The Day He Finally Felt Like an Artist

It was hard to focus “Dustin” in art class. Not many projects engaged him in the 2nd grade. Usually his attention span only lasted a few minutes until he was on to the next thing. He is on the spectrum, and in a lot of ways, school was a uphill battle for Dustin.

One day, during a texture paper making exercise in art class, something clicked. Suddenly, Dustin was working feverishly on papers using crayon resist. He would make one, scribble something on his papers, paint over it, and quickly move onto the next one. The goal of the lesson was no pressure, just make beautiful papers in the style of Eric Carle.

As his associate and I watched him creating paper after paper, so pleased he was enjoying the lesson, we noticed him carefully writing something in white crayon, but we couldn’t read what it said.  As we peered over his shoulder, he quickly took dark black paint and spread it out thickly over his white crayon.

The photo below shows what was revealed when the black paint resisted the black crayon:

On that day, at that moment, Dustin felt like an artist. He was an artist, and he wanted us to know. We both cried like babies, his associate and I, to see him connect with something on a deeper level.

I have kept this paper, and hung it in my classroom for years as a reminder of why I teach. This is why we entered this profession. To hopefully touch the life of every kid. It might take years to realize, but when the magic happens, it leaves you speechless.

Dustin went on to become one of the best artists in the class. His fine motor improved greatly, and by 4th grade this piece of artwork was displayed as the “Artist of the Month”

Dustin is now moving on to Middle School and I had the pleasure of teaching him K-5, and watching that growth will be something I will never forget.

We all have stories like this, and we all aim to help every student be successful in the art room. Consider taking Autism and Art in October and devote some of your professional development to helping a very special population of students who need you now, more than ever, to find their inner artist.

Is there a story you would like to share about a student who has touched your life in this way?

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • cfrobeyinc

    Wow…what a great thing to share! As you remember this moment with Dustin, he too is going to always remember these moments with you. This one thing in art class could quite possibly have made the difference and given him the confidence and success in other academic areas as well. Interesting…..and we are “just” art teachers!!

    I have a a few stories like that to share but one in particular “closer to home”. One of my sons has always struggled in school. As a mom I just knew ‘something’ was different with him. Through research and talking with his pediatrician it was discussed that he possibly was on low end of Asperger’s Syndrome. His case is very mild and didn’t require meds or additional testing. Early on he showed much artistic ability and creative thinking skills. Through lots of reading about this I was able to employ strategies, etc. to help him succeed. I felt this was crucial as he moved into high school. We bought him a small digital camera for Christmas when he was a freshman. My instincts were telling me that he views the world differently and notices things around him that most of us would miss. That small camera virtually changed his life! I also guided him in photography basics, etc. He will be entering his senior year in high school, has graduated to a Canon Ti3 which he purchased a year ago on his own and will have 3 photos on display at the Iowa State Fair. We were notified that he did win award but won’t know until August what award it is. His photography is stunning and getting involved in this has improved all aspects of his life…academically, socially, emotionally, etc. I strongly believe that all students can be successful when they finally find that niche! It is up to us teachers to help them find that niche. 

    I also had a 2nd grade student this past school year that really struggled in art. I observed that she was having difficulty with her motor skills and using some of the materials. Her mom shared with me that she attends physical therapy for her fine motor skills. I adapted some of the materials to meet her needs (different paintbrushes) and it made all the difference in the world. For her art projects I also worked with her individually to help her create artwork with less detail. I also gave her simple drawing exercises to practice to help her with detail. As the example above, I do have pictures of her artwork in the beginning and at the end of the year….quite an improvement and her mom tells me that now she is drawing and coloring pictures all the time at home!


    • The story of your son has put tears in my eyes! No matter what the award is, you are already “winners” because of helping your son find his Element (my absolute favorite class to teach, because this is what it’s all about)….and nurturing it. I believe he will go on to do great things. Thank your for sharing, it means a lot to me. Good luck at the State Fair.

      • cfrobeyinc

        Amen, sister!  Great point…..finding the Element. That is how I approach teaching. Sure, I am teaching the basic foundations in art but for me it is more than that…. it is teaching to the whole child.  Teaching creativity……creativity is what ensures success I feel. Any career choice/vocation needs creativity whether it is a doctor, lawyer, teacher, and even mom/dad. I want all of my students to succeed in just life itself, be good citizens and all that “stuff”. I could go on and on…..this is one of my “passion” topics! :)

  • Dalton was a spunky kid with an attitude to match.  I actually had never seen his ‘attitude’ in art and was shocked when teachers were talking about their frustrations with it in the lounge.  I couldn’t believe my ears.  I was sure that somehow Dalton was provoked or set up by other students, because he was helpful in my room – a go to kid.   I of course did realize the fault in my thinking and realized that if more than one teacher felt this way, there is a good chance the kid has an ‘attitude’ problem.  There was one point when things got rough at home and his attitude leaked into art.  We had a little meeting, him and I, and it disappeared.  Anyhow, things got really rough for him towards the end of 4th grade and I was really worried about him moving to the 5-6 building.  I really was afraid he would get labeled with his attitude and he would fall in the cracks.  So, I contacted the 5/6 art teacher and explained Dalton to her.  I told her about his art talents, his home life, his school life and I practically begged her to mentor him.  I asked her to really push him to be involved in art club, to come in early and water her plants or wash out paint brushes.  I tried to explain how desperate I was to save this kid from  himself.  
    Two years later Dalton is headed in to junoir high (7-9) and I have move 10 hours away to MI – his 5/6 art teacher e-mails me with this:  I just wanted to share with you how well Dalton has been doing. His
    homeroom teachers said he’s been their biggest transformation over the past
    2 years (we loop, so he was in the same room for both years).  He joined my
    art club and told me he’d come back to help if I do it again next year. It’s
    awesome to see how much he’s changed from such a little rascal to acting
    like a leader!
    I tear up every time I read it.  I KNEW that leader was inside of him and it was dying to get out – he just needed a place to grow – a safe place where he could learn and make mistakes.  Dalton, I am convinced, was saved by art.  

  • Jessica, this post gave me the a good way!  What an inspiring story.  I had a student pass away this year who reminded me of “Dustin.”  I remember the day my student felt like an artist.   It happened on the pottery wheel.  He did not have a very delicate touch and he did not like to be touched by others, but after years of working together, he was comfortable enough with me to let me guide him on the wheel.  I will never forget his pride when he created a successful pot in 4th grade.  Sometimes the students who are the most challenging are also the most memorable and the ones that truly touch your heart.

    • cfrobeyinc

      Wow…those most challenging students…..yeah…and sometimes those are the ones that touch our hearts the most, especially when we as teachers find that something that “clicks” for them. 

      Many of us have success stories such as these. On the other hand, there are those students that we have tried to reach and just could never “get”. It is tough to deal with because we care and want to see all students succeed but sometimes, for some students, it is just a matter of development and it may take a little longer for them to finally “get it”. I had an 8th grade student 3 years ago that just drove me nuts. He was very disruptive and basically wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say. I wasn’t certified to teach art at the time (I was in the process of earning my teaching degree) so the regular classroom teacher was in the room. But it was rough. All the teachers gave up on him. I personally didn’t have any success with him. I learned recently that he is doing well now in school and will be entering the military next year (he is a senior in h.s.). For some, it just takes time. I may not always have success with my students but I never give up on them.

      • I suppose we can’t reach every student, all the time. It does make you sad, but sometimes you have made a difference and you will never know it.

  • Elisabeth

    Beautiful Story Jessica.  Thanks for sharing…Elisabeth

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