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Perceptions of autism

Di Hope visits an exhibition which alters appreciation of autistic disorders as it explodes with colour and social awareness

Seventeen young artists with autistic spectrum disorders are marking 2003, the European year of people with disabilities, by having their work exhibited at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow.

The large exhibition hall is bright with huge, vibrant canvases. Rachel Hook, aged 15, has four of exceptional colour and energy, all meditations on a circle. Pauline Jackson, also 15, has warm, anecdotal paintings of the Big Ben tower, the Eiffel Tower and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, all boldly outlined in black. Lucy Harrison-Millan, aged 12, shows a glorious Francine's Holiday with Madonna, Anthony Rogan, aged 11, and Jonathan Beatts, aged 17, have graphic drawings in charcoal and Michael Earll, aged 13, has a well observed painting of planets. There are also monoprints, sculptures and an animated film.

The impact is immense. There is the vivid freshness of vision of child art, the darker tone of outsider art and the honesty of the struggle to articulate. Above all, Young Talent 2003 @ Kelvingrove is bursting with creativity, confidence and the joy of art. Most strikingly, given the public perception of autism, it communicates a vivid engagement with an outer and an inner life.

The artists have all attended classes at Project Ability, the visual arts company that allows people with disabilities to learn skills and develop their own artistic practice.

Based in the Centre for Developmental Arts in Glasgow, the group has an impressive public gallery and a large, well equipped workshop which, along with the adjacent Trongate Studios, has facilities for working with textiles, glass, ceramics, painting, photography, animation and printmaking. From here, they run a year-round programme for adults and an extensive outreach programme.

Three years ago the company extended its workshop provision to offer a weekly Saturday class to children with autistic spectrum disorders. This is a long-term project, with up to eight children forming a core group working with at least three trained artists for two hours on Saturdays.

Great importance is placed on continuity as many of the children can take most of two years to feel settled in the workshop and confident around each other and the artists. Painter Sharon Quigley emphasises the value of slowly earned trust, citing the case of one boy who took eight sessions to allow himself to enter the workshop. The families of the children also benefit and speak warmly of the children's increased confidence and sense of purpose.

Each child is encouraged to work on a personal line of discovery, with guidance given when needed, in the secure, yet exciting environment. The materials are excellent and the children can use the computers. The really striking thing is the huge scale on which they are encouraged to work.

Michael Stark, aged 15, is engaged on a project on tigers, about which he knows a great deal. He is working in acrylic paint on a large canvas from a series of pencil studies in his sketch book.

A younger girl is working on a series of pieces about teeth, focused on glazing a ceramic sculpture.

Across the workshop, large stretchers are being made up with canvas for Rachel Hook, who loves to create highly coloured abstract works. Rachel is in residential care during the week and the Saturday classes give her scope to develop her own personal language through painting. Over the past three years her work has become much more structured and she works almost completely independently now, organising her canvases with confidence.

Her mother, Jane Hook, who as chair of the Scottish Society for Autism was instrumental in setting up the class, praises what is being achieved.

These classes give the children the chance to create a visual language, to make friends and to do something independently of their school or home. It enables them to express their creativity and exhibit it in a professional way, which is as beneficial as it is exceptional.

Young Talent 2003 @ Kelvingrove, until March 23, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow

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