Autistic artists create piece to be auctioned at event

By Michelle McConnaha

Sensory Art for the Heart “Puzzle Pieces” was created as a group project by young autistic artists of the Bitterroot Valley who need interaction and interconnectedness. It was displayed at the Ravalli County Fair, winning Grand Champion, and will be auctioned on Saturday with the proceeds going to Emma’s House, a children’s advocacy center.

“Kids helping kids really touches everybody,” said Nora Cassens, the director of Ladder of Learning Preschool in Corvallis, which hosts the Bitterroot Art for Autism group that created the art.

“Celebrate diversity – everyone has a unique story to share and something to contribute,” said Jessica Fitzpatrick, BAA organizer.

Bright, colorful and full of texture, the puzzle art piece is a compilation from a year’s worth of sensory art therapy.

“Eight panels plus eight artists – each with unique spirits, talents, likes and needs, equals one great picture,” said Cassens. “The symbol for Autism is a puzzle piece with those main colors, blue, red, yellow and turquoise.”

“Each piece of the picture tells a piece of the story,” said Fitzpatrick. “They painted the puzzle piece and did sensory art. They used things from nature – sand, noodles, feathers, sugar, glue and more. It’s a way to play with art and create it.

“In the center is a piece with a big smiley face – if you look closely there are tears. I don’t believe this was an accident – it shows their real heart – these kids put on a brave smile and often hide their tears.”

The Bitterroot Art for Autism is a local nonprofit and a project of Bitter Root Resource Conservation and Development. The BAA mission statement says, “Bitterroot Arts for Autism will strive to provide education and socialization through the exploration of many arts, including music, dance, creative movement, yoga and a variety of art classes for local children living on the autism spectrum; further, to provide support and education to the parents and families of children with autism in order to maximize the success of the program for all involved.”

According to, Autism is a developmental disorder that appears in the first three years of life affecting the brain’s normal development of social and communication skills causing difficulties in verbal communication and social interaction.

Fitzpatrick defines autism as having a sensory processing disorder that covers a range of sensitivity – a spectrum of too much or not enough stimulation.

“Its how your body reacts to the environment – my daughter’s vision and hearing takes in way too much information and so she wears headphones and prefers a darker room,” said Fitzpatrick.

Teacher Nora Cassens said creating the piece took a year. First they had the wooden puzzle pieces cut, then painted, then the sensory therapy classes began.

“Each piece shows a different sensory activity because the kids like sensory input – so each peace is different,” said Cassens. “We did each of these activities with all the kids and then we picked one to do the puzzle piece.”

The story of the creation is an insight into the child that created it.

The first piece was done by Tabitha and is called Marble Art.

“We put the puzzle piece in a box with different drops of paints and added marbles and she moved the box and the marbles made the colors,” said Cassens.

Piece two by Jacob is a Shaving Cream Creation.

“You mix shaving cream and glue and food color and then you put it on the puzzle piece and the put their hands in it and feel it and create. It shrunk when it dried – but it’s still puffy.”

Piece three was done by Lilliana called Spaghetti Art.

“You boil spaghetti and put colors on a plate and dip the spaghetti into the paint and then it’s like spaghetti stamping. They love it and it’s a big mess. Lilliana loved the art – she just craves the sensory input.

Sequioa created piece four – Feather Fun.

“She painted the puzzle piece yellow and as she’s painting she’s saying “duck,” “duck,” “duck.” It’s so great because she doesn’t have too many words. We built on that with feathers – they are sensory too. They are soft, you can blow them and they fly up into the air.”

Aksel created Dotter & Glitter.

“Kids with autism deal with stimulation – either they need lots of it or they are sensitive to too much of it. Aksel would not put his hands in the shaving cream or spaghetti – it was a sensory overload. He loved the dotters – they are like markers. You just hold on to a tube and dot. He really loved that kind of an input – feeling the pressure in his hands. Then to shake the shaker of glitter was another sensory input.”

Piece six was done by Kaylee called Seeds & Sand.

“She is a new child that came into our group and I had the sensory table out with the seeds and it’s a good stimulator to let them run through her fingers and she loved the seeds. She had a whole pile of seeds and we had to dump some off. The sensory table is a great tool and playing area. All the kids love it.”

Piece number seven was done by Kristofor (pronounced Christopher). It is called Sugar & Salt.

“We put sugar in bags with drops of food coloring in the bags and closed them. The kids squished them around in their hands – another sensory experience. It makes it all one color.

“We told Kristofor to decorate his piece with the sugar and salt and gave him the glue and said just draw what ever you want.

“He made a smiley face and when it was all done a few glue drops fell between the eyes and mouth and he said “those are my tears.”

“Kristofor is really caring and has a good heart and is usually really happy. Being different is hard on him. The tears show the struggles that he goes through every day. It was “wow” just amazing that this came together: sugar and salt, happiness and sadness. It was amazing.”

Dino Prints is the final puzzle piece – created by Landen.

“Landen loves his dinosaurs. He knows them all and plays with them and has great stories. When we talked to him about decorating a puzzle piece he said “Dinosaurs!” He picked three and painted their feet and made footprints.”

The large decorated puzzle pieces were fitted together and framed. It will be part of the silent auction at the event on Saturday.

“We are selling it as one big thing,” said Cassens. “Our vision was the hospital or the bank would buy one of those group entries and display it prominently in the community – in their business. I hope lots of people will show up on Saturday and it will be a big success for Emma’s house.”

Valerie Widmer, executive director of Emma’s House, said she is appreciative of the art donation and the special effort.

“I think it is so generous and thoughtful of the kids to create something from their heart and donate it to Emma’s House,” said Widmer. “It is an amazing creation and will be displayed at our benefit on Saturday. We’ll let the audience know about the art work and that the hopes are for it to be displayed in the community where kids and families congregate and many people get to see the heartfelt piece.”

Hannah Honey