Students on the autism spectrum speak through images in Santa Monica

By Brian Marks

Art has always been a way to communicate, to share our deepest thoughts and feelings. For those on the autism spectrum, everyday communication can be challenging — making art an avenue for personal expression that’s simultaneously powerful and practical.

The Help Group, a local education nonprofit serving young people on the spectrum or with other learning challenges, honors the creative voices of its students with “The Festival of Arts: A Celebration of Young Artists,” an art show and sale happening Sunday at Santa Monica Art Studios.

The theme for this year’s show is “The Great Outdoors,” so the students have made paintings evoking scenes of animals and landscapes, sometimes modeled off nature photography.

Pamela Clark is the director of The Help Group’s specialized autism-specific schools, which serve more than 1,000 L.A.-area students. Clark considers participation in the festival, sponsored by the nonprofit Bear Givers and made possible through its EmpowerART program, a valuable outlet for self-expression.

“At The Help Group we really strive to help these students overcome their challenges and recognize their strengths, because every student, despite their challenges, has strengths to lend to their community,” she says. “Many of our students are on the autism spectrum or have developmental challenges, so their perspective may not necessarily be like typical perspectives. So it’s really nice to see those perspectives.”

A week and a half before the show, art class at the Village Glen school on The Help Group’s campus in Sherman Oaks is bustling, with students collaborating and commiserating over contributions in progress. Gabe S., a student, is clearly proud of his painting depicting the noble silhouette of a pacing bear.

“Could you mention that there’s a kid named Gabe, and he has the coolest bear in the whole entire classroom?” he says, gleaming with pride as he displays his painting, before launching into a more earnest explanation. “Bears and all the other animals in the world are starting to lose their homes and have to go to cities to eat from trash cans.”

Tia Bruno, an art teacher for The Help Group, attributes the value of the art for their students to its ability to create a sense of accomplishment.

“I think arts education is really important because it’s another way for the kids to convey something, to communicate what they need, what they want, and de-stress,” she says. “Because there’s not so much structure and demand, it’s a way for them to feel really successful.”

Most of the students participating in the Festival of Arts are not destined to become artists, yet their paintings provide them with another valuable gift: a chance to let others see through their eyes.


“The Festival of Arts: A Celebration of Young Artists” happens from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday (May 20) at Santa Monica Art Studios – Arena 1, 3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. Paintings are available for purchase. To RSVP, call (818) 779-5212 or email