Judy Woodruff: Arts and Autism

BY Judy Woodruff  April 21, 2011 at 11:32 AM EDT

Editor’s note: This entry has been revised and updated from its original posting.

Our co-founder Robert MacNeil’s reports this week on autism are drawing a large response from NewsHour viewers, reminding us of the power of effective story-telling and the huge interest in this condition that has touched so many families.

A number of people have told me how moved they’ve been by the reports, and this morning, I received a call from Jean Kennedy Smith, the founder of an organization dedicated to arts and disability, and sister of the late President Kennedy and Sens. Robert and Edward Kennedy.

VSA, previously known as “Very Special Arts,” and affiliated with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, was created 35 years ago “to provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and increase access to the arts for all.” She told me how touched she was by the MacNeil series so far, and explained how more and more of the art VSA sees, comes from young people with autism.

For the past five years, VSA has reached out to students all over the United States, between the ages of 5 and 15, both with and without disabilities, asking them to submit a piece of visual art. Out of the more than 4,700 pieces submitted this year, about a quarter were from students with disabilities, and of those, 16 percent have autism. Among those pieces selected for exhibition, an almost equally high percentage was created by autistic students.

This year’s selections haven’t been made public yet, but one of last year’s artists, whose work was chosen for exhibition, was 7-year-old Jalyn Weston of Sweetwater, Tenn., near Knoxville, for the colorful drawing Jalyn created in 2010, titled “The Enchanted Forest.” (See the entire art exhibition, “State of the Art,” from last year).

Jalyn’s parents told knoxnews.com that when teachers in pre-school said Jalyn’s tendency to line his crayons up in “rainbow order like fence posts” indicated he had “characteristics of autism,” it made them angry. After his diagnosis, they watched him gravitate to opportunities to create art, and today they celebrate and encourage it. He sold his first drawing at age 6!

For the past 17 years, VSA has sponsored another program for artists with disabilities, the International Young Soloists Awards. This year, from the 158 submissions received internationally, 13 young musicians, between the ages of 16-29, have autism, or 8 percent. Last year, a 21-year-old pianist from Israel, Dotan Nitzberg, was one of four awardees asked to perform at the Kennedy Center. Nitzberg has Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. (Read more about Nitzberg and the rest of last year’s honorees.)

Neither Jean Kennedy Smith nor VSA’s Vice President for Public Awareness, Elena Widder, say they have statistics to prove that there are growing numbers of young people with autism, who happen to have artistic or musical ability. But they say anecdotal evidence shows that since VSA was founded, there are more autistic students who are submitting their work. Widder said what they know is that music and the visual arts “brings out their voice in ways they otherwise can’t communicate.”

For Smith, this is exciting because it reminds her of what’s possible today that was not available for her late sister Rosemary, who was considered mildly “mentally retarded” when they were children together in the 1920’s and ’30’s. “She went everywhere with us, to Radio City Music Hall, out to dinner, to all sorts of activities.” Smith said she recently re-read her diary from that time, where she’d written that they often played tennis: “Sometimes she beat me and sometimes she didn’t.”

Updated 3:10pm: For the record, there is no reason to believe Rosemary Kennedy had autism, nor was it understood then as it is today.

As it was, doctors recommended when she was 23, that she undergo brain surgery to “calm her mood swings.” She remained a central focus of her family’s life, but it left her permanently disabled, with a much lower quality of life. Before that time, Smith recalls, “there was always someone in the family who would do something with her.”

As much of a heartbreak as autism is for everyone involved, and as much of a mystery it still presents, it is breathtaking to think of the progress that’s been made in recent decades in diagnosing intellectual disabilities.

A postscript: VSA’s affiliate network provides programming for students with autism throughout the U.S. Here’s an example of a recent program from VSA Tennessee that was created specifically for students with autism. Photo courtesy VSA.

Follow Judy Woodruff on Twitter.