Mother and son find solace in painting
If 8-year-old Malachi Schmidt has a tough day, his mom, Nina, sits him in front of his watercolors and his frustrations seem to wash away.
Malachi struggles with articulation and social skills, and at age 5 was diagnosed with autism. Nina, who is a painter, noticed that her son was always interested in her work, so she introduced him to the world of painting at a young age.
"Art is an outlet for Malachi to express himself without having to use words," says Nina, 32, of Fond du Lac.
Malachi instantly loved painting, and his mother found that it calmed him and, over time, gave him confidence. Malachi paints a lot of original pieces, but he also likes to copy famous paintings.
"Van Gogh is his favorite artist and he enjoys replicating his work," says Nina. "After painting 'Starry Night' he said proudly, 'I want to show this to Van Gogh.' It broke my heart to tell him Van Gogh was no longer living. He cried."
When Nina was asked to donate a painting to an auction for a children's charity, she decided to create a painting with Malachi. Nina started the painting, and then suggested to Malachi that he add owls and leaves.
"I did not give him any other direction. I respect his vision with his art and try not to influence him," says Nina. "We had such a wonderful time doing it and there will be many more to come."
Now, the mother and son create paintings together all the time, and this collaborative experience has been extremely valuable for both of them. It allows them to have a creative and intellectual connection, and to share something special between just the two of them. Plus, when Nina and Malachi are painting, autism no longer exists.
Nina and her husband, Jesse, have two other children, Ivan, age 5, and Violet, 19 months.
The couple struggled with their oldest child's behaviors from infancy. From practically day one, Malachi was extraordinarily fussy, needed constant body-to-body connection and he rarely slept. Then, his speech didn't progress and his inability to communicate created frustration that led to intense tantrums. Friends told Nina that his behavior was normal, especially for a boy, but deep down she knew something wasn't quite right.
When Malachi was three, Nina enrolled him in speech therapy to help with his verbal skills and occupational therapy to assist with his behavioral issues, but by the age of 5, she took him to a neurologist who diagnosed him with autism and "mental retardation." The first diagnoses was not a surprise, but the second was a complete shock.
For weeks, the couple did not contact friends or family. They grieved and struggled with the new labels assigned to their son. Finally, Nina accepted the autism, but did not believe her son was cognitively challenged.
Nina and Jesse took Malachi to a second neurologist, who agreed Malachi had autism, but said he definitely was not cognitively disabled. Suddenly, the label of autism didn't seem as scary to Nina, and she knew it was something they would learn to live with, fully and successfully.
"Malachi has autism and it's part of him, but it doesn't define who he is," says Nina. "I don't want his childhood to be overshadowed by his autism, as something we are trying to constantly defeat. We all have our struggles and limitations, but it shouldn't take away from the joys that are there."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions, about 1 in 110 children have autism. It is uncertain what causes autism, and there is not a test that determines whether or not a child is autistic. The diagnosis is based on behavior, verbal abilities and social skills.
For Malachi, art is a therapeutic tool and a hobby, but someday, it might be much more.
"It's clear that Malachi wants to do something big with his artwork. Really big. I don't know what that is yet, but I believe in him," says Nina.
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