Martin Thomas Using his autism to shape his art.
For Martin Thomas, who came to Jamaica at eight months old, his path to finding his purpose has been a contorted one with many discouraging potholes. “He could not talk up to age four, and I became extremely worried, so I took him to a doctor where he was diagnosed with highfunction autism. Of course, all this was so new to me. I was in total shock,” revealed Janice Hall Thomas, Martin’s mother. This news came three years after his mother had made a conscious decision to return to Jamaica after living in England for 28 years. “My husband and I wanted our kids to grow up in a culture where they would see more positive images of black people. At the time, most of the public images of success in England were white; this didn’t sit well with me,” stated the mother of two. Nonetheless, she didn’t expect to be faced with such a daunting task in 1999 when she got the news of her child’s autism. In a general sense, it is described as a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impaired social interaction, as well as impaired verbal and non-verbal communication. One of the most implicative aspects of this is that Martin would have challenges forming sentences, which would impede his ability to communicate with others. Not one to easily give up, his mother started looking for possible solutions for Martin to get a substantial education given his condition. “At that time, no one in Jamaica knew anything much about autism, so we were like a fish out of water,” she recollected.
TRYING TO ADDRESS THE ISSUE
The first proposal she got from a psychologist was to contract the services of a speech therapist, who would work with Martin for 20 minutes once a week. However, the logistics of this was totally impractical, as they lived in Montego Bay and the therapist was in Kingston. “This was a period before the highways were built, so it took us about four and a half hours to get to Kingston, which was taxing on me because we could only see the specialist in the evening. Hence, we were driving back in the night, for a total of eight-plus hours for the round trip,” lamented Janice. As for Martin, he continually displayed hyperactive behavioural patterns up to age two, where he would constantly run around the place, especially at nights. This made the adjustment even harder for his sleep-deprived mother, who was also raising his older, five-year-old brother. Like any child, he needed to broaden his social experience, hence he was enrolled in a preparatory school at age four, where he was around other kids his age. However, this was very challenging as they found it hard to interact with him and would often alienate him. He was also met with a similar treatment from his teachers, who would put him in a corner, away from the other kids, sometimes for the entire day. It was in these corners that Martin began drawing to pass his time, as he showed very little interest in the traditional academic lessons being taught.
FIRST PLACE OF COMFORT
His mother quickly realised that the school was not equipped to deal with a child with autism and so she looked for somewhere else. This time, to avoid him being ostracised, she altered his biography, stating that he had a speech impediment but his cognitive skills were intact. It worked to her advantage as the teachers at Emann Prep School on Sunset Boulevard would sit with him and engage him in intuitive ways. “This was like a ray of hope for me, because he had one teacher for three consecutive grade levels who had so much faith in his ability. I knew it boosted his confidence,” Martin’s mother stated. After assimilating himself in the school environment, by age 12 it was time for him to sit the GSAT exams, a standardised test which is used to place students in secondary schools. Unfortunately, he did not display the required aptitude to be successful in the exam, so the school kept him for an additional year until his family could figure out the next move.
ANOTHER STEP TOWARDS HIS PASSION
In all this cloud of uncertainty, what became apparent was that Martin was both visually and musically inclined. He would spend most of his days drawing, and whenever he heard a song that he liked, he would find the notes within minutes on a keyboard. This led his family to look for a private high school that could capitalise on his intelligence and develop these skills. Sadly, this would prove to be another insurmountable challenge, as the first high school he was enrolled in gave him traditional subjects to undertake. This discouraged Martin, and his interest once again began to wane. This continued for a couple of years until he was 16, when his mother was finally convinced that his existing educational programme was causing more harm than good. She then developed a new strategy and paired him with an art teacher, Elgo Lewis, who started to showcase Martin’s work at his exhibitions. This motivated Martin, and he began to invest many hours in honing his skill. Soon, he started showcasing his famous art pieces islandwide. Now, with the support of his ‘momiger’, he has his own website where persons can purchase his art along with paraphernalia which feature his work. While he is mostly able to construct simple sentences, with a preference for closed-ended questions, it is clear that Martin has found his niche in life. Likewise, his love for music has not changed as he is the resident Sunday-school pianist at St Augustine Church in Coral Gardens. As for his mother, every day she sends her prayers up to God for helping her to find a path that has given her son a sense of pride and purpose. “I am so grateful to God, because now I can see a way for him to earn a living while being a meaningful contributor to society.”