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5 Questions With: Eileen Miller

Posted April 8, 2009, 9:56 am in Arts


Imagine feeling hungry, but not having the words to ask for something to eat. Or having immensely creative thoughts, locked inside a brain that doesn't function the way average brains do.

Autism is an illness that affects an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Americans, and is the fastest-growing developmental disability. Each person with autism shows different behaviors, and the disease clearly affects the entire family, not just the patient.



That's something Eileen Miller can speak to. Her daughter Kim suffers from autism, but the two are now working together to prove that art is a universal language that can unlock the amazing gifts that those with autism have.

They have published a new book called “The Girl Who Spoke With Pictures,” illustrated by pictures that Kim created between the ages of 3 and 17. "This book is about a child who reached out past the confines of her disability to reveal her feelings and her thought processes through the medium of art," Miller explains in the book's foreword. Kim agrees. "Going through the drawing process is like thinking out loud, but on paper," she writes. "I record my hopes and dreams as well as circumstances that make life difficult. For years I have been chained by autism, and art is my key to unlock my inner desires. After many years of creating, I realize that I have become a liberated autistic individual not confined by mere words."


All pictures and art used with permission.

Eileen shares more about her story in this edition of 5 Questions With. Click hereto learn more about the book, and here for other articles in the 5QW library.

1. On tough days, what gets you through? Is it a saying? A photo? Kickboxing class? How do you deal with stress?

First of all, I would have to establish what for me, would be a tough day or days…as it would seem. Twenty-one years ago, my youngest child was born with autism causing her to have a sleep disturbance. When she was awake, which was a good 22 hours of the day, she screamed. As she fell asleep for 15 minutes, she startled awake, which in turn woke me up as I tried to comfort her, only she would not be comforted. Soon I was severely sleep deprived. I began to dread the coming darkness when evening fell, knowing that I would be up all night with her. And when dawn broke, I groaned thinking about the day that stretched before me. My brain waned between insomnia and the absolutely intoxicating feeling of sleep. I felt weighted down, my joints grated from having no rest as exhaustion claimed my body.


This was just a fraction of the many facets of my daughter’s autism that impacted my daily existence. After awhile, I lost the joy in life, the joy of greeting a new day, the joy of enjoying my environment and just being. Not only was my mind dulled, but I couldn’t take in the beauty of life or relationships. My faith carried me through at that time; it was an ongoing, hourly conversation with God. A literal conversation with God. I knew there was no magic bullet, no superhero to swoop in and save me from my situation. The only solution was to ask Him to change our situation or at least help us to find a way of living.

After my daughter was diagnosed with autism at the age of three years old, we received the help we needed to carry on and to rediscover a life worth living again. Whenever I have a bad day now, I remember those hard days and it can’t compare. I actually feel much more free, energetic, and physically younger than I have been in years. As a matter of fact, I tell people,” I’m not getting older-I’ve already been there.”



2. What is it about art that you think helps people share pieces of themselves?

One of my very first memories as a child was looking at a picture book about a giraffe that went to school. It wasn’t the words that caught my attention, but the intense use of colors. To some people colors make them feel. By using a hue of color or bold stroke of the brush that evokes emotion whether it makes someone have a peaceful feeling or a chuckle at whimsy. As an artist many years ago, I thought that I could translate my love of art into painting, but for some reason, my work lacked what people would call the soul or emotion of the piece. I was creating something that I thought that people would like as in, a pretty picture. Ironically, my daughter became a very gifted artist at the age of 3 ½ years old. I found my own artwork eclipsed by a phenomenal talent that was beyond words.

         

Kim was not making a picture to please others, but was driven by an innate force to “create.” She has such a surface raw emotion that she can’t express in any other manner.  People enjoy her work because there is so much more than just paint on the canvas. They find symbolism, meaning, and a window to her mind: a rarity because the majority of individuals with autism relate to objects rather than people or their emotions.



3. Do you have any regrets about the way you've lived your life? No.

If you could go back and give advice to your 20-year-old self, what would it be?

I would have told myself to give myself some time. I would have been easier on myself, treating myself and forgiving myself, as I would so readily have done for any stranger. For anyone else, I would have stood by and comforted them, but had no words that gave any ease to myself.



4. How are you Growing Bolder instead of growing older?

(After having at least 4 years of really good sleep) I have come to the point where I am mentally and physically stronger and I LOVE it! I can remember a seven-digit number. My mind is not spliced into many fragmented thoughts. I don’t have life and death problems to deal with like: keeping track of Kim, having locks on all cupboards, doors, medicines are not only out of reach, but locked up…knowing Poison Control’s number by heart, or leaving a 3 page list for Respite Care provider…  YES! Life is great and it’s going to be even better all of the time.



Are you smashing stereotypes? Proving that it's not about age, it's about attitude?

I haven’t tallied up my age since I turned 30. It just wasn’t important to me. Neither was my weight, I haven’t kept a scale.
I am happy to be looking forward to turning 50 years old. And why not? I earned it!! I’m much more comfortable with the decisions that I make. I know where I’m going or at least where I want to go. I have plans, something I couldn’t make when I was younger, it all depended on my family and making autism not the focus of our lives.
I want to teach younger women that are in the very same shoes that I have been in, that it is best to work with people to create an education team to help move a child with autism forward.

5. What will your legacy be? What do you hope people say about you 50 years from now?

For me the point, is not to make my mark on society in a way that anyone will remember my name.

What I hope my legacy will be is to help as many people understand autism, the impact on families and to encourage parents to for the potential in their children. I am painfully aware of the autistic children who have lost their lives to being smothered because someone was restraining the evil within them. I have read articles about those who have wandered away and recovered too late, some just in time. I have seen news stories of parents overwhelmed to the point that they have made desperate, unwise decisions, from lack of family and community support.



I want to encourage these people and tell them that I have made it through and I have learned some things along the way that could help them or inspire them to find their own solutions.

To learn more about Eileen and Kim Miller, to order a copy of their book, and to see more great videos of Kim explaining her art, click here. For other articles in the 5 Questions With library, click here.
 

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