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Gallery displays work by artists on autism spectrum

April 2, 2018

MIDDLETOWN, Conn. (AP) — Two young artists who are high-functioning on the autism spectrum are eager to share their work and talk openly about their struggles and joys in life at a gallery opening Wednesday at Klekolo World Coffee.

Ryan Casey, executive director of the Middletown-based Chippens Hill Group, which offers job placement and mentoring for young people on the spectrum, came up with the idea of a showing one day as his client Morgan Morenz, 25, of Meriden, was drawing during one of their sessions at the coffee shop.

Owner Yvette Elliott and barista Liana Lessor had already put up some of Morenz’s drawings behind the counter. He asked about the possibility of a joint art show for Morenz and his former client, digital illustrator Jake Cohen, 28, of Plainville.

“I try to get people together in an environment in which people are accepting,” Casey said. “It’s an opportunity for them to express themselves, but also for other clients — anyone on the spectrum — to experience a spectrum-friendly event” during which parents can also network with one another.

The exhibition, “Light on the Horizon,” reflects Cohen’s and Morenz’s “paths toward the quest for independence in a challenging world,” he said.

Autism and autism spectrum disorder are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development often characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks. ASD is estimated to affect more than 2 million individuals in the U.S. and tens of millions worldwide, according to Autism Speaks.

Morenz is a self-taught illustrator whose favorite subjects are pets, wild animals, anime figures and landscapes, all of which she draws with colored and graphite pencils. She is also a certified Usui Reiki Master and animal intuitive who does tarot card reading and channeling.

Cohen, a general studies major at Tunxis Community College in Farmington and digital illustrator, is inspired by his girlfriend Naima and his fish, lizards, “Brenda” the tarantula, and a cat named “Bees?.”

The feline’s name is derived from an internet joke among his friends, Cohen said.

“Intellectually and cognitively, they’re highly competent, and sometimes the IQ can be pretty high,” Casey said of folks with the condition formerly labeled as Asperger’s syndrome.

Ryan, who gets client referrals from doctors, including Dr. Roger J. Jou from the Yale Child Study Center, has been in the field for eight years and running his own business for three. Some school systems, including Middletown and Oxford, seek Casey out for autism support.

Many on the spectrum have varying abilities, Cohen said. “A lot of people that I work with say that’s my biggest disability — that people don’t realize I’m disabled.

“People don’t realize you’re on the spectrum sometimes when you’re high functioning,” Cohen said. He finds that once he shows he’s anxious in certain situations, it becomes more apparent. “Then people realize you’re not neurotypical and it’s almost a shock to them.”

Morenz often has trouble being social and making connections with people because it’s difficult for her to trust people.

“She has some skepticism about the world, but we’re giving her tools to try to meet it,” Casey said.

“I trust the world but deep down, I’m still afraid of it,” she replied.

“We’re taking small steps,” Casey said.

Morenz compared herself to Japanese cartoon characters, which she often draws.

“Because of my autism, I’m a like a smart version of one of those full-of-energy anime characters that seem really dumb and then they can’t learn anything because they don’t have a heart. The only reason why I’m not dumb is because of my empathy: I take so many things to heart that I’m able to learn a lot.”

“Often they’re intelligent, but intelligence is dynamic, so there are some strengths that they have,” Casey said. “The challenge is usually interpersonal communication, and also multitasking is difficult. That’s usually because they have trouble with data overwhelming them.”

Cohen began drawing with a local artist at the Plainville Art League. “He’s probably the reason I got into art. My mom dropped me off one time and I went almost every day for the next four or five years.

“It was a cheap babysitter, too.

“I was lucky enough where I can tell emotion more than some other people on the spectrum.” One time, his boss was pregnant and the other young people with autism didn’t realize it — “after two months of not seeing her, but they realized she had a haircut. They would recognize the most random things but not the obvious,” said Cohen, who has lived on his own for the past three or so years.

“That’s very typical where they’ll hyper-fixate on one thing and not the rest,” he added.

Morenz, who is self-taught, has done tarot card readings at psychic fairs. She prefers Angels of Light Cards because they’re more positive. Among her favorite subjects are animals, Pokemon, anime boys and girls, contestants on “The Voice” TV show and sharks that she visits at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk.

She shows of a drawing of her cat “Charles” hugging the tarot cards with his paws. “He said, ‘Can you take a picture of me doing this?’

“I love the reading he gave me: He smiled and he purred and kissed. Almost all of it was good. The only card that wasn’t was the one talking about him being in a toxic relationship with someone else. All the cats bully him because he’s such a sweetheart and he just wants to get along.”

Morenz has come a long way last year and a half, Casey said. “I want them to be able to express themselves and show what life is like on the spectrum, share their perspectives, use this as a career starter and make some money toward independence,” he said of her and Cohen.

“It’s such a motivator to know that people believe in you.”

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Online: https://bit.ly/2Grjfg4

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Information from: The Middletown Press, http://www.middletownpress.com

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