Saturday, March 24, 2012

16-year-old Girl with Asperger's Focuses on Painting to Express Herself

This is a great story that caught my attention, especially since Amanda is from my home state of Oklahoma, and if her art is selected, it will be exhibited in my current backyard at the MLK Library in DC. :)

Amanda LaMunyon: 

Teenage Artist With Autism Paints Brilliant Nature Scenes

Amanda LaMunyon, a talented 16-year-old artist, has Asperger's Syndrome. Instead of being a setback, however, this allows her to concentrate on her painting. Two years ago, Amanda was a finalist in CVS's "All Kids Can Create" contest, which puts a spotlight on creative kids around the country. The young, Oklahoma-based artist writes on the "CVS Caremark All Kids Can" website, "When I put a paintbrush in my hands for the first time, I instantly felt my life change. I could finally focus without getting distracted and my paintings helped me convey everything I had difficulty expressing,"

At only 12 years old, Amanda addressed the United Nations during World Autism Awareness Day. She delivered a poem, "A Little Secret," which she wrote herself. (She speaks around the three minute mark in the video below.) Looking very self composed despite her young age, the precocious artist reveals, "She is very well meaning, but frequently misunderstood." This can be a common complaint among those living and dealing with people who are autistic; at times, it seems they are living in their own world. But this doesn't get Amanda down; instead, it motivates her to create bridges between people. She writes on her website, "I hope to continue to share my art and my story of overcoming challenges."

We interviewed Amanda about her work, and her responses are below.

HuffPost Arts: How did you first develop an interest in art?
AL: I first developed an interest in art and painting when I was about seven years old. I couldn't stay focused, so my parents thought it was a good idea to have an outlet. They looked up art lessons, and I took my first lesson with my teacher, and after my first lesson she said, "I think this girl can paint;" I've been painting ever since.

HuffPost Arts: Have you kept in touch with this teacher?
Yes, she's a very dear friend of the family. We just love her.

HuffPost Arts: Are there any artists who have inspired you?
I like Monet, Van Gogh, the French Impressionists. I definitely consider myself an Impressionist artist so I enjoy that type of work more.

HuffPost Arts: Do you prefer to do landscapes?
It varies. I like doing anything with nature, whether it's landscapes or animals.

HuffPost Arts: What kind of museums do you like in Oklahoma?
We don't have that many art museums here, but I've been the OKC Museum and the Tulsa one.

HuffPost Arts: Were you ever able to see Impressionist work up close?
I was able to see Monets, yes. Whenever I know there's a piece of Impressionist work [I tell my parents], "We're going to this museum!"

HuffPost Arts: Are either of your parents artistic?
Not much. I believe I was born with the ability; I just had to acquire it.

HuffPost Arts: What do you want to do in the next few years?
Painting is my life now. I want to get a degree in graphic art and painting [and] I want to do more work with charities.

See a slideshow of Amanda's work below, and let us know if you've ever found solace in art in the comments section.

If you'd like to participate in "All Kids Can," please submit your or your child's artwork before April 8, 2012 here, and it will be featured in an online gallery. In addition, the artwork submitted could be chosen for display in the “What Inspires Me” exhibition this August in Washington, D.C. at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library. 

Painting to Make a Difference

"There's always that one person that tells you, 'You're not good enough.' But you are. Keep on doing what you love."
This powerful advice comes from Amanda LaMunyon, a sixteen-year-old from Oklahoma who is hoping to change the way people perceive disabilities through her original artwork.

When Amanda was in elementary school, she had trouble concentrating and couldn't sit still in class.  She had difficulty relating to her peers and struggled to stay focused on her daily activities.  "I knew the rules in school but I just couldn't apply them, and I could never adapt social skills when I tried to communicate with my classmates."

Despite her struggles in school, there was one thing that helped Amanda relax and helped her express all the emotions that she couldn't convey to her teachers, friends and family.  "When I put a paintbrush in my hands for the first time, I instantly felt my life change.  I could finally focus without getting distracted and my paintings helped me convey everything I had difficulty expressing."

When Amanda was eight years old, she was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a condition that helped explain the difficulties she had experienced in school.  After learning of her diagnosis, Amanda's painting hobby turned into an outlet that connected her with the people that had misunderstood her throughout her childhood.

