three paintings, one of pink trees, one of waterfall, one of the moon

Zenaviv Sells Work by Artists on the Autism Spectrum

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After Himal Bikmal was diagnosed on the autism spectrum, his parents began researching everything they could. What they learned about their son and autism turned into Zenaviv, a company which sells artwork created by people on the autism spectrum.

Because Himal is nonverbal, Harrish Bikmal and his wife Sandhya worked with a few researchers to help identify what their son’s strengths were. They attempted coaching him through sports such as basketball and baseball but found Himal could not get the hang of the game.

One day, when Sandhya was painting, something she did as a hobby, Himal grabbed her paintbrush and began dabbing at the canvas. From there, Bikmal and Sandhya decided to help Himal pursue painting. They approached an art teacher for guidance, and within about three months, Himal’s painting skills had improved.

“As parents, you constantly worry about a few things, both day-to-day life and also what your children will do with the future,” Bikmal told The Mighty. “We were pleasantly surprised with his paintings. It takes time and effort but he has continually grown since then.”

A couple of years after discovering Himal’s affinity for painting, the Bikmals found paying for their son’s therapies difficult. Realizing they had over 50 of Himal’s paintings, they decided to hold a fundraiser and sell them. They were thrilled when over 100 people donated their paintings to the fundraiser as well.

The Bikmals converted Himal’s paintings into 1500 greeting cards, which sold out within two hours. Within seven hours, all of the paintings were sold too.

Himal Bikmal with his painting of a forest

After the successful fundraiser, Bikmal spoke with other parents of children on the autism spectrum, and decided, along with his older son Saket, to launch Zenaviv.

“Since childhood, [Saket] has played a vital role in Himal’s life,” Bikmal said. “When me and my wife were in a depressed state of mind, Saket stepped up and has helped shape Himal’s life. He took it upon himself to be his brother’s best teacher and best friend.”

Together, Bikmal and Saket launched the Zenaviv site, featuring Himal’s work and illustrations from other talented autistic artists. The site currently features a half-dozen artists with their designs sold as original paintings, greeting cards, calendars and more. Each artist earns 60 percent of the profits from each sale.

Painting of a forest in winter at sunrise

Bikmal told The Mighty he hopes Zenaviv provides another way for those on the spectrum to live a productive and fulfilling life. Having helped foster his son’s love of art, Bikmal said he encourages other parents to help their children find their talents and creative outlets. “Look for clues from your child,” he said. “Look for clues from your child, and pursue them.”

According to Bikmal, Himal will look at the work of different artists sometimes and smile. Himal is also fond of his own work, his dad said, including a recent piece titled “Peaceful Forest.”

As for his dad, his favorite pieces are “Bright Winter Morning” and “Colorful Macaw.”

Bikmal hopes Zenaviv can help hundreds and thousands of individuals going forward, as well as change people’s perception of autism.

[People on the spectrum] are often perceived as people with deficiencies or problems and we can change that to a perception of people with talent. We need to nurture [that talent] and help to grow it.

In the long outcome hopefully we can have a world where people with autism, regardless of their abilities, can enjoy a better quality of life.

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Mom and Former Police Officer Creates AutismTalk App to Help Police Interact With People on the Spectrum

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Less than a year ago, Stephanie Cooper started Autism Law Enforcement Response Training (ALERT), a nonprofit training program for police officers that provides officers with sensory kits designed to help autistic people. In that time, Cooper has trained more than 1,000 officers in four states. Now Cooper is taking her mission one step further through AutismTalk App — an interactive communication app that helps first responders communicate with people on the autism spectrum through picture-based messaging.

“Every first responder, from law enforcement to firefighters and [emergency medical] workers, will come in contact with someone on the autism spectrum at least once in their career,” Cooper told The Mighty. “[H]aving the AutismTalk app will allow them to communicate quickly with someone who is nonverbal or has difficulty speaking.”

AutismTalk App was inspired by Cooper’s ALERT training program. As part of the program, Cooper has individuals on the autism spectrum attend the seminars and assist in training first responders. “During all of my autism training classes I would show first responders and law enforcement officers the communication apps our children with autism use,” Cooper said. “In every autism training class I have taught, I have had numerous law-enforcement officers and first responders ask the same question, ‘Why isn’t there an app for us?’”

Photo of body figures from the app.

According to Cooper, AutismTalk App is the first app of its kind. The app includes picture communication boards with categories for law enforcement, firefighters and emergency medical services (EMS) as well as several other interactive features such as body models that allow you to tap and show a first responder where you are hurt or injured, a police sketch tool that allows you to select a perpetrator’s facial features and body type and a universal pain chart.

