Produced by David Roth

“For many years of your life, you’re just focused on getting him to be normal. Blending in. Not singled out. Now we do the opposite. Yes, [Devin] is different. That difference makes him really special.”

In describing her son, artist Devin Wildes, A.J. Paron-Wildes’ pride in his accomplishments is felt right through the lens – you don’t need to be in the family’s living room to feel her conviction in your bones. Until the age of two, Devin was a typical toddler. But then, something changed: His ability to communicate took a detour. By the time Devin turned four, doctors confirmed that his autism was on the severe end of the spectrum and encouraged the family to consider placing him in a care facility outside the home.

That was never an option, A.J. says.

Even though his mother wanted him to learn to speak, to learn social studies, to fit in with other kids, Devin was drawn to visual expression – even at a young age, his art provided an outlet that was driven as much by creativity as it was by a desire to communicate. And the characteristics that made him “different” also fueled his place in a community of other young artists. As his mentor Karron Nottingham, who owns Off the Wall Studios where Devin got an early education in art, says, “[As] art kids, we’re already weird anyway.”

The result? Devin found his reason to be “in the world,” as his mother puts it. He found happiness, focus and belonging.

His growing passion for art eventually led him to Saint Paul’s Interact Center, an organization dedicated to “creating art that challenges perceptions of disability” and, in turn, also inspires people to reconsider notions about accessibility, inclusion and creative potential.

Each year, one in 68 children – and 1 in 42 boys –  is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) by the age of eight, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also reports that prevalence has increased by 6% to 15% each year between 2000 and 2010, classifying ASD as an epidemic. As a result, more parents seek out art therapy programs and experts to tackle the social development and sensory issues that often accompany ASD. But art therapy can also provide an expressive boon to people like Devin – and it allows them to navigate problem-solving dilemmas, boosts their self-esteem and teaches them how to manage stress.

Because verbal and social communication often poses difficulties for people with ASD – some of them are unable to speak at all, while others struggle with linking words together in a seamless conversation – visual and performance expression can give them a voice. It can help them tap into memories, express ideas circulating around in their minds, and gain insight about the complexities of the world around them.

While there is no official cure for ASD, research in a variety of areas – medicine, psychology and education, to name a few – is in a state of furious activity, a phenomenon that has increasingly picked up steam since the first introduction of the word “autism” in 1908 by Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler, which was then used to describe a form of schizophrenia punctuated by withdrawal. That distinction between autism and schizophrenia wasn’t clearly made until 1971, and autism didn’t receive a separate entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1980.

Even though we still have much to understand about ASD, one fact becomes crystal clear: Art therapy, loosely practiced since the 1930s, offers people like Devin a rich opportunity to develop cognitive skills and foster a genuine sense of purpose.

“Any time you’re dealing with a disability, people are very conscious of labels. Regardless, throughout his life, [Devin] has never thought of himself as disabled…. It’s not about him being autistic. It’s about him being an artist. And that’s how he defines himself,” A.J. says.

You can discover more about Devin and purchase some of his art work through his Art Force store.