NEW YORK – What do Mozart, Michelangelo and Picasso all have in common? They, like  the young artists whose works are on display this week in the lobby of the United Nations in New York, are all linked to autism.

The Speaking Colors exhibition opened June 10 at an event attended by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. It features 25 paintings by Israeli children with autism.

“The artists showcased here prove through their ‘speaking colors’ that anyone can reach out and touch another person,” said Ban in his opening remarks. “People with autism and other disabilities want to participate, engage and contribute [to society].”

The exhibition coincided with the first day of a conference on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with a special focus this year on youth with disabilities. Israel signed on to the convention in 2012.

“Behind each of the paintings you see is the story of a child who longs to express himself,” said Ron Prosor, Israeli ambassador the UN and vice chair of the UN conference.

Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor presents UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with album of paintings by Israeli youth with autism. (©Allan Tannenbaum)

Israeli ambassador Ron Prosor presents UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with album of paintings by Israeli youth with autism. (©Allan Tannenbaum)

“There is a pressing need to raise awareness around disabilities, particularly invisible disabilities like autism that are often misunderstood and misdiagnosed,” said Prosor.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) – a group of developmental disabilities, including Asperger’s syndrome – is characterized by impairments in communication, behavior and social interaction. It typically becomes apparent during the first three years of life. Some children show signs from birth while others seem to develop normally at first, only to slip suddenly into symptoms when they are 18 to 36 months old.

According to the Israeli Society for Autistic Children – known by its Hebrew acronym, ALUT – over 8,000 individuals in Israel have been diagnosed with autism; 1 out of 100 babies, with over 250 infants diagnosed annually.

Among these are Guy and Nir, the twin sons of Israeli El Al pilot Dubi Ofer, who were diagnosed with autism when they were two years old. The boys appeared normal at birth until the signs pointed otherwise – they were not developing any language skills, there was lack of eye contact and other indicators associated with the developmental disability.

“Raising a child with autism is not easy,” Ofer told those attending the opening of the exhibition. “But with early diagnosis and intervention, with proper education and good services, and most of all, with understanding and acceptance from society, they can be safe and happy.”

Painting by Tali Brumberg, who works at the ALUT Occupational Center in Jerusalem. (courtesy)

Painting by Tali Brumberg, who works at the ALUT Occupational Center in Jerusalem. (courtesy)

While Guy was able to speak by age 5 and learned to read and write in a regular classroom, Nir, even today at the age of 22, still needs full-time supervision. He needs someone to make sure he brushes his teeth, takes his medicines and gets help with many other daily routines.

“Although we felt that Nir was an intelligent boy that just couldn’t express himself and couldn’t communicate with others, we hardly found a good way to communicate with them,” Ofer said.

But that changed when his parents discovered he could sit for hours coloring and painting.

“With the right guidance and especially the right attitude, Nir can express himself, which shows that he understands a lot more than we thought,” the proud father explained.

A painting by Nir, using computer graphics, is among the artwork on display.

Painting by Shai Essed. (courtesy)

Painting by Shai Essed. (courtesy)

Organizations like ALUT are increasingly developing the artistic side of their services, which have shown to be therapeutic for people with autism.

“Many autistic children find it difficult to communicate their feelings and thoughts, but through paintings and other forms of artwork, these children open a window into their inner world, a world which is often not accessible,” said Rachel Rosenman, ALUT’s director of resources development.

“Traditionally, the only treatment available to autistic children and adults in Israel was admission into psychiatric hospitals,” she added. “Today, we are working to advance the rights of autistic people and to improve the services available to them and their families,” said Rosenman.

For 40 years, ALUT has offered a range of programs – from occupational centers to educational activities in schools – designed to support children with autism and their families from the time of diagnosis through adulthood.

ALUT will receive the Presidential Volunteer Medal from President Shimon Peres next week in one of his last official duties before his term ends next month. The organization was also recently awarded consultative status in the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the highest level granted by the UN to non-governmental organizations. This will allow ALUT representatives to contribute to the deliberations at this week’s meeting of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as other UN bodies throughout the year.

“Promoting the rights of persons with disabilities is a priority for Israel,” Prosor stressed. “By shining a light into the darkest corners of society, every person will be able to take his rightful place as a valued member of families, our communities and our nations.”