Working with college students with autism has challenged my assumptions and changed my beliefs

By Marissa R. Laham

Clockwise, from left: Evan Carter, G.A.P. artists collaborating on a group canvas, art by Casey Jones, and David Krieger

Clockwise, from left: Evan Carter, G.A.P. artists collaborating on a group canvas, art by Casey Jones, and David Krieger

As a graduate student in USC’s School of Social Work, my fieldwork internship assignment this semester has been with the West L.A.-based nonprofit organization F.A.C.T. (Family, Adult and Child Therapies). The experience has been rich and vibrant. Thanks to the incredible students and the dedicated staff, I find myself frequently surprised, learning new things and my passion for people growing exponentially.

What is F.A.C.T.? Just when I think I know, it becomes even more. Founded by parents and professionals in 1999 to support individuals and families navigating the complexities of autism, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses, F.A.C.T. provides individualized and affordable support services to help clients reach goals, develop relationships, attain careers and live independently.

My favorite part is the G.A.P. (Generating All Possibilities) program in Westwood. Through G.A.P. I work with a tight-knit community of miraculous young adults brought together not only by their clinical diagnoses, but also by their creativity, desire to learn and determination to achieve their goals.

G.A.P. includes a community-supported garden as well as in-house workshops in music, art, film editing, anime, cooking, childcare and journalism. Script readings bring characters alive, and the students’ laughter, singing and in-character voices fill the halls. Most young adults in the G.A.P. program attend Santa Monica College or West Los Angeles College.

On Saturday, G.A.P. students are putting on a fundraising art exhibit at the G2 Gallery on Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Called “Spectrum State Experience,” the exhibit challenges public perceptions about autism through interactive art installations that communicate each artist’s unique talents, sensory sensitivities and world view.

Santa Monica College student Evan Carter, a 24-year-old G.A.P. artist, hopes “Spectrum State Experience” will spread awareness and a greater sense of hope about autism.

“A lot of people think autistic people don’t really have feelings or can’t express feelings, or they think we’re basically stone, emotionless walls. This is not true. In fact, I tend to feel emotions a little too well, and what inspires my art is my mind, thoughts and feelings,” she says. “Art is like a meditation for me, and my artwork is usually one of the first things people talk to me about. I enjoy that. It’s a great icebreaker.”

Diagnosed with autism when she was just 18 months old, Carter was one of the first to join the G.A.P. program. Before G.A.P., Carter spent most of her time isolated in her room living life through a computer. Today she co-leads a weekly social skills group for young children with autism and has earned her certificate for early childhood education.

“Some people who have autistic children think that there’s no hope, no help, if their child doesn’t talk or isn’t moving the way the parents would like,” Carter says. “From this experience, I hope that these people can gain hope that their kid can grow up to be a successful, happy person even if the child has autism or another disability. I hope people will see that the basic stereotypes about autism are not correct. Autism is not what you think it is. It’s not black and white. It’s a whole grey scale with many different shades. You have to be open-minded. You can’t just say ‘Autistic people don’t talk,’ or ‘Autistic people don’t have feelings.’”

To conclude our conversation, Carter borrows a phrase from F.A.C.T. Executive Director Linda Andron about defeating autism stereotypes. She says she wants to “make sure people leave understanding that if you see one person with autism, you’ve seen one person with autism.”

Another showcased G.A.P. artist is David Krieger, a 29-year old Santa Monica College student who enjoys animation, drawing, working at We Rock the Spectrum and volunteering with the Salvation Army and Autism Society of Los Angeles. His animation is sure to blow you away.

And there’s also Casey Jones, another SMC student whose paintings are as bright and vibrant as her personality.

“What inspires my artwork is the happiness I have in my life, my own ideas, famous artists, nature, love that comes from the inside of my soul and my strong spiritual connection to God. Painting brings calmness to my soul, as well as happiness and strength. I can paint for five to six hours at a time and feel completely free and happy,” shares Jones, who works at a local Peet’s Coffee & Tea.

“When school is out of session, I like to be at the G.A.P. Program,” says Jones, “It helps me with having better social skills and independent life skills.”

My experiences interning at G.A.P. have made me more grateful and in love with life. I feel fortunate to work with students with autism and learn to see the world through their individual points of view. This experience has been transformative, has changed my perspective and has challenged much of what I previously believed about autism.

“Spectrum State Experience” runs from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, at G2 Gallery, 1503 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door for entry and hors d’oeuvres; enjoy an open bar for an extra $10 donation. To purchase advance tickets, call (310) 701-7097 or visit and search “Spectrum State Experience.”