Robert Lopez, 6, will display his smartphone photographs at Sunday's Art for Autism event at BesArte Gallery in La Villita. Credit: Nicholas Frank / San Antonio Report

Artist and BesArte Gallery owner Ann Salas first became aware of autism while volunteering for nonprofit child support organization Any Baby Can back in 2006. A decade later, she would learn that her own daughter is on the autism spectrum.

Now, for the second year, Salas lends her BesArte space in La Villita to the Art for Autism exhibit and fair, free and open to the public from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

“This is something very dear to my heart,” Salas said. She described how things have come “full circle” with her involvement first with the annual Arts e Platters, a fundraiser for the Autism Treatment Center, then with her daughter’s diagnosis, and now with Art for Autism.

Making art “helps me get more creative, more confident,” said Nathaniel Garza, also known as the “13-year-old Bob Ross” for his devotion to the famous public television painter’s style.

Nathaniel’s mother, Valeria Suniga, echoed her son’s thoughts. “After he started tapping into his creativity, he started excelling academically, socially – he’s got so much more confidence now, his ability to communicate has excelled,” she said.

Suniga and Nathaniel’s father, Robert Garza, have supported their son’s artistic efforts from the beginning. Garza came home from work one day a few years ago and saw that his son had “decorated” the walls of his bedroom.

“It was upsetting but, at the same time, there was some good stuff on that wall,” Garza said. “He has a talent.” The parents encouraged their son by buying him canvases and painting supplies.

“It woke us up,” Garza said of recognizing their son’s talent. Now, as they’ve seen him grow into his creative capacity, “we’re all about encouraging him and going further with whatever we see he has potential in. We’re going to push at it and make sure he gets the good stepping stone he needs,” he said.

Melissa Lopez, mother of 6-year-old Robert Lopez, said she noticed her son had discovered the camera on her smartphone, using it to make striking, close-up images of toy dinosaurs around the family home. “I went through my phone, and went to the print shop, and put them up in frames. He was really excited to see them because he recognized his photos,” she said.

She studied photography in college, and her father was a photographer, and she believes the photographic eye is in her son’s blood, she said. Robert’s father, Luis, said his son has recently expanded to making movies with the phone. “He’ll surprise you,” Luis said.

Importantly, said Robert’s stepfather, Sam Garcia, “whenever I see Bobby’s pictures, he’s expressing something that other people can’t see. But he realizes it and sees it and shows it to other people, and it gives us a window into his world.”

One condition of autism spectrum disorder is difficulty communicating, said Cynthia Hamilton, development director for the Autism Treatment Center (ATC). The center’s programs are focused on being “affordable and effective for people with autism in overcoming their social difficulties and communication challenges,” she said.

The Art for Autism event introduces the artists to the wider community and makes their work available for sale, Hamilton said. It also serves as an introduction to the annual Arts e Platters fundraiser, where artists with autism and artists from the community sell custom-designed platters, with proceeds going to the ATC’s programs.

The center started in 1978 but has grown markedly in recent years “because the number of people with autism has grown so much,” Hamilton said, attributing the change to better diagnostics, along with a general increase in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

According to a 2016 study funded by the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation, “The Prevalence Rate for ASD is likely one of the most controversial factors to be applied” for determining how many people are on the autism spectrum in the San Antonio area, a number that remains “a moving target.” However, the report determined that nearly 4,000 elementary public school students receive special education support for autism and placed the total number of Bexar County individuals on the autism spectrum at more than 23,000, or a rate of 1-in-81.

That number will increase by more than 17.6 percent over the next 10 years, according to the study, which also notes that though San Antonio is an “exceptional hub” for autism services, waitlists for local services are prevalent.

Because of increasing demand, the Autism Treatment Center added 20,000 square feet to its facility last year, much of which is specifically geared toward vocational training services including culinary and food service skills, garden and horticulture skills, and retail training.

The Autism Treatment Center
The Autism Treatment Center, seen in February 2018, has since added 20,000 square feet. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“In 2014 we served 140 children and adults a year, last year we were able to serve 240 children and adults, and within three years this new building will allow us to serve 500 children and adults per year,” Hamilton said, noting that “growth is a common need” in the autism services community.

A recent addition of art classes to the program allowed the center staff to realize that several of its students have artistic talents. “Until we started the art program, we didn’t know that some of our individuals were really, really talented, because they didn’t have a chance to take part in art before and their families didn’t know they were artistic,” she said. “It’s a great way to express themselves. It can also be a very calming experience for someone with autism.”

Several of the featured artists will be on hand for the Sunday event at BesArte gallery, and Nathaniel said he’d consider another live painting demonstration, which he’s done in the past. All work will be available for purchase through the gallery, with 10 percent of the proceeds going to the treatment center’s expenses for organizing the event. BesArte donates the space and volunteers its staff time.

In the end, Hamilton said, “it’s wonderful to give those who are creative an outlet and for them to experience creating something beautiful and meaningful, to be considered an artist first and someone with autism second. We don’t want people to be defined by a diagnosis.”

Art for Autism is free and open to the public and is on the official Contemporary Art Month events calendar. More information is available here.

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...