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Art Was My Voice When I Couldn't Speak as a Child With Autism and Selective Mutism

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For as long as I could remember, words were always trapped inside my head. I was always the quiet one. The silent one everyone forgot about or overlooked. At home, I spent my time alone in my room with my cats. People often talked about me as if I was deaf and could not hear them simply because I did not speak. They asked others if I could speak instead of asking me.

School was especially difficult for me. My family moved around a lot and it made a quiet shy kid withdraw even more. My family moved three times when I was in the second grade alone. During class when the teacher would ask questions I knew the answers to, I was afraid to answer. Even when specifically called upon, I would just look down and shake my head “no.” The answers were all there, but trapped inside my head behind my lips. At recess when other kids would play and socialize, I would walk out into the dense fog of the grass fields at my school and disappear alone. Even in high school at lunch break, I would pretend to be asleep so that I would not have to talk or interact with people. Selective mutism is the term I heard about decades later that seemed to fit.

During that time, art was always my way of communicating. Coloring for hours and hours using every color I had available to me. Eventually, coloring turned to drawing my own creations. In school, I would draw on the backs of my homework papers. When the backs of the papers were full, I would draw around the borders. My teachers often commented that I needed to spend more time actually doing my homework papers than drawing on them. I was dyslexic and struggled with words and numbers, but art did not need those.

In the fourth grade, the teacher had us draw pictures for an open house. The teacher singled me out because I had completed a half-dozen drawings before most students finished one. There were more visual ideas inside my head than I could ever draw. The teacher hung up all my drawings. It was my way of speaking to the class and the school. Others started to take notice of my artwork and appreciate it. Soon classmates would ask me to draw things for them. Art became my voice. My way of expression.

In the sixth grade, the teacher had all the students enter a fire prevention poster drawing contest. It was the first art contest I remember entering. The subject matter was perfect for me because of my love of animals and nature. I spent hours on the poster and was one of the last ones to turn in my drawing. I won the fire prevention poster contest and got called up in front of the whole school. I was painfully shy and terrified, but my voice was being heard through my artwork.

In junior high, I would get selected to do comic strips for the school newspaper. Again I could be heard without speaking actual words. In high school, I was selected to do an illustration for the school calendar to raise money for the art department. In my senior year, my family moved again and I was devastated. I was alone again in a strange town with no one. My counselor told me not to take the zoology class I signed up for because they thought it was beyond my mental capabilities — my love of animals notwithstanding. So my only salvation was my artwork. I took three art classes and one photography class. The teacher asked me to illustrate a couple of children’s books for his colleagues. I was allowed to sit outside under a tree and draw in the peaceful serenity of nature while the rest of the class was in the noisy classroom. That may have been my happiest moment in school.

This was back in the 1970s and 1980s. There was very little known about being on the spectrum. I was never diagnosed; I was mostly invisible, just a painfully shy kid struggling through the social minefields of school. Art was my voice, my salvation, and my identity.

As an adult, I have to be in the real world. I still try to draw and create every day. I post artwork on the internet and get my voice out through images. I donate artwork to groups working to save animals and to schools that have selected some of my art to teach to their students. As art and music are being excluded from more and more schools, it pains me to know that others might not get the opportunity to express themselves through their artistic and musical abilities.

Getty image by Valua Vitaly.

Originally published: February 21, 2022
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