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My Neuro-divergent Child, Who Makes Art Out of Everything

Children like my daughter are often prolific creators, but we never expected anything on this level.

By Teralyn PilgrimPublished 3 years ago 9 min read
7
Bella made her pony a painter's cape out of paper towels and an easel, pallet, and paint brush out of paper and q tips.

You need to wake up and smell the roses, read the letter in my hand. A three-year old who can’t talk is NOT NORMAL.

Your daughter obviously has autism or a learning disorder. I suggest you spend less time writing and more time caring for your child’s needs.

Sincerely,

a concerned mother

I would have thrown the letter in the trash right away. Maybe I would forget it ever existed. The memory could fade like a dream and I’d ask myself if it ever happened, or if I just imagined it.

My husband noticed that I had suddenly stopped opening the mail, and that I had stared at the same letter for a long time. He asked what was wrong, and pretty soon, everyone knew about the letter.

The puzzling part was that we were doing so much for our daughter. When Bella was almost two and couldn’t walk, we put her in physical therapy. She had been in speech therapy since she was eighteen months old. After the seizures started, we spent thousands of dollars on EEGs, an MRI, and a dozen genetic tests. She even went to a preschool for special needs children.

My guess is that the woman who sent the letter followed us on Facebook. My daughter’s developmental delays weren’t a secret, and we talked about them openly when concerned people asked about her. But I refused to post about it on social media.

My friends and family were confused, even scandalized, by this decision. They seemed to think I owed the world an explanation. I held firm. Even if it meant nosy women were judging me.

I believed, even before we got the diagnosis, that Bella was going to pass for neurotypical someday. Perhaps it was mother’s intuition. She would talk, she would run, and she would go to a regular school. I just knew it.

No one wants labels on their children, and I especially didn’t want hundreds of friends — people my daughter hadn’t even met — to think of her in a way that wouldn’t be relevant later on.

I chose not to be hurt by the letter. The woman (whoever she was) cared about my daughter, or she wouldn’t have bothered. Her hurtful words came from a place of love, right? Besides, she was wrong in everything she said, so there was no reason to take it personally.

But even though I only read the letter once, and it was years ago, I remember every word of it, verbatim. I guess you don’t get to decide how much something upsets you.

***

Bella got by with the abilities she had. We communicated with a mix of gestures, facial expressions, and signs. When she needed to go to the bathroom, she made the sound of pee hitting the bottom of her potty. When she wanted to play outside, she’d point to her feet so I’d put on her shoes. She could sign “food,” “milk,” “medicine,” and “different.”

I used my fingers to help her make decisions. For instance, if she made the sign for “drink,” I’d list off the drinks she could have: pointer finger for milk, middle finger for juice, ring finger for water, and pinky for chocolate milk. Then she’d point to the finger that represented the drink she wanted. If I hadn’t listed the right thing, she’d sign, “different.”

Her preschool gave us a book for nonverbal communication. It took a lot of practice, but we learned to have conversations with it. She’d point to the picture for people, so I’d turn the page to the people section and she’d point to grandma and grandpa. Then she’d point to “go back” and I’d flip to the beginning and she’d point to household items, then phone. Translation: “I want to call Grandma and Grandpa.”

When she started getting words, we used what she could say to work around what she couldn’t. “Grandma” was too challenging, so we taught her to say, “mimi.” When Bella fell in love with an older woman at our church but couldn’t say her name, she’d make the sign for “different” and say “mimi.” Translation: different grandma.

Finally, after months of tests and doctors, we got the diagnosis: periventricular leukomalacia. It’s an injury to the brain that is usually caused by a lack of oxygen, either in utero or right after birth, if the child is born prematurely. My daughter was full-term and my pregnancy was uneventful. We’ll never know what caused the PVL.

Children with PVL can suffer from cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, or they can be nonverbal their whole lives. We were incredibly lucky that she had a mild case and was spared from much of that. There was another silver lining to her diagnosis:

Injured brains can heal.

I asked her doctor, “What can we expect in her future? Will she be able get married, go to school, have a job, have a family?”

He shrugged. “After looking at her scans, I see no reason why she won’t be able to do all those things.”

***

Bella demonstrated a love for art from the beginning. Play dough would occupy her for hours. Her favorite pallet for drawing was skin, unfortunately, and we were constantly finding doodles on herself and her friends. It got to be an issue in school. Enough parents complained that her kindergarten teacher banned her from using markers, forever.

What kind of a kindergarten teacher bans a kid from markers?

We didn’t recognize Bella had a gift for art until she was in first grade.

By this time, all her hard work had paid off and she was in a regular school. She could talk with full fluency. She could walk, jump, and run. She wore glasses for the poor vision, took medicine for the seizures, and took pills for the ADHD. No one knew she had to work harder on her homework, or that when she sat out at recess, it wasn’t that she didn’t want to play, but that she couldn’t keep up with the other kids. To them, she seemed normal.

Bella was obsessed with art tutorials on YouTube. Her favorite videos transformed old Barbies into brides, princesses, Halloween creatures, and cartoon characters. She begged me to let her paint a doll to look like the hero of Miraculous Ladybug, a French cartoon about a ladybug superhero saving the streets of Paris.

