“Let me lead you on a journey
To games of wondrous complexity
It’s not that hard to understand
If you’re prepared with an open hand
To follow me through my fantasy land
Where magic soars and colors grand
Imagination knows no height
And there, my friend, you’ll find my light.”
This poem kicks off a short, musical film about Iris Grace, a talented little girl with ASD from the UK who has already garnered worldwide recognition for her age-defying prowess as an abstract painter. Like so many of the neurologically distinct, Iris Grace has a difficult time with speech and expresses herself best through movement and through her stunning works of art; hallmarks of a brain that has not organized itself around verbal communication but has found other, more self-inspired ways to process and engage with the world.
Her mother Arabella says that the family initially started encouraging her to paint as part of broader therapeutic goals; hoping that art could help her develop speech and joint attention, along with social skills like turn-taking. Only then did they realize what a unique talent she had – far beyond other children in her age group.
“Her autism has created a style of painting which I have never seen in a child of her age,” writes Arabella. “She has an understanding of colors and how they interact with each other.”
As the Suskinds did with Owen, Arabella allows Iris a good amount of self-direction and determination when it comes to her affinity:
“This isn’t always the case but very often their [children with autism] concentration levels and self motivation can be outstanding for a topic that interests them, allowing them to excel in certain areas, like with Iris’s painting…For Iris, painting isn’t an activity she does at a set time; it is part of her therapy but it’s on her terms, with the table and paper out at all times. As an aid to encourage speech it is extremely effective and it never fails amaze me how each painting is so different.”
According to Arabella, her affinity has also led to great strides in other areas of development:
“For the first time, Iris manages to say a clear ‘Painting’ and ‘Paint’ along with all sorts of other words she has used before. My excitement about the ‘Painting’ word sets her off running around the kitchen and to the hallway with her hands in the air, as if she has scored a goal.”
Music has also been a big part of Iris’ therapeutic regime, and Arabella notes how “calm and relaxed” she is in concerts compared to other social settings. Many studies have not only shown the efficacy of music therapy in achieving other behavioral goals, but also demonstrated that people with autism show a “special aptitude for music, sometimes to a remarkable degree.”
In the summer of 2014, when Iris picked up the violin, she began to display another strong affinity for all things violin-related:
“The meaning of this instrument to Iris is still unclear to me. Her passion for violins is growing, she loves all of the instruments in the orchestra but this is her favorite; it speaks to her. There is a connection, I can see that, but what the future holds I don’t know. As I look around the room every surface is covered in books, all open on the page with the violin: her ‘My First Orchestra’, ‘The Story of the Orchestra’, ‘Instruments of the Orchestra’, ‘Little Children’s Music Book’, ‘My First Classical Music Book’…and the iPad is open to an app playing the performances of the ‘Philharmonia Orchestra’, with a musician describing the main techniques of how to play the violin running.”
Music continues to play an integral role in Iris’ life and development. “Iris’s love of music has enabled me to start her home education,” says Arabella. “She is learning fast and is interested because she loves what we are focusing on, and I am able to teach her a wide variety of skills and concepts through one central topic [music].”
We will see how these powerful affinities for the arts play out as Iris grows older. For now, says Arabella, “we fill her world with things that she loves…building on her interests and strengths instead of focusing on her weaknesses.”
With that in mind, last year the family started The Little Explorers Activity Club, an autism-friendly, home-based group where children on the spectrum can comfortably explore a variety of hobbies. The club ended up having a wider appeal, and soon neurotypical children were joining, playing and exploring along with their ASD peers. “Lots of children benefit from having a stable environment to learn and experience new things,” says Arabella. “We have created an understanding, safe place where they can have fun and socialize with other children and families, providing quiet areas and rooms where they can be calm and relax if it all gets too much, allowing them to rejoin the group when they are ready.” Each week there is a different theme, and a wide range of interesting and unusual activities such as archery, animal encounters, and yoga.
Thank you, Arabella, for sharing Iris’ story with us. For more on Iris and to order prints of her paintings, go to Iris’ website at http://irisgracepainting.com/.