Autism Services Encourages Art, Community Involvement

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you see a piece of locally made artwork at an area business, it may have been created by participants of the art program at Autism Services, Inc. in Amherst.

“We have a huge emphasis on the arts,” said Veronica Federiconi, CEO of Autism Services. “We do a lot of community art exhibits.”

For the past 15 years, the organization has offered art as a creative outlet.

Some autistic children crave repetition and order, even to the point where it becomes meaningless or distracting from the rest of the world.

“The arts meet the need of repetition,” Federiconi  said. “They can do the repetition in art.”

Federiconi said that Autism Services celebrates — not changes — the people it serves.

“We celebrate autism,” she said. “We’re not an agency that tries to change our folks. They deal with challenges and we want to support them in any way. We’re never going to eliminate all the challenges they have, so we build an environment to support them.

“These kids go through life with therapy; it’s their whole life,” she added. “I wanted the arts to be a free time where they can express themselves.”

She reflects that philosophy in her hiring methods, as she brings on board teaching artists, not art therapists, because she wants participants to know their art is salable and not only meant as therapy.

Autism Services maintains an art lending program, which keeps their art in the public eye on display at area businesses. It raises awareness and also instills a sense of pride in “these people who are fully capable who happens to have autism,” Federiconi said. “We call them artists because they truly are.”

The artwork helps people at Autism Services feel more part of the community.

“Community members want to own it,” Federiconi said. “One saw the artwork in their dentist’s office. They commissioned work. People are choosing and requesting our artists. That program is really about freedom. I give them space and opportunity and someone there to support them. They can communicate on canvas or another medium.”

Overall, Autism Services emphasizes self-advocacy.

“We have a lot from the art program who sit on committees of the organization,” Federiconi said. “We want them part of everything we’re involved in.”

Beyond the art program, Autism Services provides certified special education programs for children 5 through 21 and services beyond that age, including a site-based day habitation program and Dayhab Without Walls.

The organization works with job readiness skills that can help them obtain employment.

Autism Services also operates 13 residential group homes throughout Western New York, provides adult services, social support groups, recreation programs and respite services, both at home and at Autism Services’ facilities.

The after-school programs help families who have to work late. The vacation camp helps children stay in a structured environment during summer break.

“The kids are so conditioned to coming to school, it’s very difficult for them during break,” Federiconi said. “Parents who both work can continue to work because their kids are coming to camp.”

As its name denotes, Autism Services serves only the autistic population and their families. As an independent organization, it’s tougher to stay solvent as there’s no national organization helping out.

Federiconi said that autism awareness isn’t a big emphasis for Autism Services, as the public seems aware of autism; however, “there are still fears out there because our folks communicate in different ways,” Federiconi said. “Some have a voice and choose not to use it. Some use communication devices that appear foreign to people.”

Helping autistic people become more involved in the community has been improving the general public’s perception of autism.

“They may express themselves in different ways, but we’re trying to teach them and teach the community,” Federiconi said.

All in the Language

So…is it “person-first” language or what?

For a couple decades, professionals working with people with disabilities have described those they serve with the person first and the disability second, such as “a person challenged with autism” or “someone on the autism spectrum.”

“Honestly, they don’t like person-first language,” Federiconi said. “They don’t want to be referred to with person-first language.”

Federiconi said that the change originates in the thought that autism isn’t a sickness that needs healing, but rather that autistics just part of the general population, like deaf people.

In general, Autism Services uses “our folks” or “recipients” of their services, and “people” primarily. Words like “patient” or “client” sound clinical, which implies that autism is a condition that needs a curative treatment.

Though every person is an individual, those served by Autism Services may share similar life experiences and challenges as well. Identifying with other autistic people can feel empowering.

Examples of person-first language:

• “person with autism”
• “individual challenged by a developmental disability”

Examples of identity-first language:

• “autistic person”
• “developmental disabled person”