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Autism conference room makeover at University of Iowa includes interactive artwork

Children with autism, developmental disabilities helped create piece

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IOWA CITY — The conference room inside the child and adolescent psychiatry unit at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital used to be quite sterile, with off-white walls and a lack of pizzazz.

Dr. Peter Daniolos, a psychiatrist and training director at the clinic, said he thought the interior room — which physicians, patients and their families utilize heavily each day — needed an overhaul.

“I think our spaces impact us in so many ways ... We’re in here every day and all day and if the room is not really beautiful what does that say about the service we offer and how does that impact the way we feel about our work?” he asked.

Daniolos thought the room really needed a window, but they couldn’t just bore a hole into the wall.

“Yet art can create a window-like space,” Daniolos said. “So we began to have a conversation: How can we create something that can bring color and light, and how can we also bring in some of the amazing children and families in our community that we are working with, kids with developmental disabilities and autism?”

The result is a transformed space, with bright, colorful walls, modern green and yellow furniture and a large, interactive art piece titled “Incredible Minds.”

About 60 people, gathered from the Arc of Southeast Iowa’s A5 project, Village Community and the child psychiatry unit, took part in the “Incredible Minds” project. Each artist painted a small canvass, which then was hung on a peg inside a large, box-like frame. The canvasses can be removed and interchanged, so the overall piece is kinetic and constantly changing.

Daniolos said the piece reminds him of a quilt, and he sees it as “a metaphor for the healing capacity of therapies promoting greater social connectedness and interaction.”

“People love this. This is very modern art. I have not had a negative comment,” Daniolos said. “I’ve seen so many families and kids just kind of start staring at it. It becomes almost soothing and hypnotic and your mind can go in so many different directions. There’s so much up there.”

The creation of the piece was facilitated by Liz Delsandro, a speech and language therapist, and local artist Helen Neumann.

“We really wanted to think about unique perspectives and bringing them together,” Delsandro said. “We also wanted to really express that with the interchangeable parts, that people with autism and other developmental disabilities evolve over time, grow over time, change over time. And that’s what this piece was really all about.”

Neumann said she thinks there should be more opportunities in the community to encourage creative expression among children with autism and developmental disabilities.

“The arts and creative expression is always looking for different perspectives and for something fresh and unique. It also is completely forgiving of what our society might think of as different,” Neumann said. “So disability — it disappears. You have a human being who is making an artistic product out of art materials: there is no disability or no deficit. It’s just another human being with a good idea.”

Daniolos said he is thrilled with the way the conference room turned out, and talk has already turned to making over another conference room in the clinic.

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