The Art of Communication

Sheila Bell draws a way to support kids with autism
by Karen Wilson

Parents and caregivers for kids with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a unique challenge. They need a plethora of professionals and resources to help them understand the perspective from which their child views the world. From assessment to treatment, the process is long and arduous. It’s filled with lengthy wait times, the expense of private therapy and sometimes uncertainty about what comes next.

The bright spot in this is the very professionals who treat children with special needs. Their compassion and commitment can be remarkable and Sheila Bell exemplifies this dedication. In her not-for-profit organization Autism and the Art of Communication, Sheila provides free resources to help parents, caregivers and teachers learn effective strategies for working with children who have autism.

As a speech language pathologist for almost 30 years, Sheila has worked with children and adults aged two to 30-plus. She worked in various public institutions until the early 1990s, when budget cuts (leading to resource cuts) prompted many therapists to begin private practices. Like most professionals who work with special needs children, Sheila wanted to provide services that would truly benefit her patients for the long term. In 2011, she decided to expand her private practice and begin providing publicly available resources through Autism and the Art of Communication.

When you visit, the first thing you’ll notice is the website layout is not typical. Highly visual, its focus is on pictures rather than words. That’s because it’s designed with the needs and thought processes of people with autism in mind. “Autism is a basic difference in the way that a person’s mind works, and that difference requires specialized teaching over the person’s lifetime,” Sheila explains.

The cornerstone of Sheila’s therapeutic practice is respect for the person, because no matter what the behaviour, there is always a reason for it. She looks for ways to interact with her patients that are comfortable for them — all for the purpose of creating a calm connection.

“When you live or work with a person on the autism spectrum, you need to develop good problem-solving skills. Upsets happen on a regular basis, and they can often be show-stoppers,” she points out. “Many times, we are asking the ASD individual to understand the perspective of the rest of the world and giving them the message (intended or not) that they have to get used to it and that’s just the way things are. But why should the social majority get to define the solution and say what’s right?”

Autism and the Art of Communication uses drawing as the primary tool to help people with ASD express feelings and share stories they may not have the verbal skills to articulate. Visual reasoning is used to explain why certain rules are necessary.

Sheila’s blog covers a range of topics, including background noise, the effect of allergies on people with ASD, and transitioning from dependence to independence as an adult with autism. She celebrates her patients’ successes and offers encouraging insights about ongoing challenges. There is no doubt Sheila gives her patients the freedom to be themselves in a loving, respectful and accepting environment. She encourages this attitude for the entire family. A nurturing, supportive family environment has proven to be one of the most important factors of continued progress for people with autism, she says.

This year, Sheila launched a YouTube channel ( com/user/AUTISMartCOMMUNICATE) where she shares animated videos of patients’ drawings and videos of patient sessions. The goal is to provide useful exercises for parents and caregivers to try themselves. She has also added a series of videos, geared towards both verbal and non-verbal children, about how to teach them to draw.

Sheila believes everyone should be given the freedom to be themselves and everyone has something valuable to contribute to the world. Every child is different, whether she or he has autism or not, so parents and other authority figures need to respond to the child they have. For this reason, flexibility is encouraged, especially when a child is too rigid to bend. “Intervention is only successful if the ASD individual also (eventually) agrees that the change is positive and something that they want,” she explains.

As parents, we can easily get caught up in analyzing our children’s behaviour based on developmental norms, but Sheila cautions against being too dependent on those numbers. Since they are population averages, there is no one kid that fits perfectly within them. It’s more important to maintain a solid bond between parent and child and to protect her or his right to be different. Eccentricities are more accepted in adulthood, so it makes sense to nurture and accept differences in childhood as well.

If every child or every family had at least one therapist like Sheila Bell, the lifelong adventure of having a child with ASD would seem less overwhelming and far more hopeful.

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