Unemployment statistics for people with autism hit the headlines this week, thanks to a new study in the journal Pediatrics. It found that autistic young adults don’t just have a harder time finding work than the general population; they tend to fare worse than people with other disabilities, too.
One autistic teenager in Nashville may just be beating those odds, one brushstroke at a time.
Grace Goad is seventeen years old. Her speech is very limited and she can’t write her name. What Grace does have is a smile that seems to extend all the way out to her toes when she knows it’s time to make some art and the ability to take command when she sits down with her supplies.
Intensity and Focus
Most of her work is done in paint, but today Grace is drawing at home, using markers that have been ground down to nubs. She quietly stares at the page, and when her mother asks what she’s thinking of, Grace’s answer is quick and insistent: “Brown, brown, brown!”
Grace takes the cap off a brown marker, then slips it back on. She cradles the pen in her hand, contemplating its color first by itself, then next to other markers. She carefully examines her sheet of paper, smoothing out the tiniest wrinkles, lightly touching places where she might draw. The expression on her face leaves no doubt that she’s got an idea, and she wants to get it right.
Then something subtle changes in her expression. Grace opens the marker and briefly stretches her arms out to either side. She’s ready to draw.
Grace pushes color onto the page with such intensity that the table rocks. First, comes a long, diagonal slash of brown, surrounded by a wide, leaning block of red. Then she balances it out by making the same form on another part of the page, only smaller.
Grace seems focused, in control, and satisfied.
Art Therapy Unearths a Talent
“It started as just an opportunity to experience the joy of art and then, boom, we found that she really had an ability for it.” Says Grace’s mother, Leisa Hammett. Walking through their condo, Leisa points to her daughter’s paintings and collages and tells the stories that go with them.
A mom is supposed to think her child is talented, but it becomes clear Leisa isn’t the only one who thinks her daughter’s work is special.
The painting on the living room wall has been used on a disability conference tee shirt and the cover of a book about autism. An acrylic on silk that sits in Grace’s room was used by American Journal of Psychiatry.
Leisa pulls a framed print out of a closet. “This is a very sophisticated piece, a number of people have said it’s museum quality.” It was one of Grace’s earliest paintings. Leisa doesn’t have the original anymore; it belongs to former US Senator Bill Frist now.
“At six she began showing her work and I remember somebody coming up and asking if he could buy it and I held onto it for two years, I couldn’t-you know, almost everything I have in my home is from that period where I hung on to everything, and then I realized, it’s Grace’s art.”
Beating the Odds
It’s also Grace’s chance at drawing an income, something that’s all too rare for people in her position. According to the study released this week by the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in three autistic adults still have no job or any further education six years after leaving high school.
Grace has a website now, a line of notecards, even representation at a gallery in Seattle. With a year left in high school, she’s essentially self-employed. But for all that may seem extraordinary about Grace Goad, the basic strokes of her story fall right in line with what experts suggest for all autistic teenagers transitioning into adulthood.
Carolyn Hughes teaches at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. She says, “an important process is to be able to find those kind of skills, what really stands out about this person and really market them, you might say.”
Whether it’s a talent for art or just an ability to organize, Hughes says families have to start as early as middle school, planning out their childrens’ future and figuring what everyone’s role will be. “The trick to it all is to have the necessary supports.”
Supports like a parent who can take on the business end of her daughter’s art career.
Leisa Hammett says she’s setting up a small of board of directors for Grace. She’s looking into small business loans, setting up gallery shows and delivering paintings to their buyers.
Grace’s career seems to be taking off.
An exhibit of Grace Goad’s recent work is at the Green Hills Library through the end of May.