Three years ago, 24-year-old Colm Isherwood was getting increasingly frustrated. He was starting to lash out and had a lot of “down days”, according to his dad.
At around the same time, a new arts facilitator, Áine Crowley, joined the staff at Colm’s residential centre and said she was eager to get Colm painting.
Colm, from Mahon in Cork, has autism and can’t speak. He communicates using PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), which means he uses pictures to express his needs and wishes.
Many people with autism are hypersensitive to sensory stimulation. In Colm’s case, he couldn’t abide his hands sticky. He wanted to change his clothes up to four times a day if they got too wet or in any way soiled. His family presumed he would find painting too stressful.
At first, he just “messed around” with the paints, but they noticed he began to find solace in art, becoming more and more relaxed as he engaged with the paint and the canvas.
His dad Eric said: “It has been amazing for him. He is so much more relaxed. His behaviours have declined so much. He was obviously looking for an outlet for his frustration and he has no problem mixing and handling the paints.”
Colm’s family and the Brothers of Charity staff at Eastview, Lota, don’t push him to paint, but whenever he signals he wants to, they pull out the easel.
Two years ago, Colm’s teacher submitted his paintings for exhibition at Cork Institute of Technology. They were accepted. Recently, the family were told the United Nations Postal Administration will issue stamps on April 2 for World Autism Day and have chosen one of Colm’s paintings for a stamp.
Eric said: “It has been amazing. We’re over the moon. It’s like winning an Oscar. We don’t know where he got it from as neither myself or my wife, Veronica, could draw a hangman. Colm is delighted with the attention, but, to be honest, I don’t know whether he understands why there is all this fuss and all these photographers and TV cameramen around.”
Colm has a twin brother who also has autism. The staff at Lota tried to get him interested in art but “being like chalk and cheese”, said their dad, “they couldn’t get him motivated”.
Eric added that Colm loves perfume. “He loves the company of women as he loves the smell of perfume. But art? No.”
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