BEIRUT: The sounds of children playing reverberated from almost every room at Sesobel, a school for children with disabilities.
At one point, a 13-year-old boy torpedoed into the play area on a bicycle and boisterously announced “I’m Gregory!” holding out his hand to a newcomer. Before the latter had the chance to return the introduction, the vivacious teenager had already lost interest and sped away on his three-wheeler.
“He’s one of the artists,” Mugay Moudawar, a specialized teacher at the school, turned to tell The Daily Star.
By most accounts Gregory’s behavior deviates from the norm of basic social interaction. However, an impaired ability to communicate is one of the hallmarks of autism, which often tests the patience of parents, therapists and sometimes, the specialized teachers at Sesobel.
While autistic children tend to perform poorly with basic verbal communication tasks, they often excel in visual and spatial tests. Through the special education program at Sesobel, autistic children are given the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings through painting classes.
“These children are unable to [verbally] communicate their desires to other people,” explained Moudawar, “So in school at times they draw on the board what they feel, their fears, sorrows and joys. ... These are all captured in the paintings.”
The finished products have not only granted parents and teachers a glimpse into their complex inner worlds, but now the general public can have this opportunity too as a collection of the children’s paintings are on display at the Phoenicia Hotel.
“We were the first school in Lebanon that dared to start a special program for autistic children,” said Sesobel’s President Fadia Safi, “because it’s very challenging, because every child with autism is unique.”
In 1989, after witnessing the trials of the mothers that were largely left without adequate resources to raise their autistic children, the school began a special education program for the preschool level. As the children grew into youths and then young adults, the school’s board realized it not only needed to build on the program, but construct another center to house its activities.
The proceeds collected from a silent auction of the children’s paintings will contribute to building this center.
“Autistic children and youth are real artists and they make really beautiful paintings, which will help them acquire the funds to build their new center,” Safi said.
As with many spectrum disorders, autism manifests through a triad of symptoms that include impaired social interactions and communication, restrictive and repetitive behaviors, such as head slapping and hand flapping, compulsive behavior and an obstinate and at times volatile resistance to change.
Most children show symptoms of the disorder before they reach 3 years of age. Neurologically, autism affects how information in the brain is processed, but how exactly this occurs is not entirely understood by scientists.
Depending on the gravity of the disorder, some who are mildly afflicted are able to integrate with society and even enjoy successful careers, but for moderate to severe cases of autism, most cannot live independently.
Given the challenges of having to engage with severely autistic children – let alone teach them how to communicate – the special education program at Sesobel adopts an adaptable approach that makes use of each child’s particular propensities, often by stimulating his or her heightened visual processing capabilities.
The teachers at Sesobel begin giving instruction around the preschool level. “We have to focus our efforts in improving their ability to express their needs, so we begin with actual objects,” said Moudawar.
To teach a child how to express thirst, for instance, Moudawar will place a glass of water on the table and, using gestures accompanied with simple language, will instruct the autistic child to show her the object whenever in need of a drink.
“In time we move on from objects to photos of the objects, then words that correspond to them ... so the tasks become more and more complicated,” the teacher explained.
Because of the typical communicative barriers of the disorder, instructors said they have to be able to empathize with a child to understand their needs.
“A child with autism needs to feel secure at all times, because he is terrified of change,” Moudawar said, adding that this fear can be incited by simple habitual adjustments, from being instructed to stand up from a seated position to simple changes in the season.
“He needs to be prepared well before a change in his routine will occur. If he isn’t prepared in advance he will have an outburst.”
Sometimes these outbursts are resolved easily, once Moudawar explains what gave rise to the change with drawings. For instance, Moudawar recounts a time when a child once threw a fit because the teacher that normally handed out chocolate after a lesson was absent.
“So I took a piece of chalk and explained to him ‘Listen, the teacher is not here today, she is sleeping and the key to the chocolate box is with her,’ and I drew the key and put an ‘x’ through it, and he understood,” she said. Without this visual explanation, the outburst would have continued.
The upstairs room where the children sometimes spend hours on a single canvas shows signs of their furious creativity: A white table is splattered with paint in the art room, as are the chairs, walls and the floor. Piles of canvas are strewn on the ground along with brushes stiffened with remnants of acrylic paint, their tips thinned with overuse.
The hours the children spend on a single canvas is a rare investment, as most are unable concentrate for long in other activities.
On display in the room is a bright-red medium-sized painting of a geranium that itself contains a darker flower. On the right-hand corner is the signature, “Walid.” Only the large and wobbly handwriting gives away the artist’s young age.
Gregory’s subdued and intricate paintings, one of the many on display at the Phoenicia Hotel’s exhibition, show no sign of the energetic boy that had burst through the playground earlier. The discordant arrangement of colors in his work “Ulysses 1,” for instance, suggests an emotionally complicated inner world.
The children at times paint dark colors in a very narrow spaces on the canvas to express their anger, which sometimes leads to interventions from the supervisors.
“But sometimes they would invade the space of the canvas, with all kinds of colors. And that’s how we saw their joy,” said Moudawar.