ASU student uses art to bring autism to light

Megan Tollefson has seen the myriad faces of autism first-hand. Now she’s painting those faces both to satisfy honors graduation requirements at Arizona State University, and to help build public awareness of a widespread and often heartbreaking disorder.

“I have two cousins, one from each side of the family, with autism and I’ve seen the effects on my aunts and uncles,” said Tollefson, 21, of Mesa. “Unlike illnesses that go away in a few weeks, autism lasts a lifetime and it means changes in people’s lives for a lifetime. That has made a very great impression on me.”

A great enough impression that when the time came to choose a topic for her required honors thesis, she chose autism. Megan has a double major, one from the business college in marketing, and one from the School of Art in painting. She decided in the fall that she would bring her painting skills into play while she studied autism.

For months Tollefson has been researching the subject online, through reading books and publications, and by spending time at the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center, a non-profit organization in downtown Phoenix. There is a community school at SARRC, and Tollefson goes there about once a week.

“I go to observe, but to take part too,” she said. “I talk and play with the kids, I take photos, and I’ve gone to the homes of the children and painted portraits. I have learned an immense amount from doing this.”

Lyndsey Miholich is the center’s community relations manager.

“When Megan contacted us she was so sensitive in focusing on what life is like for families and children but also celebrating their talents – so SARRC was happy to help in her project,” she said. “She spent time with families in their homes and provided children with canvasses so they could create their own artwork.”

Megan not only spent many hours at SARRC, she took part in events meant to bring the issues of autism before the public, including attending the Autism Candlelight Vigil January 29 at the state Capitol.

“I took pictures at the vigil, and a painting I did from one of the pictures is a centerpiece of the art show I’m having of my works on autism,” Tollefson said. Tollefson’s show is March 17 -28 at the College of Art Step Gallery in Tempe Center, on the southeastern corner of Mill Avenue and University Drive.

Tollefson said she plans to donate any proceeds from paintings she sells to SARRC.

“I’m so glad I decided to do my thesis on autism,” she said. “It has meant so much to me, been so rewarding as I’ve met families and learned so much. I hope my paintings can do some good.”

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