Arts & Culture

Artists on the autism spectrum find their voices in SLO art show

Is five weeks long enough to change a life?

Tyler Skinner thinks so. Over the course of Art on the Spectrum, a recent series of art workshops for people on the autism spectrum, the San Luis Obispo event designer saw students ages 8 to 88 open up and find their creative voices.

“At the beginning, everyone was so reserved and quiet,” said Skinner, who collaborated with the Central Coast Autism Spectrum Center, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art and San Luis Obispo artist Sydney Hall to create Art on the Spectrum. “And by the end of the five weeks, you saw everyone engaging, collaborating, asking questions … sharing information.”

The students’ artwork will be showcased and offered for sale Saturday at the Art on the Spectrum gala at the San Luis Obispo art museum. (They’ll remain up for about a week.) The event, which also features music, appetizers and cocktails, benefits the autism spectrum center and the art museum’s campaign to build a new $12 million home.

Saturday’s event will serve as a kickoff for the nonprofit center’s annual fundraiser on May 7. The Walk for Autism features a walk through downtown San Luis Obispo that begins and ends in Mission Plaza, plus an autism awareness fair.

“We’re trying to empower people with autism (spectrum disorders)” dealing with communication challenges, difficulties with social interaction and a tendency toward repetitive behaviors by offering programs such as support groups, family outings, teen dances and summer camps, center president and pediatric neurologist Debra Balke said.

With Art on the Spectrum, Skinner said she wanted to marry the center’s mission with the arts.

At first, Balke, who has several family members on the spectrum, said she was “terrified” by the prospect of art classes led by a teacher with no experience working with that population.

“I thought ‘This is either going to be excellent or dismal, depending on the quality of the instructor,’ ” Balke said, but her fears proved unwarranted. “(Hall) was phenomenal. … It’s amazing how well Sydney did.”

From February to March, 17 students attended weekly workshops at the art museum.

Hall organized each class around a different artist or style, including Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. Students used colored pencils, colored paper, crayons and stickers to create pieces inspired by those artists, as well as pop culture and politics.

Hall said she opened every class with a quote from Russian painter Sergei Bongart: “There is no one just like you and there never will be anyone just like you, so there’s no reason not to be individual.”

According to Skinner, that sent a signal to students that “This is a free space. This is a place for you to express yourself openly. There’s no judgment, no criticism.”

Such opportunities are rare, Skinner added, because of how strictly people on the spectrum are expected to conform to behavioral norms.

“They’re always having to focus on the rules and the organizations of society,” said Skinner, who has a daughter on the spectrum.

“They gave us direction but gave us the freedom to make choices as an artist,” Art on the Spectrum student Abigail “Abby” Hidle, 12, wrote in her responses to a post-course questionnaire.

Some people believe “that people on the spectrum cannot communicate their feelings,” Hidle wrote, “but I communicate through drawing. … Art makes me feel happy and at peace.”

Morro Bay resident Karen Phillips said Art on the Spectrum gave her 10-year-old daughter, Maddie, the confidence to expand her artistic horizons. A fifth-grader at Del Mar Elementary School in Morro Bay, Maddie was diagnosed two years ago with high-functioning autism.

“It (was) really fun to watch her blossom week to week in her interaction with some of the artists,” wrote Phillips, adding that her daughter formed a particularly close bond with another girl who shares her interests in drawing and video games.

“Maddie doesn’t have a lot of friends who understand the way she thinks and how she responds to things,” her mother explained. “It was sweet to see the connection these two girls made. It made me cry.”

Hall, whose paintings will also be on display at Saturday’s gala, said art can serve as another form of communication for people on the spectrum.

“The classes (were) about bringing them … an outlet and a sense of accomplishment through an experience that (was) very much about their own expression,” she wrote in a statement, in hopes of “showing them what they offer has merit.”

Art on the Spectrum gala and sensory experience

5 to 8 p.m. Saturday

San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, 1010 Broad St., San Luis Obispo

$65 to $100

805-763-1100 or

Walk for Austism

2 p.m., May 7; noon to 3 p.m. Awareness Fair

Mission Plaza, San Luis Obispo

$25 donation or