Ryan Mathews Max Miller and Rebecca Miller

Blue Ribbon Arts Initiative Helps Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Photo from left: Arts educator Ryan Mathews and founders of Blue Ribbon Arts Initiative Max Miller and Rebecca Miller. Visit the second annual Youth Artists on the Spectrum: A Celebration of Neurodiversity on view at the Denver Art Museum on the lower level of the North Building August 26−October 2, 2016. Entry to the showcase is free; admission to the rest of the museum requires a ticket. Learn about one of the artists in the showcase in this story on 9News.com.

Exactly five minutes till the end of my shift, I had a patient in crisis. It was a long day of nursing. I felt a small twinge during my charting, thinking that my son Max and I would have to forgo one of our favorite things to do—attend Untitled Final Fridays at the Denver Art Museum. However, with a stroke of good luck with traffic and drinking some caffeine, we made it.

Walking up to the doors, we were enchanted by the sounds of a string quartet. Max started dancing, as he is prone to do. After the set, we walked through the doors of the museum as we have perhaps a 100 times since he was quite small. And, as if on cue, Max was excited to be there, taking in the new sights and brimming with excitement.

"My son said that art saved him. I have no doubt in my mind that this is true."

An Access Point

"Mom, we have to make a point to attend Untitled every month, like we used to." I agreed with him. Untitled was our access point. We could blend into the sea of young hipsters, artsy types, and those who hang out with artsy types. Max could dress weird and dance and stim and no one really noticed. The energy was organized borderline entropy and we loved it. We fit in.

We were cutting across the concourse to get Max his favorite cheese when we ran into our friend Julie Byerlein from 40 West Arts District. After exchanging pleasantries, she asked Max this question: "So Max, do you have any art up here right now?"

"Not until the 26th of August," Max replied. The young artist with Julie looked surprised.

Julie explained. "Max runs a nonprofit where he helps kids with autism get involved in the arts with art shows, and get-togethers and you do fun events together, right Max? And you're doing a show here in August? Did I get that right?"

"Yes," Max replied.

It Started with a Quilt

Later, Max and I stood on the patio eating our snacks and listening to the music from the courtyard below. I thought about this exchange and couldn't help but feel an emotional wave of gratitude and accomplishment. My son was in his element. I reflected on his deep connection to the art museum and how the DAM provided an extraordinary moment of inclusion, something that autism families like ours vie for. It all started with a quilt.

As part of the 2013 exhibition SPUN: Adventures in Textiles, the museum gave a call for art from community members to take part in building a Community Quilt. Max wanted to participate and so we cut the fabric and glued his piece together. It was called, "My Family." I remember nervously dropping off the piece for consideration at the security desk, followed by the elation that he made the cut. However, nothing could compare to the moment of my son running ahead of me and excitedly pointing to the quilt on the wall. I was overwhelmed. It was like nothing I had experienced as an autism mom. I saw my son beam with pride.

An artwork that will be on view in Youth Artists on the Spectrum: A Celebration of Neurodiversity
An artwork that will be on view in Youth Artists on the Spectrum: A Celebration of Neurodiversity. 

Blue Ribbons Arts Initiative

That moment forever changed us. My son, now filled with confidence, decided that he wanted to share his experience with other kids just like him. He started Blue Ribbon Arts Initiative (BRAI) with the intention of connecting kids with autism to the arts through art shows and art meetups and providing art supplies to kids who need them. His first art show, Youth Artists on the Spectrum: A Celebration of Neurodiversity, was held last year at 40 West and this year, the Denver Art Museum has graciously provided exhibition space for Max's second annual art exhibit which will run from August 26−October 2, 2016 in the lower level of the North Building.

The show features works of art by 45 youth artists who are on the autism spectrum. The ages range from primary school to young adult with various mediums. Over 90 pieces of art will be showcased and the purpose of the show is to celebrate the artist, as well as to help educate people that young people who have autism are just that: young people who like to dance, sing, paint, draw, photograph, have friends, go to school, work, ride bikes, and have moms and dads. As Temple Grandin says, "Different, not less."

Art Saves

My son said that art saved him. I have no doubt in my mind that this is true. I've watched him struggle with understanding language, hearing his first words at age six; wiping tears as he attempted tasks that seem so rudimentary—tying shoes, holding a pencil, buttoning a shirt, yet to later explode in ecstatic joy of hearing him read out loud at the age of 10. Our joyful outbursts were minimal for many years.

We kept pushing forward and when life was too hard, he drew, he painted, he taught himself guitar, he wrote stories...the arts nourished my son. His art and music nourish me. It is our hope that our friends on the spectrum will share a similar joy of creating and sharing their works with others. My son told me that all he wants to do is help another kid with autism have a better life. He's 14. There's no doubt in my mind that he will accomplish this goal.

As I sit here writing this blog piece in my living room, surrounded by 114 pieces of art, tired from a late night at Untitled, I'm happy for my son and so grateful to the Denver Art Museum, to its director Christoph Heinrich and to Danielle Schulz, coordinator of adult and access programs, who helped make this possible.

I'm honored that Max and I have the ability to help the DAM with the Low Sensory Mornings for our kids with sensory-processing disorders. I am lucky to have my friend and art educator Ryan Mathews on our team and blessed to be connected to my BRAI artists and their families. My life is enriched, my heart is full, and I cannot wait for opening night so I can see my young artists beam with pride, just like my son when he saw his art on the wall for the very first time.

Rebecca Miller is Max Miller's mom. She helped Max launch Blue Ribbon Arts Initiative in 2015. Her function is helping Max with outreach, typing up documents, driving him to events, and paying for art supplies. Rebecca is a nurse, writer, and a social-justice activist. If she isn't at an art gallery, you can find her either watching the Cubs win or hanging out with Max at Dazzle Jazz on a weekday playing hooky from work and school.

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