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Arts & Autism: The Fine Art of Being the Difference

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By Suzanne Eisinger
Photography by Christian Lee
Pink Magazine

Sophia Townes didn’t set out to become an advocate for families with autism. On the contrary, the native South Carolinian’s love of French culture and language led her to places and pursuits far removed from her hometown of Barnwell. Even after marrying her high school sweetheart and building a home and family together in Bluffton, autism was simply not part of her world.

But, life has a way of changing the rules without notice, as Sophia and her husband George learned four years ago when their 3-year-old son Jack was diagnosed with autism.

Sophia still vividly remembers the drive home from the Medical University of South Carolina, Jack asleep in his car seat, a stack of paperwork resting on her lap filled with diagnostic reports, treatment providers, and physicians’ orders. While the diagnosis hadn’t been a complete surprise; their concerns already heightened by missed milestones and unsuccessful therapy, Sophia felt stunned and utterly overwhelmed.

“Parents of children diagnosed with disabilities or chronic illnesses will often go through a mourning period in which they must acknowledge that the future they had envisioned for their child is forever changed,” Sophia shared. Not unlike mourning the death of a loved one, parents may feel shock, denial, anger, guilt and helplessness. And while these feelings may lessen with time, they may never completely go away.

Lucky for Sophia—and the Lowcountry community at large—she didn’t let the mourning take over. “For me, it lasted about two weeks,” Sophia offered with the same upbeat smile she wore throughout our time together. The day after that life-changing diagnosis, Sophia contacted Lowcountry Autism Foundation (LAF) and began the long journey of educating herself about the disorder and the community resources that could help her son.

Four years later, she has made herself indispensable to the autism community. She sits on the LAF’s advisory board, and coordinates family outreach programs for Beaufort and Jasper Counties. For Sophia, who is passionate about autism advocacy, awareness, and support, it is a labor of love, a personal calling.

According to the Center for Disease Control, autism strikes approximately one out of every 59 children in the United States—more children than are affected by diabetes, AIDS, cancer, cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy or Down syndrome combined—1.5 million Americans have some form of autism with over 42,000 in South Carolina alone.

Sadly, due to inadequate Medicaid funding, families must bear a disproportionate share of the financial burden for autism treatment, even while their children languish on wait lists with thousands of others for therapy and vital services. For this reason, according to Sophia, organizations such as LAF are more essential than ever, filling in the gaps for families in need. LAF provides information, service coordination, and direct assistance to families affected by autism. Services are free and apply to all ages—from the moment autism is suspected through adulthood.

As LAF coordinator, Sophia has been instrumental in setting up programs to assist, educate, and empower Lowcountry families. Programs include monthly support and training sessions, parents’ night out events, and now – thanks to Society of Bluffton Artists (SoBA) Educational Coordinator Barbara Pecce, who happened to overhear a conversation at her local community fitness center—Art Therapy!

Sophia, a member of the same fitness center, was telling a friend about her difficulty in finding a suitable space to launch an art therapy program in Bluffton. Hearing this, Barbara walked up to her and introduced herself. “I think we need to talk,” Barbara told her. “Tell me what you’re trying to do.”
Within two days, Sophia was meeting with members of the SoBA Board of Directors, who enthusiastically offered to help in any way, including volunteering with the kids themselves. Thanks to SoBA’s generous donation of their creative arts building in Old Town Bluffton, LAF now has a setting to provide art therapy for children and adolescents affected by autism. This bright open space, located next to SoBA’s Church Street gallery, is primarily used for workshops offered to member artists, but now the members have made room for LAF.

“It’s amazing,” Sophia said. “We have this opportunity to have our children in a beautiful public space, working together with artists.” For someone whose mission is to increase public awareness and acceptance for individuals with autism, Sophia couldn’t have created a better match.

This isn’t SoBA’s first time giving back to the community. A non-profit, all-volunteer organization, SoBA offers scholarships to high school art students and free art classes to fourth and fifth graders in Bluffton public schools. And now, beginning in January, SoBA’s art center will be available for art therapy classes at no charge to member families of LAF. Classes for children with autism 7-11 and 12-18 years of age, as well as a separate class for neurotypical siblings will be facilitated by Alyssa Millard, a nationally registered and board certified art therapist with LAF. ArtAutism1218 3

Sophia has seen first-hand the impact autism has had on her eldest son, Russell, now 9 years old, especially now that both of his younger brothers, Jack (7) and Joseph (2) have been diagnosed with the disorder. One night, Russell asked his mother a heartbreaking question: “Mama, how am I going to take care of Jack and Joseph when you and Daddy go to heaven?” That’s when she realized the weight her son had been carrying, and why services such as art therapy are important for siblings, too.

Art therapy uses the creative process of art making, blended with counseling to enhance physical, mental and emotional well-being. For children with autism, art therapy teaches social skills, develops strategies for managing stress and anxiety, works on emotional regulation and provides sensory integration. According to Alyssa Millard, “Sometimes a visual image can speak volumes—much more clearly than the spoken word (providing expression) for emotions, or ideas that are too big for words.” Put another way, art provides a vehicle for children to show what’s inside their heads, to give voice to their thoughts, fears and anxieties. And once kids can express these thoughts, the better they can acknowledge them, understand them, and move forward with them.

How Can You Help?

Thanks to the efforts of Barbara Pecce and SoBA, Lowcountry Autism Foundation, and Sophia Townes, Lowcountry children with autism will soon have the art therapy support they need to grow and thrive.

Donate: Lowcountry Autism Foundation (lafinc.org) depends entirely on grants and community donations. Contact Sophia Townes at [email protected] to find out how you can help.

Have a cup of coffee: Corner Perk Brunch Café & Coffee Roasters in Bluffton is donating a generous portion of the sales from each bag of specially blended “Jack’s Roast” coffee to LAF. cornerperk.com/buy-coffee/jacks-roast.