Art reflects family living with autism

By Kristen Marks

She called her daughter’s name, but there was no answer. Again and again she repeated, “Tammi!” but the child did not respond, her eyes staring blankly back at her mother.

Tammi was lost to what Angela McDaniel, Department of Art secretary, describes as “the jabberwocky” — autism.

What started out as a fearful discovery of her daughter’s strange behavior became a journey into the perspective of a child with autism. For McDaniel the journey has been anything but ordinary, but for Tammi McDaniel, now 11 years old, it is simply another routine day in her life.

Experiencing life with autism is drastically different from life for the typical child. McDaniel said she began to wonder, “How hard would it be to exercise the same perspective and see the world through her eyes, how lights affect her or sound affects her?”

As a graduate of Union’s Art Department, McDaniel said she had always wanted to use art to deal with autism but had never had the time. A few years ago, Lee Benson, professor of art and department chair, offered to host a show of artwork by McDaniel and her daughter Tammi.

“The show was the motivating factor to break out the brush again,” McDaniel said.

The show is titled “Autism: Perspectives on a Journey.” Both Angela and Tammi McDaniel chose several defining moments of their journey to visually depict for the show then created more paintings in response to each others’ chosen moments.

The final piece is a collaboration made up of six giant puzzle pieces, which is the symbol for autism. McDaniel said puzzle pieces usually represent the different symptoms a child has that form their particular expression of autism, but that is not what she chose the puzzle pieces to represent in her painting.

“The pieces put together form an expression of Tammi, not her autism, because she is not her disorder,” she said.

Although McDaniel’s paintings cover many different emotions and situations she faced raising a child with autism, she said she wishes there were even more paintings.

“To show the progression she’s made in (a few) works is almost impossible because she has come so far,” McDaniel said. “She started off with impaired expressive communication: very isolated, self-injuring and seeing where she’s gone from that to a typical pre-teen, she has come so far.

“She has reached goals that in the past would have been deemed unattainable, and she still makes progression and it gives me hope. She’s actually my hero because then I can see, ‘Well, if we can do it with her then we can do it with (my other autistic child) Henry.’”

This proves an added challenge to McDaniel’s journey because two of her three children, have autism: Tammi and 3-year-old Henry.

“It’s frightfully confusing,” she said. “With one (autistic child) it’s so hard to draw the line between autism and a typical child. What is autism? What is typical? You can’t compare either (child) because none of their expressions of autism are the same.”

Despite these challenges, McDaniel said her children also prove to be a beautiful blessing. Her second oldest child, 7-year-old Elizabeth, has an energetic personality that makes her “the perfect therapist for Tammi” when she has tendencies to be socially reclusive and isolated.

“(Elizabeth) is in your face,” McDaniel said. “She forced Tammi into our world kicking and screaming.”

McDaniel said she hopes through these experiences Elizabeth will gain some of the same lessons she has learned herself on Tammi’s journey with autism, such as greater tolerance and not being as rattled by others’ differences.

“My entire perspective before children, in general, but also before and after my children, has totally changed,” she said. “Interactions with other people have changed, grace with other people has changed.

“We have a tendency to see people as their disabilities. (We shouldn’t view it as) ‘she is autistic’ but ‘she has autism.’”

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The Cardinal & Cream is a student publication of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. Our staff ranges from freshmen to seniors and includes a variety of majors — including journalism, public relations, advertising, marketing, digital media studies, graphic design and art majors.