A traveling art exhibit gives young people with autism the opportunity to express themselves.
The Creative Voices: What Autism Means to Me exhibition features over 140 artworks created by autistic post-primary students from schools across Northern Ireland.
Each work is accompanied by a personalized quote from the artist.
The exhibition aims to give people a better understanding of autism from each artist’s personal perspective.
Autism is known as a “spectrum condition” because it affects people in different ways and to varying degrees.
It can impact how a person communicates and relates to others and how they make sense of the world.
Each artwork on display allows the artist to communicate what their individual autism means to them.
The exhibition was held at the Flowerfield Art Center in Portstewart, County Londonderry, but is now moving to the Braid Museum and Art Center in Ballymena from March 16 to April 15.
The entire exhibit travels through various locations on a tour of Northern Ireland throughout 2023.
The project is presented by the School Authority’s Autism Counseling and Intervention Service (AAIS).
“Autism makes me unique and makes my mind work differently. It makes me creative and allows me to express myself” – Ella
Gillian Whiteside of the Education Authority said the exhibition provides an opportunity for young people to showcase and celebrate their creative talents and aims to increase understanding and acceptance of autism within the wider community.
“The idea grew out of our work with students to increase their personal understanding and acceptance of autism,” she said.
“We felt that the student’s voice should be at the heart of the exhibit and that it should be a way for each of them to express their own personal and individual experience of autism.”
“For me, autism is a superpower. Autism allows me to remember things in descriptive detail, find solutions on the spot, and be me in all lifestyles” – Donncha
Ms Whiteside said the main aim of the exhibit was to increase understanding and acceptance of autism within the wider community.
“Only then can we truly have an inclusive society where neurodiversity is celebrated,” she said.
Molly Murdock, 14, Ballymoney
For Molly’s artwork, she decided to paint a character named Ella who represents her autism.
Molly said autism can be a difficult thing to explain to people – she wanted to make it easier to understand through Ella.
“I have a deep connection to animals, music and bright colors, which is why those things are in there.”
Molly said autism “brings out the best in a person” and shouldn’t be viewed negatively.
In her quote attached to her artwork, Molly said that autism “makes us unique in ways that people can’t see and that makes us better people”.
She said the painting took over a week and she was incredibly proud of the result.
Emma O’Kane, 15, Coleraine
Emma’s artwork aimed to highlight the many positive aspects associated with being autistic.
“I see my autism as my ability and not as a disability,” Emma told BBC News NI.
“I have an excellent memory, I am very precise in details, I am very punctual and I am very honest and reliable.”
Emma said the bright butterfly depicted in the painting is a metaphor for her autism, as it is a bright guide contrasting against the dark background.
Emma decided not to take Art as a GCSE, but said she would continue to paint and be creative.
Shauna McNeilly, head of arts and cultural facilities at the Flowerfield Art Centre, said the exhibit was a joy to present.
“It really represents what autism means to so many young people and it’s a celebration of creativity,” Ms McNeilly said.
“It allows any viewer of the work to learn more about autism, what it really is and how it varies from individual to individual.”
Ms McNeilly said she was blown away by the response and said the center had been inundated with positive comments about the beautiful artwork on display.
“So many people, myself included, have learned so much about autism from the wonderful array of colorful quotes, designs and images.”