Jake Schindler is in his element when his hands are covered in paint and he’s immersed in an art project.
Though 18-year-old Schindler can’t verbalize it, it’s obvious he loves everything about converting a blank canvas into a colorful work of art. And it’s in these moments that the focus is on his artistic talents and not on being autistic.
“He will do facial expressions where he’ll kind of look out of the corner of his eye and grin,” says Schindler’s mom, Christina, explaining how she can tell her son is enjoying himself. “I can see that he likes doing it.”
Schindler, of Colfax, Wis., has been creating abstract art paintings since April and recently donated 10 pieces of art to the Emergency/Urgent Care expansion project at Mayo Clinic Health System – Red Cedar in Menomonie where Jake was born.
“We wanted to show people Jake’s abilities, and I wanted Jake to share them with others,” Christina says. “And I feel that that was the perfect place.”
Mayo Clinic Health System staff welcomed the opportunity to showcase Jake’s art.
“We are very grateful for the donation of art and plan to display pieces in a variety of locations throughout the Emergency and Urgent Care departments,” says Alana Schutts, nursing supervisor in Menomonie. “Jake’s art work is amazing and inspiring. I think it will help to brighten the day for many of our patients.”
The Colfax community also has been very receptive to Jake’s art, Christina notes.
“Jake will always be a resident of Colfax, so we want our community to not only understand Jake’s diagnosis, but to also understand that Jake has abilities, too,” she says. “Some of the businesses of Colfax were amazed at Jake’s work and were eager to share his abilities with others. I feel once a person — with a disability or not — has the opportunity, then the possibilities are endless.”
At age 2, Schindler was diagnosed with autism — one of a group of developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders. According to the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 88 children have been identified with an autism spectrum disorder.
Symptoms and severity vary; Schindler’s case is considered severe, affecting his ability to communicate and interact with others. His 19-year-old brother, Matthew, was diagnosed on the autism spectrum one year before Schindler. While both brothers share the same diagnosis, the disability’s effect on them is “night and day,” Christina shares. Schindler is nonverbal, needs pictures to communicate his needs and wants and requires more assistance than his brother. The Schindler’s third son, 22-year-old Jared, is not on the autism spectrum.
It’s been challenging to find activities that pique Schindler’s attention. The family has tried creating soaps and making stepping stones out of cement, but neither hobby grabbed him.
Then Schindler’s grandfather had a brainstorm. He watched a television program about two young men on the autism spectrum who were affected by it very differently. One created abstract art while the other did more detailed art.
“That sparked an idea,” Christina recalls. “It was like, ‘Oh, gee. We didn’t even think about something like that.’ So we introduced art to Jake, and it took right off. He was really into it.”
Using art seems to help Schindler express his emotions and creativity. What he can’t share verbally gets put into his art, Christina says.
“I definitely think it’s therapeutic for him,” she says.
R. Gregg Kishaba, M.D., Schindler’s pediatrician at Mayo Clinic Health System, calls his artwork “impressive” and also believes art can bring benefits to patients like Schindler.
“Art definitely can be used as an outlet for all kinds of energy or stress,” Dr. Kishaba says. “Oftentimes, difficult behaviors can improve because of the outlets like creating artwork can provide.”
The family’s next goal is to combine Schindler’s abstract art into a children’s interactive game book with a brief description about autism using child-friendly terms.
“We are very proud of Jake,” Christina says.