“This app is important to me as a parent that has a child on the autism spectrum because if something were to happen to me whether it be a car wreck, I am injured and I am unable to speak for my son, that first responders will be able to understand and have that extra tool which will allow them to communicate quickly with my son or another child or adult who is nonverbal or has difficulty speaking,” Cooper said.

AutismTalk App costs $8.99 and is available for iOS and Android. A third of the app’s proceeds will be donated to ALERT to provide more training for first responders.

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The Necessity of Special Interests for Me as a Person on the Autism Spectrum

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It is a key characteristic of people on the autism spectrum to often be singularly occupied with so-called “special interests.”

But what distinguishes a special interest from a regular hobby? Many people absorb themselves into time-consuming hobbies, so, superficially, it might not seem extraordinary. However, I’ve had hobbies like that myself, and I don’t believe it really compares. And just to make clear from the start: I don’t consider a special interest an obsession. Like a regular hobby, it can certainly turn into one, but I don’t consider it by default any such thing. Allow me to try and explain how I see it:

For me, the single greatest difference between a special interest and a hobby is that it’s possible for me to put a hobby on hold if life changes make it impractical, or if I’m stressed and preoccupied.

For my special interests, the inverse is true.

 

When I’m going through stress or life changes, I literally need my special interests to stay functional. Therefore, they may prop up at what might seem an inconvenient time to start a new hobby. And when I say “prop up” instead of “pop up,” that’s a pun; they are indeed my brain’s way of regaining balance from everyday chaos by creating a safe zone in which to restore energy, order and sanity.

A special interest is a place I can control, where I can fully define the rules of play. It’s predictable, accessible and free from unwanted disturbances. Without exception, mine have offered a large number of facts and/or patterns to be learned and explored; small gardens I could tend to until they outgrew their habitat. A special interest rewards the time I put into it with energy I need to function properly, and I also feel strangely happy and at peace when submerging myself into one. It is a friend that always offers comfort, learning opportunities, even a sort of intimacy and a path for growth. It conforms to the rules I have set, in diametrical opposition to the real world, where I must attempt to adapt to the vague and — to me — irrational social rules of other people.

So, no. It’s not an obsession I “need to snap out of.” And when I say I need it, I’m quite serious. If you stay with me for a second, I’ll try to elaborate.

When I grow low on energy, I don’t simply get tired and grumpy. I literally lose control of crucial mental faculties some others might take for granted. This is a non-exhaustive list of the most prominent ones:

  • The ability to gauge my own emotional/stress levels.
  • The abilities to read and evaluate facial expressions, tone of voice, social context, intent and even the trajectories of objects.
  • Frequently I will lose grasp of my temperament, vocal amplitude, physical tics, my reaction to stimuli and even some motor function — including facial expressions.

These are all intuitive abilities for many people; they run in the background. I, and others like me, have to actively manage and process them all to a rather large degree at any given time, and I need a mental surplus to do so. A single brain can only actively do so many things.

As my mental energy is worn down by social interactions, changes of plans or unmet expectations, there comes a point where I can feel these basic abilities starting to disappear. It’s a harrowing, agonizing experience of feeling like I’m literally losing my mind, one piece at a time. When it gets really bad, I’m struggling so hard to function at a most basic level that it becomes a chore to string together sentences, that I can barely connect with my facial muscles, and any sudden event will make me cover for safety. The only solution to avoid a complete meltdown is solitude, isolation from stimuli and, yes, engaging in my special interests.

My wife has grown to understand this to a large degree. I used to work my special interests mostly late at night, but that’s not a viable solution in our household. Once in a while, to be able to power through the week, I need to dive into my seemingly frivolous piles of facts and sequences during family hours. Instead of just chiding me for spending some of the few hours we have together on my interests, it has become something we can talk about. I rarely ever reach the point described above anymore; we are learning to manage it.

In light of this — if you have a partner, child or friend with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I beseech you to recognize their special interests as more than just an obsession or a nuisance, unless of course it is actively destructive. Please know it can also serve a purpose and be inherently beneficial. Naturally, it needs to be balanced with everyday life, as it can surely get out of hand, but having a healthy relationship with one’s special interests can help keep meltdowns at bay and make the remaining time that much easier and enjoyable.

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Thinkstock photo by kieferpix

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This Actor on the Autism Spectrum Has a One-Man Show About His Life

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George Steeves is a professional actor on the autism spectrum who wrote and is starring in his own one-man show about life with Asperger’s syndrome. He studied at California Lutheran University in Los Angeles.

