canvas and named the result after his favorite song—one the whole class now knows word-for-word.

Student art on public display

“Art and Autism: Celebrating and Creating” opened at the Brick Township Library on Nov. 4. From the many pieces created by the 11 students over the previous eight months, 43 were selected for display. Every student had work displayed. Each piece was mounted in frames donated by staff and collected by Ehlers. Ehlers painted the frames in her garage.

Descriptions written by the teachers and paraprofessionals accompanied each piece, including the story of how each came to be created. Other framed items answered the questions, “What is a paraprofessional?” and “What is an ABA classroom?”

One very special collage was created by all of the students to honor Wesley Bailey, an administrator at Lakewood Middle School, who died suddenly in the summer of 2017. Students clipped images from magazines that reminded them of Bailey, a man from Liberia who loved sports, his family, and his church and who had, Ehlers remembered, a true passion for the children of Lakewood and their education. The students glued the clippings to a canvas board that a paraprofessional had painted with the students with autism. It was given to Bailey’s wife and children on behalf of the students and staff at the middle school.

“Mr. Bailey was always a huge supporter of the autism and multiple disabilities program, going out of his way to visit the kids and attend their events,” Ehlers recalls.

When the show ended on Nov. 30, over $600 was raised in the sale of some of the artwork. From that fund, the students donated $200 to a Lakewood High School student who uses a wheelchair. The student needed a wheelchair accessible place to live.

Benefits beyond the self-contained class

Since the conclusion of the November art show, Ehlers has observed a new sense of self-confidence among her students with autism and multiple disabilities in her general education inclusion classes. She reports a marked increase of interaction between general education and special education students.

“As a group, they talk more with their general education peers and laugh with them,” Ehlers says. “The kids aren’t too nervous to talk about their disabilities, therapies and their daily challenges. They aren’t embarrassed to use their bodies and their minds to create art. The “Art and Autism” kids were made into rock stars around school and all the general education kids that knew them cheered them on.”

Patrick Rumaker is the editor of the NJEA Review. 

Diana Ehlers was named Lakewood Middle School Teacher of the Year in February. Ehlers can be reached at DEhlers@Lakewoodpiners.org.

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