Art therapy has been proven to help with mental and emotional growth, and for autistic people, it can be especially beneficial. Creating visual art can help with motor skills, improve cognition, reduce anxiety, reduce some symptoms of autism, and help people who might struggle with communication. For some autistic Black people, art is a means to explore their experiences with greater freedom and a way to express themselves creatively.
When Ronaldo Byrd was a teenager in Brooklyn, New York, his creativity was limitless. Byrd’s mother had always encouraged his artwork and recognized his talent through his drawings when he was only 3 years old. When she realized he was ready to express himself in a bigger way, Byrd’s mother allowed him to do something that few parents would even consider—she let him paint murals all over the walls.
“When I was a very young toddler I did a lot of finger painting and [my mother] did not mind if I got paint all over the place,” Byrd said. “So for her, when I was in my teens, the natural progression was for me to paint murals on the walls. It was part of the exploration of how many art mediums I was good at. She says the art I create never gets old and she can look at it all day.”
Eventually the in-house murals Byrd painted were featured in the local newspaper, and Byrd began to make a name for himself in the art world. Not long after painting the murals, Byrd and his family moved to New Jersey. At 17 years old, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Byrd said that while he was initially “nervous, scared, and shy” after his diagnosis, he was able to lean on his art to help cope and thrive.
“Art helps me with self-expression,” Byrd said. “It makes me feel calm. It helps me to focus and to center my thoughts and it helps to alleviate anxiety.”
Art is often recommended as a great coping tool for children on the spectrum. Verbal communication can sometimes be difficult for autistic children, and art can provide a more comfortable avenue of expression. For Byrd, being an artist has helped him build confidence in himself as a Black man on the spectrum.
“In the past it was difficult to be proud of myself, but with all the encouragement from my mom and relatives, I now can self-regulate and know for myself that I am a capable person doing great work,” Byrd said.
Byrd describes his art as “traditional, but with a hip pop flair.” He primarily uses acrylic paint, pens, markers, and pencils to create, and paints at least five hours each day. Byrd and his artwork has been featured in The Philadelphia Inquirer, CBS 3 Eyewitness News, New Jersey Design Magazine, and several other magazines and newspapers. Much of Byrd’s artwork is inspired by everyday life such as breaking news, celebrations, death, birthdays, and special occasions featuring both original characters and those from old movies and television shows.
Every year, Byrd creates a collection of artwork for Black History Month that highlights the contributions of Black people in American society to show his pride in being a Black man. His series features paintings of people like actress Cicely Tyson, Frederick Douglass, and Michelle Obama. During the pandemic Byrd also introduced a new series inspired by Beyoncé’s hit film, Black is King, which features Byrd and his family. Byrd hopes to one day have his art in museums.
“I would like to one day be known for what I contributed to the world and how I used my autism to my advantage and how it helped me to realize my strength, which is creating art,” Byrd said. “I am an artist with Autism who never gave up on my dreams. I know the world is watching so I try my best to be an inspiration to others so I can show that autism is not a death sentence nor the end of the world.”
Like Bryd, other Black artists on the spectrum also celebrate their identity and expression through different mediums. Kaleb “Tangy Keys” Hanson, another autistic Black artist, is known for his colorful cartoons. Hanson, who was diagnosed as a toddler, said he has always struggled with verbal communication. He said that even though he had a few friends as a child, his social skills didn’t develop much until he became an artist.
“I never really talked much until around middle school, when I met a friend with similar interests of mine,” he said. “He also drew and had notebooks as well, so we usually drew on each other’s books.”
The Texas-based artist mostly draws anthropomorphic cartoon animals and fan art. He uses his Artist 12 Pro tablet and standard notebooks for sketches. He recently painted a mural on his wall featuring Mario and Sonic characters, and is soon planning on painting SpongeBob on his closet doors. Hanson, who is gay, has also used his artwork to advocate for social justice causes. One of his favorite art pieces features his “fursona” named Scratch holding the gay and trans pride flags.
“Do what you love and express yourself,” he said. “Ignore people who say otherwise.”
Like Byrd, Hanson says he spends hours each day drawing and creating new pieces. He said art alleviates some of the pressure he feels in social settings.
“Art has definitely helped me with [communication],” Hanson said. “Not only [have] I been more socially active the past few years, I also have been able to express myself fully.”
Art has also helped Louisville-based artist Chimel Ford express himself. Ford has been making a name for himself for the past several years with his pop art that often features Black icons. Ford was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old. His mother had him evaluated after noticing he wasn’t talking, didn’t make eye contact, and would often stare into space. Because his mother treated him no differently than his sisters, however, Ford had no idea he was autistic until his mother brought him to guardianship court as an adult.
“I was sad at first because I didn’t understand what that meant, but my mom told me I was no different than other people,” Ford said. “I just see things a little different than others.”
Ford began expressing himself through art in high school by drawing various objects. Now at 31 years old, he regularly features snacks, drinks, iconic logos, restaurants, celebrities, politicians, athletes, civil rights icons, and anything else that catches his eye. He uses acrylic paints, pencils, watercolors, pastels, and ink as his mediums.
“Art is relaxing,” Ford said. “Sometimes when I feel stress, I start painting and forget what I’m stressed about. My art pieces are bold, colorful, and fun to look at. They always put a smile on people’s faces.”
Ford hopes to one day illustrate children’s books about autism, paint murals on buildings, and eventually own an art gallery. Right now he has two favorite art pieces: the 2019 Kentucky Derby Festival poster he created and his painting of Muhammad Ali. He has some advice for autistic people who might be hesitant to channel their feelings through creativity.
“Amazing things can come from somebody who has autism,” Ford said. “Just be you! If you have a talent, share it with the world. It might inspire someone to do something they didn’t think they could.”