When I worked as a video producer at The Mighty, I got to work with George on a video adaptation of one of our most-read stories: Lamar Hardick’s “When People Say, ‘You Look Tired.'” The experience made me want to learn more about George, so I asked him to do a quick interview with me. Here’s what I learned:

What was your early childhood like?

I was very oblivious as a child… When I was a toddler, my mom sensed that something was “off” because my motor skills seemed a bit impaired and I didn’t make eye contact much. When I was 3, I couldn’t communicate well. All I knew how to say was, “Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty.”

My mom placed me with different psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors, therapists, etc. At first I was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder (PDP) and ADHD. Then I received a diagnosis of Asperger’s when I was 11 years old. Growing up in the 90s in rural Virginia, people didn’t know what Asperger’s was.

What was that like?

The public school system in Virginia was terrible, and my mom knew I wouldn’t survive, so I went to a small private school called Woodland Academy (15 people in my grade). I still got picked on, but it was more for being the only boy in my class.

At what age did you start doing theater?

I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was in sixth grade and did my first play. Of course, there weren’t many opportunities in Virginia and Pennsylvania, but then I ultimately moved to Los Angeles when I was 19 to start college at CLU. Then I started pursuing acting professionally when I was 21.

What was auditioning like in LA?

I would get so nervous, but as I got more practice the nerves would go away. Even though I couldn’t get an agent at first, I had booked 20 projects in my first year.

What was your first professional project?

I did a SAG short film called “The Wolf,” so I became eligible to join the union, which helped me get an agent and manager.

What made you want to do a one-man show?

I was watching an episode of “Oprah’s Master Class” with Whoopi Goldberg and how she did a one-woman show, so I thought, “Maybe I can do a one-man show!” So I started to develop the idea about struggling as an actor but then found a producer who convinced me to make the show about life with Asperger’s. The show ended up being based off a song I wrote, “Magic 8 Ball.” The story is told through a Magic 8 Ball. I talk about the trials and tribulations about growing up with Asperger’s, not being able to communicate verbally, being teased, verbally auditioning for American Idol, coming out to LA to join an acting class that ended up being a cult, etc. It’s basically me running a marathon trying to make a career and trying to find everyone else’s validation and in the end, I realize the only person I need to validate is myself.

How’s the experience been so far?

It’s a therapeutic experience. I’m reliving being a child, experiencing heartbreak, failed auditions and the like. I’m really hoping my story will inspire others. We have such a divided nation right now. We have a leader who made fun of a disabled reporter, and the appointment of our Secretary of the Department of Education broke my heart. My community isn’t feeling very supported right now.

Doing this play saved my life. What I say at the end of the show is that it’s not a mistake for me to be here and it’s not a mistake for any of us on the autism spectrum to be here.

What’s the show’s final line?

“Please take the time to know us, please don’t put us into a corner, we are just like you.”

George’s show “Magic 8 Ball (My Life With Asperger’s)” plays at the Sacred Fools Theater in Hollywood, California. For more information, head here.

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My Advice When Asked, 'Should I Disclose My Autism Diagnosis?'

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Recently I celebrated my 39th birthday. I was born on June 5, 1978. Autism is classified as a developmental disability, which means I was born with what is known as Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder), but I wasn’t diagnosed until almost three years ago at age 36. Celebrating birthdays are now a much more significant experience because I now have the opportunity to make more sense of my beginning as I continue to build a better life for myself and my family.

Over the past two years, I’ve shared my story through blogs, radio and podcast interviews, and articles. I’ve also recently released my first book this year.

Since being diagnosed with ASD in 2014, I’ve had the privilege of not only sharing my story with the world but also sharing my suggestions with those in the autism community, particularly the parents of teens, young adults and other adults recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum.

In the last several weeks, I have been asked by several people a question about disclosing my autism diagnosis. While I believe that to be a personal decision that can be best made in the context of a great community of support and love, I will share three things I believe should be considered if you are thinking about disclosing your autism diagnosis.

Go with your gut: Pursuing an autism diagnosis after early childhood can be a difficult decision. It can become even more difficult as you enter into adulthood. In my own experience, pursuing a diagnosis at age 36 was difficult because of a lack of resources available to adults. First, it was hard to find someone who could and would diagnose me with ASD. Second, it almost always becomes a matter of financial capability. Wanting to pursue a diagnosis didn’t mean I would be able to afford the assessments that can range in the thousands of dollars.

This is why it becomes even more complicated when deciding whether to disclose your diagnosis to family, friends, employers and/or educational institutions. The time and financial resources you’ve invested in receiving a diagnosis will inform your position on whether or not to disclose. Pursuing a diagnosis as an adult is hard work, and I have found that when deciding to disclose my diagnosis publicly, I had to consider the investment I had made in getting the answers I was seeking.