"Learning I had Asperger's helped me come to terms with what I was doing, and made me all the more passionate to exercise my talents with painting.  I always wanted my artwork to be enjoyed, but hearing about how I had Asperger's, like so many other kids in the world, I wanted my artwork to mean something and help other people."

Through her painting, Amanda has dedicated herself to increasing awareness around autism and other sensory disorders like Asperger's. Amanda's artwork is available for purchase online - - and she donates a portion of the proceeds to organizations that are striving to improve the lives of children with autism like Children's Hospital Foundation and Children's Miracle Network.  In addition, Amanda has participated in fundraisers for organizations including Autism Speaks, The Lili Claire Foundation and Autism Society.

In 2010, Amanda was selected as a finalist in the All Kids Can CREATE campaign with our partner VSA and traveled to Washington, D.C. to have her artwork displayed in a national exhibition.  "Visiting D.C. was an absolute privilege.  It was a humbling experience to meet other amazing young artists that never let their disabilities become an obstacle for them and the trip really opened a lot of doors for me to introduce my artwork to the world."

Since traveling to Washington, D.C. with All Kids Can CREATE, Amanda has gained notoriety in the art world, having pieces displayed in galleries like the Salmagundi Club and Carnegie Hall in New York City.

"It's safe to say my life has changed a lot since I've started painting.  My artwork has given me a lot of opportunities to help other kids like me.  Even though I have trouble socially, I really do have a talent.  Not only do I want to raise money for autism-related research, I want to change the way people view autism, from a disability to an ability. And I want to help encourage other kids to find their own abilities, regardless of whether they have a disorder."

To learn more about our All Kids Can CREATE campaign and to submit original artwork, please visit Artwork submitted before the April 8, 2012 deadline will be considered for display in the "What Inspires Me" exhibition debuting at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C. in August 2012.

View Amanda here presenting her poem at an art exhibition "Don't Dis the Ability," showing artwork from people diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. The introduction for Amanda starts around 2:29.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

"In Session"

This is one reason I love working with the kids I do.  This is a very cute personalized door sign one of my "kids" made for me to show when I'm in session so we won't be interrupted.  She made it with my favorite color for the background (purple) with the art theme and my initial.  She made it at home and brought it in for me today.  So cute!  :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

“Art Is A Form Of Power:” Art Therapy and Cancer

Here is a lovely post about the effectiveness of art therapy with cancer patients, written by Candida Abrahamson, PhD, who generously allowed me to repost this here.  

“Art Is A Form Of Power:” Art Therapy and Cancer

Any form of art is a form of power; it has impact, it can affect change – it can not only move us, it makes us move.~Ossie Davis

In my time spent blogging about cancer, I’ve been privileged to come across a number of cancer blogs that are truly wonderful.

They’re too manifold to name here, but one I particularly like, given my affinity for research and outside sources, is written by Andrew at Its description is apt and pithy: “Andrew blogs and tweets about his lymphoma journey, and shares articles of interest regarding cancer, healthcare, and related lifestyle issues.”

I encourage you to take a look.

It was as I was composing a post on parental responsibility to pay for a child’s college degree when the child fancies he’d like to major in, say, Horticulture, or–why not?–Bagpiping, that I came across  just such a one of the many fascinating articles and links Andrew shares.  It caught my fancy, and sent me traveling down my  mind’s own path for a day’s vacation from the vicissitudes of parenting adult children.  In his post “Using Art to Help Young Patients in Hospitals –” you will find the link to the New York Times article “Hoping That Art Helps With Healing.”

And with one read-through of the article I was off the topic of whether a parent is responsible for footing the entire bill for a college degree in Agriculture for a daughter who truly wants to be a ballerina. . . .

Hmm, thought I to myself, I know the New York Times well, and they wouldn’t claim that “researchers have found that such [art therapy] programs decrease patient stress and improve quality of life,” without actually having consulted some real, not theoretical, researchers.  But–and this is something of a bone I have to pick with the outstanding paper–here, as often in its articles, the Times leaves us hanging about precisely who such researchers are, what exactly they might have found when, and how they went about finding it (and, of course, my own obsessional question: did these authors get to look at a good meta-analysis?).

