With a body type that is slender and wiry, and a sagacious face mounted with gold rim glasses, Langston’s distinguished appearance easily lives up to its namesake. He was named after the prolific African-American poet, novelist and playwright, Langston Hughes. While sitting at a table during his Day Hab Program, Langston’s back is arched forward so that his head is nearly touching the table, as if closely reading a book. “How’s it going, Langston?” I ask. He looks up at me, takes a few seconds to study my face and then replies with a noticeably sharp voice, “Good.”This exchange may not seem terribly impressive, but as anyone who has been around someone with autism knows, this can be a paramount social leap for someone on the Spectrum. It has taken innumerable hours of direct support and positive behavior treatment to bring Langston to this point.My introduction with Langston was not an auspicious one. Six years ago we were introduced through Autism Services during a day at the beach, as part of the agency’s annual summer event. While most of the guys were having fun Jet Skiing or wading in the water, Langston opted to remain inland, where he sat in an upright fetal position, repeating the word “Rabbit” in a long, high-pitched rhythm. He never looked up to acknowledge me or anyone. Only Langston knows why the word “Rabbit” appealed to him. It is very likely that the sound and feel of the word stimulated his sensory needs, which is autism related. In such a context, it doesn’t matter what the word “Rabbit” means; for Langston it is an auditory object with its own form and texture.
Langston’s mother, Barbara Gardner, was faced with the same choice as all parents of a child with autism: what to do about treatment. There are a number of treatment methods for autism, with each one carrying its own share of conviction and criticism. In the case of Autism Services, the treatment is not focused on “curing” autism, but rather approaching it as a culture; with the arts being one of the cultural tokens of the autism population. It was this philosophy that caught the attention of Barbara. Since early on, Langston seemed to have a fixation with drawing. “Langston would draw pictures all over his bedroom wall. He’d climb to the top of the bunk bed and start drawing. After awhile, the entire wall was covered with pictures.”
Barbara recalls.Under the Autism Services’ philosophy, the arts, as an instrument of therapy and culture, mutually serve each other. Like all art, it is up to the viewer to extrapolate the artistic “meaning” and cultural significance of Langston’s work. For instance, a portrait by Langston employs flesh-toned organic shapes and hard lines scribbled over the visage of what must have been a celebrity. The result has absolved the star of any familiarity. Celebrity worship has been scribbled away by Langston’s hand.
Langston doesn’t seem to care so much about making art as he does with making motions.
Only Langston knows why the word “Rabbit” appeals to him.
Celebrity worship has been scribbled away by Langston’s hand.
Of course, it is highly doubtful that this was Langston’s intended message. Langston doesn’t seem to care so much about making art, as he does with making motions. Like the word “Rabbit”, Langston’s drawings are repetitive and therapeutic. The erratic forms of his work are from a hand that enjoys circular motions and has no concern with an artistic statement. Marshall McLuhan famously quipped, “The Medium is the Message.” Perhaps for Langston the Motion is the Message.The idea of art being freed from the usual baggage of “being art” is what makes Langston’s work so refreshing. All symbols and semiotics are stripped away and what we are left with is an unfiltered demonstration of the eye of the artist. We expect the artist’s eye to be different than our own, and this is the case with Langston. “One of the things that has puzzled me about Langston is that he has never been able to color using coloring books. If the lines are already there, he just runs the crayons diagonally. But if all he has is a blank sheet of paper, he can draw the most charming images.”
Barbara stated.Langston has now built a portfolio of works that range from simple identifiable objects, to abstracted swirls done on top of preexisting images or floating in space on oversized paper. His work is part of Autism Services’ traveling art exhibitions throughout Western New York. A recent exhibit occurred at the Langston Hughes Culture Center, where I was reintroduced to Langston six years after our first encounter. This time he is standing straight and rather proudly next to one of his paintings. Against a black background painted in white, is the word “Television.” Beneath that, as the title promises, is a small TV painted in white and yellow with large red knobs. Its simplicity quickly grabs me.
“Hi Langston,” I say. He approaches me, looks me in the face (not so much the eyes), and I immediately notice that he has upgraded his greeting to include a handshake. With the same high-pitched voice that I remembered from the beach, the word “Rabbit” is replaced with “Hello.” Barbara is there to see the exchange. Her broad smile tells me how proud she is to have parented Langston’s remarkable journey.
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