Tim, 17, had not uttered a word for five years when he arrived at Beechwood College. Two years into his time at the specialist residential college in Cardiff, Wales, the teenager with Asperger’s syndrome started speaking. Two years after that, at 21, he passed his GCSE Art and Design with a grade B, had a work placement at Tesco under his belt and has since left the college and got a job.
Beechwood, a further education college for students aged 16 and over with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), uses art and creativity programmes as the backbone of its personalised education programme. Students study music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media and horticulture and learn to articulate themseleves through these activities.
Earlier this month, to mark World Autism Awareness Day, the college launched a national art competition to showcase the creativity of young people with autism and related conditions. The competition project, Create! Art for Autism, is open to those aged 11 to 25 who are formally diagnosed with an ASD, with the aim of showing that art can not only encourage learning and instill lifelong skills but, as Tim’s case shows, also boost quality of life and future prospects. Shortlisted entries to the Beechwood-led scheme will be exhibited in a national art tour, starting at The Old Library in Cardiff and moving to London galleries from the summer.
I know my sister has developed a newfound independence and confidence thanks to activities from painting to pottery, bakery, art and horticulture during her time with the Camphill movement. The Beechwood competition gets my vote not only because it encourages young people with special needs to find their own voice through creativity and practical action, but because it aims to bring the artistic talents of the learning disabled to a wider, more mainstream audience.
Darren Jackson, principal of Beechwood College, explains: “It’s my belief that creativity is essential to those with an autistic spectrum disorder on more than just a therapeutic or enjoyment level. We have seen how engaging in such programmes can transform young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard.”
Jackson says stop motion animation is a particularly effective way of encouraging confidence and self esteem: “The use of this creative multimedia tool has enabled many of our students to gain greater confidence and self esteem which, indirectly has resulted in them demonstrating a greater willingness to share their thoughts and ideas within their peer group. Many students who in the past have displayed high levels of anxiety are now willing to record voiceovers for their animated characters and use them as a vehicle for communication.”
Competition entries in categories including 2D, 3D and digital media art, can be submitted until June 10. The judging panel includes Brendan Stuart Burns, artist lecturer at The University of Glamorgan, Lucinda Bredin, editor at Bonhams Magazine, Hugh Morgan, chief executive of Autism Cymru and Beechwood’s Jackson. Finalists will be announced on June 24 and the awards ceremony will take place in Cardiff on July 24.