So–I went ahead and filled in those blanks. I know many of you might be thinking: Who cares [I taught high school school many years ago and that's a question that crosses generational, class, gender and many other lines. I've seen the "who cares" enemy, faced it down, and emerged victorious before.]?

Can’t we just trust the Times? you think. I mean, who can you trust anymore if you can’t trust the Times? Profound questions, my friend, and I leave you to ponder them if that’s what you’d like to do.

For you of the “who cares?” club,  I also recommend skipping the rest of this post, and maybe looking for something less factually oriented and settling in for a nice skim. How about “Stupid Young-Adult Tricks” or “You Will Never Go Broke Underestimating the Intelligence of the American Public” and an ice cold beer? You will certainly not run into any random controlled trials, statistics, talk about p values, and concern about peer-reviewed journals there.

We can all reconvene tomorrow to talk about how much you owe for your child’s degree in Artisanry.

For anyone hardy enough to hang with me through this survey of the lit on art therapy and cancer. . . let’s get a move-on.

Why not start with an article published in the February 2006 issue of Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, where the authors conducted a study right here in my hometown of Chicago, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital? The study’s specific aim was to determine the effect of a 1-hour session of art therapy on pain and other symptoms common to adult cancer patients currently hospitalized. Fifty inpatients in Northwestern’s oncology unit were enrolled in the study for a 4-month period. Initially 9 symptoms were assessed (pain, tiredness, nausea, depression, anxiety, drowsiness, lack of appetite, well-being and shortness of breath). Each session was individualized, and patients had complete choice over materials and product.

Although patients could use the session to delve into psychological matters if they wished, there was no obligation to, and some merely played around with the materials, or created light products, just for enjoyment.

The results were excellent. Overall the patients reported reductions in 8 of 9 measured symptoms (nausea was the only one without improvement) after working for an hour on an art project of their choice.
The authors of the study were thrilled. Nancy Nainis, an art therapist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and lead author on the study, was particularly intrigued by the reduction in tiredness. ”Several subjects made anecdotal comments that the art therapy had energized them,” commented Ms. Nainis. “This is the first study to document a reduction in tiredness as a result of art therapy.”

Just a year after the Nainis study, Bar-Sela et al published a paper with the type of title I love for its profound lack of creativity, and tendency to give it all away before you’ve even had to read through the method section (not that there isn’t a lot to say for that), called “Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy” (still guessing at the outcome?).

They focused on depression and fatigue alone, cutting out the other 7 symptoms.

The group studied sixty cancer patients on chemotherapy who took part in once-weekly art session that involved painting with water-based paints. The authors designated 19 patients who took part in 4 or more sessions the “intervention group,” and the remaining who took part in 2 or fewer sessions were the “participant group.”

Once again, mean scores for both depression and fatigue dropped–significantly–in the intervention group.
I found this exciting enough that I’d be mandating art therapy coverage for all cancer patients who wanted it. But in true ”research-talk,” the authors pull their punches and conclude only, “Art therapy is worthy of further study in the treatment of cancer patients with depression or fatigue during chemotherapy treatment.” 

Sometimes research writing gives me a pain.

And then, what does any discussion of research need, to really get those scientists excited? A random controlled study, of course. So let’s look at one of those, with yet another title that blows the ending before we can really get going: “Art therapy improves experienced quality of life among women undergoing treatment for breast cancer: a randomized controlled study.”

This study came out of Umea, Sweden, and looked at art therapy as an intervention for 41 women undergoing radiation for treatment for breast cancer. 20 women were randomly assigned to individualized art therapy sessions once a week. Both this group and the control group had their quality of life assessed before radiation start started, 2 months, and then 6 months after the onset of treatment. (Quality of life was assessed utilizing the WHOQOL-BREF and EORTC Quality of Life Questionnaire-BR23, the one for breast cancer specifically.)

Conclude the authors, “A significant increase in total health, total QoL [quality of life], physical health and psychological health was observed in the art therapy group.” Seems like they got even more than they bargained for. 

Art Therapy at the Cedars Cancer Institute

And let’s not leave a very vulnerable group of cancer patients unaccounted for: children.  In a study of children with leukemia, the authors highlighted the painfulness of certain procedures these children must undergo, such as lumbar puncture or bone marrow aspiration.  This research team, headed by Favara-Scacco, noted that children scheduled for for painful procedures demonstrated resistance and anxiety during and after these procedures.

