“Want to dooo bluuuue paaaaaint!” I have heard my daughter Beth, who is almost 5 years old, make this request hundreds of times. I grab a role of paper towels from the kitchen, roll up my sleeves, and head to the den where her much-loved and often-used easel sits.
We start the well-established paint process. “Okay, what do we need first?”, I say to Beth. “Your smock!”, she says excitedly. I prompt her to reverse the pronoun and she exclaims, “My smock!” I help her put on the smock and help her to ask for the brush and paint cup. Then I ask, “What color paint do you want? Red, blue, or green?” “Green,” she says. I stop dead in my tracks. For 2.5 years the answer has been blue, so the answer green comes as a great surprise.
I repeat the paint choices in a different order and, again, she chooses green. Wow, she is finally starting to move on from blue paint. Like every parent, I feel a mixture of excitement, pride, and sadness at a milestone achievement. But unlike many parents, because Beth has autism, some of the milestones I celebrate are a bit different than the norm.
To mark the milestone, I decide we must make a painting that I will call “Homage to Blue Paint” to capture this bit of her childhood before she moves on completely. I have had this painting in my head for about a year. I want it to show Beth being herself, my expectations of parenting Beth, and the merging of my neurotypical world with her autism world. It sounds complicated, but it is simply one part Beth, one part me, with overlap in the middle.
Beth’s Part of the Painting
I decide to let her go at it in a way that I never had before, with the only rule being she cannot ingest the paint. One thing is for sure, there is going to be one hell of a mess to clean up when we are finished.
After masking off my portion of the canvas, I duct-taped the canvas to Beth’s easel. She starts by rubbing and kissing the canvas, because the texture is new to her:
This behavior is no surprise to me. While most kids use their sense of sight primarily, Beth also explores things orally (she mouths and licks things), by touch, and by sound (for example, rubbing the canvas makes a sound). Looking at something is just not enough for her to understand it fully. For her, painting is a whole-body, all-senses experience. When Beth paints, she also likes to repeat words and phrases and sometimes she flaps or rubs her hands, jumps up and down, or rocks back and forth. Never is Beth’s sensory exploration, also referred to as sensory-seeking behavior or self-stimulatory (stimming) behavior or perseverance behavior, more apparent than when she is painting. Some would say that Beth is engaging in self-stimulatory behavior without purpose, and so painting should not be encouraged. But I know from experience that painting makes her happy, relaxes her like nothing else, and it can be used as a teaching tool.
When I give Beth the paint brush and blue paint, she goes right at it:
It may be hard for you to understand her words in the video above, because Beth’s speech is not very clear today. What she is saying in the clip is: “Paint on the easel” (something I used to say to her over and over so she wouldn’t just paint her hands), “Mommy paint” (I sometimes paint with her, just for fun or to teach her new things), and “there we go” (something I say when she is doing a good thing, like painting on the easel instead of her hands). So, when I let her paint however she wants, she talks about me and what I say her. That is a surprise.
An even bigger surprise is this:
I taught her to make circles with paint in previous painting sessions. Today she decides she wants to do them on her own. In fact, the circles ended up being the primary feature of her part of the painting. I expected random, but I got circles.
Another thing Beth does is sing:
Was the song choice an accident? I don’t think so. She is happy, so she sings “Happy and You Know It.” She does this a lot, seemingly random vocalizations thrown into the ether, which, if you listen carefully and think of things from her point of view, have meaning.
Towards the end of the session (about 45 minutes later), Beth says things I do not understand, paints her arms, squishes paint through her hands (I believe she likes to hear the sound it makes, in addition to feeling and looking at the paint), and feels the stickiness of the paint on the cardboard beneath her feet:
Is she totally in her own world at this point? Or do I just not understand what she is whispering? I’m betting I just don’t understand. But I hope to understand everything she says some day.
Mom’s Part of the Painting
I remove the mask from my portion of the canvas. The plan is to put Beth’s hand prints on my side in primary colors, and have some of the hand prints overlay on her blue paint portion. The only difficult part is getting Beth to spread her fingers apart and keep them apart while I help her make the imprints:
By the end of my portion of the painting, the kitchen was a multi-colored mess, but it was well worth it. Beth seemed to enjoy making the hand prints once she got the hang of it. Her enjoyment is something I should have anticipated, since she is fascinated by the multi-colored hand prints along the wall at music class. This is one of those rare occasions when I expect that teaching her something will be difficult, and it turns out to be easy and fun.
The Finished Painting
Here are my thoughts as I stand back and look at the painting…
On the left is Beth being Beth, painting with only blue paint, using her paint brush, hands, and even her arms to apply paint. Beth’s side turned out to be more connected to me than when I conceived of the painting, because of her use of circles that I taught her to make. I think the circles are definitely a willing and enjoyable choice Beth makes for her painting. But it occurs to me that when I use art as a teaching tool, I must do my best not to spoil her spirit.
On the right is what I thought painting with my young child would be, an expectation I had even before she was born. I imagined a typical preschool art project, with perfect little hand prints in various colors. It makes me smile that Beth actually liked making the hand prints. I fulfilled a dream after all, even if it is a silly dream in retrospect.
The middle represents where we meet: her child-like free spirit meets my rigid adult conformity, blue paint meets the typical preschool hand prints, her autism meets my neurotypical. The middle is us trying to relate to and understand each other in the best way we know how.
I will hang the painting in our living room. As a reminder of how, even though we are very different, we can learn from each other and share our worlds. The painting will also remind me that the end game is not to have Beth be like my side of the painting. The goal is to somehow teach her about my world, while being mindful that she has the right to hold onto her own spirit and uniqueness.