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Children with autism get creative at ArtPlay class in Fort Myers

The Banner - 4/26/2017

Kids' artwork hangs on the walls in this classroom at the Alliance for the Arts. Paint spatters the work tables. Signs on the walls offer encouragement for today's students.

"Make each day ... a Masterpiece," one painted sign says.

Another encourages them to "Dream Big."

That's why Monika Urbanska is here. She wants to help these kids with autism spectrum disorder to do just that: Dream big.

Those dreams include learning to make friends, communicate and navigate a perplexing world full of noise, color and other overwhelming stimulation.

That's one of the goals, anyway. But there's another, more important one.

"We want them to have fun," Urbanska says. "Come play! Come have a good time!"

The Alliance and autism support organization Family Initiative Inc. started these ArtPlay classes last fall. Kids ages 8-17 visit the Alliance's Edwards Building every Thursday to paint, draw and mold things out of clay – all while working on important skills such as identity development, self esteem and communication.

Kids with autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty making social connections, communicating and forming friendships, says Anjali Van Drie, vice president of Family Initiative Inc. This class helps them do that. The art takes their minds off the fact that they're actually talking and interacting with people.

This isn't technically a therapy group, though, Urbanska says. Most of these kids get clinical therapy all week long, but this is something different.

"We are doing therapeutic things here," the art therapist says, "but it's less structured than a clinical thing."

All the people involved do have clinical credentials, though, she says. And therapy IS happening in a subtler way, built into the program and its weekly art projects.

Those projects are usually sensory-based so students can get used to the smell of the paint, the squish of clay between their fingers and the general messiness of making art.

Sometimes – like today – they make birdhouses. Sometimes they make cupcakes out of clay. Sometimes they use "puff paint" to paint on a mirror – a constant source of distraction for many people with autism spectrum disorder. Before this recent class started, for example, one of the students ran to the mirror and stopped just inches away from its surface, mesmerized by his own reflection.

That's why Urbanska and her team have arranged the classroom to keep distractions to a minimum. A nearby shelf is covered to hide its cubbyholes stuffed with art tools. And the kids' chairs are pointed toward Urbanska with their backs to the mirror.

"We're arranging the tables so they're looking at me," Urbanska says. "Because, otherwise, they'd just be staring at themselves."

All these students fall somewhere on the autism spectrum with different symptoms and conditions. And those characteristics have to be taken into account for each class.

Some students can be overpowered by the smells, the overhead lights or even the slight echo in the room, Van Drie says. They like structure, too, and even simple things like changing the layout on a worksheet can be distracting.

The classes are similar to another ongoing series of classes that Family Initiative Inc. holds every Saturday at Christ Community Church in Fort Myers. But they're less structured.

"The main goal is for them to have a fun experience," Urbanska says.

And, in the process, the kids are getting better and learning to be more interactive with the world around them. Urbanska has watched the progress many of these kids have made in just a few months.

The students eventually start to open up and get more confident, for example. "It's been cool to see that," she says.

Families often struggle with the hallmark characteristics of autism, says David Brown, president of Family Initiative Inc. They want their kids to have friendships and have fun. The ArtPlay class is one way to do that.

"This is a safe, supportive environment where they can be with their peers," Brown says.

Parents are often amazed at the progress the kids can make, Van Drie says. "They'll say, 'I never thought they'd do that.'"

Father Vivek Bhargava brought his 11-year-old son, Arjun, to last week's ArtPlay class and helped him paint a birdhouse with the other kids. Arjun has been coming to the class for months.

Arjun goes to a lot of therapy groups, Bhargava says, so it's hard to tell which group is helping the most. But he says his son looks forward to the ArtPlay class every week.

"I think, overall, anything and everything helps," Bhargava says. "This gives him structure. ... There's been a change. He's getting better."

ArtPlay classes take place from 4:30-6 p.m. Thursdays and cost $10 per class, including art supplies. All students must be able to respond to verbal direction, use the bathroom on their own and not require one-on-one supervision.

The next session starts May 4. For more information, call 239-939-2787 or visit artinlee.org/artplay.

Autism fundraiser

Florida Initiative Inc. is holding a fundraiser on Sunday, April 30.

The event takes place from noon to 5 p.m. at Nervous Nellie's, 1131 First St., Fort Myers Beach. Activities include live music, a silent auction and food.

All of the money raised goes toward helping local families and their children with autism spectrum disorder.

For more information, call 910-0712 or visit fi-florida.org.

 
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