So they began providing the children, between 2 and 14 years of age, with art therapy in September 1997, with the aim of preventing anxiety and fear during these most painful treatments, and of avoiding completely ongoing emotional distress in the long-term. Therapy was continued up until within a few months of the October, 2001, publication of the paper, “Art therapy as support for children with leukemia during painful procedures.”

The change was profound. When painful treatments were necessary, children who had been provided with art therapy demonstrated more collaborative and less resistant behavior than those in the control group, and a significant number of patients or parents requested art therapy again when the treatment had to be repeated.

The researchers were impressed. Once again, in that oh-so-understated way of writing, they asserted that art therapy was”shown to be a useful  intervention that can prevent permanent trauma and support children and parents during intrusive interventions.” Compared with general anesthetic’s side effects, it’s a home run, at least in my book.

And I’d like to end in a place where so many patients fear they will find themselves–in hospice care.  

Blessedly, there is much we can do to ease the physical suffering of the terminally ill cancer patient. But that does little, sometimes, to quiet the mind, with its fear of death, its attachment to this world, its anxieties about further suffering–and then, perhaps, fear of suffering even after the end.

Art therapy has been used in hospice care units since the early 1990s, to help ease the emotional strain on bereaved family members. But this was the first study to explore the effectiveness of art therapy for terminally ill cancer patients themselves.
Art at Treetops Hospice
Published just this month, the study took place at the Hospice Palliative Care Unit in Taipei Veteran General Hospital from April 2001 to December 2004 (see Lin citation).

In order to assess the impact of the therapy, researchers evaluated patients’: 1. Feelings (of concentration during the art appreciation component of the therapy; of fun while painting, and feelings toward the artworks themselves); 2. Cognition (including thoughts on the meaning of life and sharing thoughts on life and death); 3. Behavior (meaning patients developed an approach to art appreciation and creation without focusing on progress); and 4. Impact on illness (feeling of relief of emotional stress and improvement of medical symptoms during therapy).

The researchers were quite pleased with their results. In a rather more creatively written paper than the standard, “Art therapy for terminal cancer patients in a hospice palliative care unit in Taiwan,” they assert, ”[i]n the process of the art therapy, we found that patients went from inactivity to actively creating artworks. .  .These patients were able to overcome physical distress such as pain, and transformed the pain into creative artwork (McIntyre, 1992; Hawkins, 1993; Mayo, 1996; Kaye, 1997; Kennett, 2000; Michele, 2004). From the description of the artwork they created, we could easily sense the spirit of the patients.”

Ever the cynic, I’m not at all sure how they could “sense the spirit” in a way that “counts” in a research paper, but despite snide asides, I found the paper’s ending even more uplifting:

“. . .[T]hrough art appreciation and hands-on painting, terminal cancer patients who were in deteriorating health conditions and facing death could have a chance to manage their emotional crisis. They were able to experience a sensation of nonverbal communication, and soothe the pressure and discomfort from illness (Kuo et al., 2002).”

If art therapy offers symptom relief, a feeling of a modicum of control for young cancer patients, and the potential to “manage emotional crises,” then, really folks, where are the watercolors?


Bar-Sela G, et al. Art therapy improved depression and influenced fatigue levels in cancer patients on chemotherapy. Psycho-Oncology 2007; 16(11):980-4.

Bidgood Jess. Hoping that art helps with healing. New York Times March 14, 2012.
Favara-Scacco C, et al. Art therapy as support for children with leukemia during painful procedures. Medical & Pediatric Oncology 2001; 36(4):474-80.

Lin MH, et al. Art therapy for terminal cancer patients in a hospice palliative care unit in Taiwan. Palliative and Supportive Care 2012; 10(1):51-7.

Nainis N, et al. Relieving symptoms in cancer: innovative use of art therapy. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management 2006; 31(2):162-9.

Svensk AC, et al. Art therapy improves experienced quality of life among women undergoing treatment for breast cancer: a randomized controlled study. European Journal of Cancer Care (Engl.) 2009; 18(1):69-77.

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