Autism arts event would showcase unique talent

<strong>A</strong>utism wasn’t going to define him.

Stephen Sullivan has always pushed himself to learn as much as he could, to step up and be a friend for those who needed one, and to discover new ways of expressing himself. He’s an accomplished pianist and has sold poetry and photography in his free time.

Even after the Greenwood resident was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a teen, he worked hard to graduate high school, attend college and earn his degree as a music educator.

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He knows the talents that those with autism have. Now, he wants share those skills with the rest of the community as well.

Sullivan is organizing a project to bring awareness and attention to the autism community. He is planning an event featuring performers, musical acts and visual artists, all of whom are on the autism spectrum.

His goal is to help the community see those with autism as human beings with the same talents and abilities as everyone else.

“Right now, a lot of the focus on autism is about finding a cure, or separating people with autism from the rest of the population. That’s what I want to challenge,” he said. “I want to do this event, and show that people on the spectrum can be just as gifted and capable, that they’re not necessarily behind the rest of the world in any way.”

The idea for an arts showcase had been percolating in Sullivan’s mind for more than 20 years.

Sullivan, 30, has been drawn to music and the piano for most of his life. He can recall being 3 or 4 years old, and when his father would come home from work, he would play the piano for him.

When he was a third-grader at Westwood Elementary School, his music class watched a documentary on Beethoven.

“That was really interesting, hearing about how he had to deal with different challenges throughout his life,” he said.

In fifth grade, Sullivan started taking piano lessons. Throughout his childhood, high school and college, he progressed through nine different teachers, ascending to the next instructor once his skill level warranted it.

Right around that time, he came to his parents and told his parents that he was glad God gave him the gift of music. He also wanted to do a concert someday to help kids.

“That was when he was 10 years old. It was something that never went away,” said Cindy Sullivan, Stephen’s mother.

Sullivan wasn’t diagnosed with autism until he was 16 years old and a junior at Roncalli High School. He had been tested as a child, but specialists never determined that he was impacted by the disorder.

Because his case was mild, people often did not recognize the signs of autism in him.

“I think that has made me more willing to help people in general, but on the other hand, it has helped me realize that I don’t live in a victim culture where I’m limited in any way,” he said.

Even after his diagnosis, Sullivan attended standard classes in high school. He was on the student council at Roncalli, spell bowl and academic super bowl. He graduated from Roncalli in 2007, and earned a bachelor’s degree in piano from the University of Indianapolis.

Sullivan also felt a connection to those with disabilities and challenges, or just those who didn’t fit in. His teachers would often ask him to work with a student who seemed to be struggling.

“He’d always go to the ones where were quieter, the ones that needed help,” Cindy Sullivan said. “They saw that Stephen was so outgoing, they’d ask me if he could be a peer buddy for them.”

In high school and college, Sullivan volunteered and worked with younger students on the autism spectrum. At the University of Indianapolis, he worked one-on-one with children as part of the school’s mentoring program.

Sullivan is a licensed music educator. While he currently offers music instruction, he also plans to create a Christian arts ministry for others with autism.

“I enjoy the fact that I can reach out and have an impact on the world. That’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid,” he said.

The vision for the event would include musical acts and performers doing monologues, poetry readings and other public art. A segment of the showcase would feature three visual artists, who could host a silent auction in a gallery outside the auditorium.

Donna DeWeese learned about Sullivan’s plans and was immediately intrigued. She has raised her nephew, Dakota Skiles, since his birth. He is an active musician, playing the guitar, ukulele and banjo at open mic nights in Franklin as well as a weekly showcase at Brickhouse Coffee in Greenwood.

The fact that he is on the autism spectrum does not hold him back, DeWeese said. She sees this arts showcase as a way to help change perceptions about the autism community.

“The spectrum is so wide. These kids can learn, they have talents they can offer. We want to let people know not to be afraid of it,” she said. “If you have kids who can put on a show or do stand-up or play music or tell a story, it’s hope and entertainment and making a family proud.”

Sullivan put together a plan detailing his motivation for creating the event, potential times and locations for the showcase, and how he intends to partner with other autism organizations to help.

The goal is to have an event later this year, though they may potentially move it back to April 2020 to coincide with National Autism Awareness Month.

“We’re hoping in the next couple of weeks to have the venue figured out, which brings us to fundraising,” Cindy Sullivan said.

They have also planned on how to raise funds and gain sponsors to help with everything from the venue to refreshments. Sullivan has drafted a letter asking for help, and circulated to groups and businesses that might be interested in taking part.

With proceeds from the event, Sullivan would be able to donate to highly regarded healthcare agencies working with individuals on the autism spectrum directly.

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Appreciating the Inner Art of People with Autism

What: An arts showcase focusing on the talents of people on the autism spectrum. Participants will include musical acts, performing artists and visual artists.

Who: Created by Greenwood resident Stephen Sullivan, an accomplished pianist and music instructor who is on the autism spectrum himself.

When: The event will tentatively be held later this year or in April 2020.

How to help: Sullivan is looking for participants who want to take part in the showcase. Donations are also being accepted by Sullivan to help with various aspects of the event. He is also looking for a potential venue to host the event. Anyone interested in helping can contact him at <a href="mailto:[email protected]">[email protected]</a>.

More information: