Autism awareness and Derby’s ‘defining spirit’

Four years ago,  the offices of the Governor and First Lady asked the Kentucky Arts Council to decorate picnic tables for the Governor’s Derby Celebration. We took the project to extreme measures by turning the tables into horses. We also wanted to include the entire Commonwealth, so we found a way to let school children of all ages participate. Every year at the beginning of April, we mail blank canvases to Kentucky schools that respond to our open call. They design their own “blankets,” which are draped over “horses” at the celebration.

We’ve written about this before. Last year, students from Knox County Middle School honored a classmate who died with a blanket featuring an enlarged version of his notebook doodle. “The Shane Design” inspired many to think about our identities as proud Kentuckians and how that connects us across counties.

The 2013 blankets have arrived, and they are brilliant. As we laid them out to be photographed on our conference room table, one from Jacob Elementary School in Louisville immediately caught my eye. I admit that less than 10 years ago, the design wouldn’t evoke the emotional response in me that it does today. However, the primary-colored puzzle pieces are becoming  more common, and people are associating them with an important movement. The symbol encourages variation and evokes pride, much like each jockey’s farm-specific silk. This symbol is emblazoned proudly on everything from license plates to human skin. People with autism, and those who love them, are sharing their lives with the world through a simple-to-recognize design that alludes to the complex idea of solving a puzzle.

The letter attached to this blanket from teacher Angie Palmer reads:

Please accept and use this “blanket” as a piece of the positive youth spirit alive and thriving in our community. In a world where there are many questions and moments of despair, please allow my students to brighten the day of a person they touch. My students each have their own unique challenges, but be assured these challenges do not prevent them from living and enjoying their lives! We work daily to tackle their different abilities and create a life that is amazing!

This blanket signifies the uniqueness of my classroom, the breadth of the challenges we face, and the work we continue daily to help these children succeed. Four of the seven students in my classroom have autism. We decided to highlight the work we do every day to tackle the uniqueness of this special gift. This blanket uses the puzzle pieces to signify autism awareness., and the uniqueness of fitting the pieces together for the children that work every second of their days to combat the difficulties that autism presents.

The horses in the center of the blanket are each child’s own footprint, leaving their own unique mark for the festivities.  The manes of the horse that the children with autism created have the autism awareness colors to honor their fight daily. Their classmates, join together with their own footprints, fight their own struggles with their own challenges. The horses are all painted to the center of the blanket, signifying our unified work towards success. Their silhouettes represent their defining spirit and their specific gifts to this world we live in.

As we enter the day, we fill our hearts and minds with the “can do” statements for the day and push forward, As our blanket states “Autism…the race is on!”

I would like to underline Angie’s statement describing the students’ “defining spirit and their specific gifts to this world.” Therapists, scientists, doctors and social scientists are beginning to scratch the surface about this so-called disability. The puzzle  pieces are a fitting symbol for the awareness movement, as we can learn from people with autism (who daily assemble the pieces) how to find solutions to the problems we can no longer see, because we are predisposed to ignore and overlook them. Through the eyes of people with autism we may find evidence that it is actually our created environment which is disabled—not people.

Sarah Schmitt, arts access director

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