I laid down some newspaper, got out the red paint and a Barbie, and told her she could just paint the body while I made dinner. Once dinner was over, I’d help her with the rest.

I called her down to eat an hour later and she presented me with the finished product. She had done the black spots, the collar, and painted a mask around the eyes. She had even cut the hair, dyed it blue with a marker, and put it in pigtails. It looked just like the one on YouTube, and we were stunned.

We bought bags of old dolls from thrift stores and let her go to town on them. Soon, we had a zombie doll. Our house became cluttered with remade dolls, and my husband and I had the feeling that we had just tapped into something special.

***

“What’s this?” six-year-old Bella asked me once while watching me knit. She held up a plastic needle that I use to join knitted pieces.

“That’s a sewing needle,” I explained.

“Can I try?”

I threaded in a strand of yarn and gave her a knitted blanket. She had so much fun weaving thread up and down through the piece that I thought, what the heck? Maybe she’d like to try a real needle.

Bella learned how to thread a needle after a few demonstrations, and then, she was unstoppable. She started making clothes. She sewed wearable clothes for her dolls and made dresses for herself and her sister.

The periventricular leukomalacia caused the attention deficit disorder, and it’s normal for children with ADHD to be exceptionally creative. Their minds wander because they’re in a constant state of daydreaming. This makes it hard for them to concentrate, but it enables them to be prolific creators.

Still, we never expected anything on this level. She made pop-up books, cardboard doll houses, snow globes in mason jars, and paper dolls with a wardrobe of paper outfits. She sewed bracelets and nightgowns and stuffed animals. Every spare moment, she was making things that would delight and surprise us.

No one could tell her what to make or how. When all the kids at church were gluing flower petals to mother’s day cards, Bella drew a person on a scooter and used the petals to make spiky hair and pastel flames on the bike. Her second-grade teacher had the students make a solar system our of paper, yarn, and a hanger. Bella finished the assignment and then used the leftover yarn to make a sleeve with tassels, which she wore all day. When her homework assignment was to draw a picture of a dinosaur, she cut out and sewed a stuffed dinosaur instead.

Coloring pages are too confining. When Bella’s teacher handed her a picture of a Christmas tree, she flipped the page over and drew her own tree on the back.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I asked Bella when she was seven.

“A painter,” she said. “I want to live in an art museum! People can come and look at the art and buy my paintings.”

The living in a museum part didn’t surprise me. Last time we went to an art museum, she begged me to ask the curator to hang up one of her paintings.

“I thought you would have wanted to be a fashion designer,” I said.

“Mom,” she answered, “I’m already a fashion designer.”

***

The sewing frenzy had to come to an end. Her baby brother had started to crawl.

We told Bella to pick up her needles, but she was only seven, and we kept finding them on the floor. No matter how many times we lectured her about scissors, they’d end up in places the baby could reach.

The painting had also become a problem. She never asked for permission to paint, which would have been fine, except that she didn’t remember to put on her cover. I was tired of throwing away clothes stained with paint splotches. We didn’t mind paint stains on the old carpets that came with the house, but we were about to get new carpets.

It broke her heart, and it broke ours too, but we couldn’t get around it. The sewing and the paints had to be put away.

“You can have them back soon,” I promised. “We just need to finish an art room that the baby can’t go into.”

Until the art room was done, Bella would have to draw with pencils and crayons like any neurotypical kid.

At least, that’s what I thought she’d do.

Taking her supplies away didn’t stop her from creating what she wanted to make. It didn’t even slow her down. With the sewing needles gone, Bella started making doll clothes out of paper towels, tape, and hair bands. She pilfered a box of disposable rubber gloves, and for weeks, we found dolls in stylish blue rubber dresses. She made a Christmas tree ornament out of rubber bands and toothpicks. She even made her sister a hair tie in the shape of a puppy out of toilet paper and yarn.

For my daughter, art is more than a gift. It’s an irresistible force. It doesn’t just make her feel happy; it makes her feel alive.

***

This story was originally going to be called My Neuro-Divergent Child Who Can Make Art Out of Anything. I changed it, because all of us can make art out of anything. What makes my daughter special isn’t that she can do it, but that she does it.

Do you feel like you don’t have talent? Make art anyway.

Do you not have much time? Make art anyway.

Are you saving up for art supplies, or can you only buy supplies gradually? Make art anyway.

Are you not the smartest, the prettiest, the most popular, or the fastest runner in your class? Make art anyway.

If my seven-year-old can make ornaments out of toothpicks and doll clothes out of rubber gloves, you can make great art, too.

***

Any tips and winnings we get from this story will go towards a family trip to Paris. Bella wants to go to the museums, watch a ballet at the Palais Garnier…and eat dozens of macarons!

children
7

About the Creator

Teralyn Pilgrim

Teralyn Pilgrim has an MFA in Creative Writing from Western New England University and a BA in English from Brigham Young University. Her work has been published in the Copperfield Review.

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