Disclosing your ASD diagnosis is extremely personal, and for some they may see the potential problem in making it public knowledge. There is still a large portion of our culture that either because of ignorance or intention, fail to be accepting or accommodating to those with neurological differences.

My advice is to always go with your gut. Don’t underestimate the power of your ability to make the right choice for you. If you have made your way through the world without a diagnosis of ASD, then you know how to make the right choices for your own life. Trust yourself enough to decide if disclosing your diagnosis is good for you. After all, choosing to invest in getting a diagnosis is an investment in your own self-development and growth, so learn to trust yourself.

Give consideration to your goals: If you have pursued an ASD diagnosis, then perhaps you have done so with a goal in mind. When I decided to pursue an official diagnosis, I had determined that one of my goals was to learn more about myself, but that wasn’t the only goal.

As a husband, I have a goal of being the best partner I can for my wife. I wanted to know how and more importantly why I processed the world the way I did. Getting a diagnosis was important because I wanted to strengthen our relationship.

As a father, my goal was similar. I wanted to learn how to maximize my time with my boys. I also had the goal of using my new-found knowledge of self as a way to teach them how to be more kind and compassionate.

As a pastor, I have a goal of finding the intersection of my faith and service to others with my diagnosis. I wanted to discover how to share my life with others who may have little to no knowledge of how to allow their faith to inform their love for all of humanity and their ability to see the image of God reflected in every human life.

In reality my goals, which are many, may not be your goals but I do think it is important to keep your goal(s) in mind when deciding to disclose. The overarching theme of my goals was to learn how to place myself in a position where I can reach my potential as a husband, father, and pastor. I suggest strongly considering how, with whom, and when (or if) disclosing will help you maximize your potential. In my humble opinion, disclosing your diagnosis shouldn’t be about others and their opinions of you as much as it being about an opportunity for you to be at your best in every possible situation.

Go slow: If you’re an adult who has recently been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, chances are you’ll need some time to reflect. When I was diagnosed, it didn’t come as a surprise, but it did increase my sensitivity. I found myself becoming more sensitive about my innermost thoughts and feelings, dreams and hopes, struggles and suspicions.

All in all, I discovered that a diagnosis at my age came with a liberating sense of freedom as well as an overwhelming flood of emotions. I needed time to sort it all out and to study more about ASD and how it might be impacting my personal and professional life. It was because of this flood of new facts and feelings that I decided to take it slowly. It was a few months before I starting to disclose my diagnosis, but my timeline might not be yours.

If you’ve decided it is beneficial for you to disclose your diagnosis, just remember that you’re not obligated to tell everyone immediately or even at the same time. Consider exploring how to take your time with different groups of people. Remember you have the power not only to determine the purpose of disclosing your diagnosis but also the pace at which you decide to do it.

With or without a diagnosis or with or without disclosing your diagnosis, know that your value isn’t tied to how others perceive you. Your journey is your own to both navigate and narrate, so however you decide to tell your story, tell it with confidence because your story matters.

Stay strong.

A version of this post originally appeared on The Autism Pastor.

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Thinkstock image by Wavebreakmedia

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Paramount Pictures Wants to Turn Book About Autism, 'Neurotribes,' Into a Film

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Paramount Pictures has acquired the rights to Steve Silberman’s 2015 book “NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity.” The project has been set up with “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels and his company Broadway Video.

Silberman’s book discusses a broader model for accepting and understanding autism as well as goals for a more accessible and inclusive society. He follows the lives of several individuals with autism and their families’ journeys. Silberman also unfolds the history of autism, covering the story of Hans Asperger, the father of Asperger’s syndrome and Leo Kanner, who covertly tried to suppress knowledge of autism.

“NeuroTribes” won the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, the most prestigious non-fiction award in the U.K. The book was also highly reviewed by critics such as The New York Times who called it an “ambitious, meticulous and largehearted history.”

Similar positive feedback followed Silberman’s Twitter announcement of “NeuroTribes” being optioned.

Correction: The Mighty removed a section of this article which featured criticism that Silberman’s book did not show a diverse representation of the autism spectrum. According to Silberman: 

[T]he entirety of chapter two, “The Boy Who Loves Green Straws,” is a nearly 40-page in-depth profile of a boy named Leo Rosa who very likely meets the blogger’s definition of “low functioning,” though I avoid the phrases “low functioning” and “high functioning” in the book as much as possible because I believe they’re both clinically inaccurate and terribly dehumanizing and stigmatizing. I also profile Leo’s wonderfully supportive parents, and in fact profile parents of profoundly affected children throughout the book. 

The Mighty reached out to Broadway Video and has yet to hear back.

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