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Kids find a voice on the canvas

Young artists from the autism spectrum bring an outsider-art aesthetic
by: Courtesy of Megan Bateman, Works such as this drawing from Marshall High freshman Megan Bateman are on display at Hovercraft Gallery as part of Autism Awareness Month. The gallery features work by students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders.

The difference is in the details.

Dahir Sheikhnur's drawing of a house is not what you'd expect from a 14-year-old. Dahir includes the cables, gutters and satellite dish, the sort of thing children normally excise from a platonic image of a house. He also draws car doors and dashboards in detail.

Anyone wandering into the tiny Hovercraft Gallery this month might be forgiven for thinking they're in some cool works-on-paper show inspired by the successes of Chris Johanson or a fashionable gallery like Motel.

But this is a show of art by Portland children with autism or, more correctly, individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, known as ASDs. As a developmental disability, the spectrum ranges from high-functioning people who rock a little (some say Bill Gates has a touch of Asperger's syndrome) to those who can barely speak and who live in a world of tantrums and confusion.

Hanging over the balcony is the work of Harley Crabbe, which inspired Jennifer Knipling to stage the show. Knipling is a teaching assistant in a life-skills classroom at Cleveland High School, where she works with kids with a range of mental disabilities. She has worked at school with Crabbe and in his home as a kind of private tutor.

'Harley is obsessed with Disney movies,' she says. 'He's essentially editing them and making his own movies.'

He photographs the movies on screen, his mom prints them out, then he tapes the pages into long rolls. Sometimes, if an image seems out of sequence, he cuts it out and tapes it in elsewhere, leaving behind a gap.

The work has the obsessive, untutored quality of the outsider art that is highly prized in the art world. But for Crabbe it's more fundamental than that. He carries three 60-foot rolls of the artworks with him everywhere - to school, to the lunch room, to the bathroom …

'He used to just have them tailing behind him, but we taught him how roll them up,' Knipling says.

She believes he thinks primarily in images, which is common among people with autism. 'I think this is one way he can get all those images out of his head and make sense of them.'

For the show 45 children were invited, resulting in 150 submissions, of which the top 30 have been framed and hung in Hovercraft. The rest are available for view in a portfolio.

It can be hard to be heard

Genevieve Athens is the executive director of the Autism Society of Oregon. Her ASD daughter, Claire, 11, has a book of cartoons on display. Athens and the other organizer, Knipling, flip through the 14 panels.

'They're very expressive,' Athens says proudly.

As art appreciation, this has some weight, since ASD kids often have a hard time expressing their feelings. The story shows a boy who meets a character who looks like Jigglypop from Pokemon. The character breaks wind at the boy, then feels bad, apologizes, they go to their respective homes, dream of each other, play together, eat fried eggs and become fast friends.

'I love this water glass, I love these eggs,' Athens says. This is a breakthrough: 'Claire is socially aware but very timid; she has a lot of anxiety.'

For any child to see their work in a gallery would be exciting, but in Claire's case it comes with added anxiety.

'Autism is a neurological disorder that impacts a person's ability to communicate, socialize and handle sensory input,' Athens says. 'It can also impact fine and gross motor-skill development.'

In ASD children, this inability to communicate causes great frustration and can lead to tantrums and headbanging.

Some kids are hypersensitive: Athens cuts the labels out of Claire's clothes because they scratch, and she has to wash new T-shirts 10 times before they're soft enough to start wearing. Other kids are hyposensitive: They use lap weights in class because they need the feeling of being pressed or enclosed, or constantly roll their feet on massage rollers. Knipling knows a child who gets great comfort from the tightness of a neoprene wet suit.

Still First Thursday, after all

On display are other narrative drawings, a dress and a cardboard dog by a boy who makes cardboard models of vacuum cleaners and castles.

'Some kids can't even hold a crayon, but those who can draw constantly,' Knipling says. Often, when she turns her back they stop struggling with math or language and start drawing all over their copy books.

At the First Thursday opening, the Hovercraft Gallery was just a part of the usual high-energy street fair that spills out of the Everett Station Lofts. A few doors down at Vorpal Space was the fetish photography of Steve Lenz, while outside on a card table were the collaged monster figures of Little Club.

The families came early, all of them grateful for the chance to have their children honored for such creativity.

Later in the evening it was no place for a sensitive child, as the DJ cranked the iTunes and, later, a band played deafeningly in the tiny space. Knipling, however, found the reaction to the artwork from the young adults to be universally positive.

'Once people got what it was, they loved it,' she says.

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Hovercraft Gallery

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Friday to Sunday, through April 29

Where: 328 N.W. Broadway, No. 114, no phone, 503-636-1676 (Autism Society of Oregon)

Cost: Free

As part of National Autism Awareness Month, the Autism Society of Oregon (www.oregonautism.com) is holding its annual walkathon at 10 a.m. Sunday, April 22, Oaks Amusement Park, foot of Southeast Spokane Street, 503-236-5722, $12.