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A voice through art

Because of, rather than in spite of, her autism, 15-year-old Parkhill resident, Paris Subraya, shows others exactly how to defy the odds. Diagnosed with Autism with severe mental impairment at the age of three, and non-verbal at the time, today she wows art lovers with her extraordinary ability to express herself through painting.

Young Paris is determined to share her art, and her story, with the goal of inspiring and raising awareness about autism. On the day we visit her, Paris steps out of her bedroom dressed in boots, her best outfit, make up she’s put on herself for the first time ever (and immaculately done at that) and a hair clip with peacock feathers in it. This, she says, is because the peacock is her spirit animal.

Home schooled by her parents Sheraine Reddy, a qualified teacher, and Yugen Subraya, a welder by trade, with a curriculum especially designed for her, Paris has found a voice through art. She’s bright and funny and dreams of having an independent life one day when she is able to leave the safety of home. Clutching her favourite dog, Coco, she talks candidly about life on the Autistic spectrum.

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“Autistic children can achieve anything they want, just like any other person. Some can be better hairstylists or illustrators like me,” she says in the strong American accent she’s picked up from studying people, psychology shows and educational programmes such as National Geographic on YouTube.

Autism spectrum disorder refers to a range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills, special interests, speech and non-verbal communication, as well as by unique strengths and differences.

Paris was diagnosed at the age of three when she was unable to communicate verbally like a typical child of her age. Determined to find a way to help their daughter learn to talk, Sheraine and Yugen embarked on a journey, through Makaton Sign Language (a programme that uses signs, speech and symbols to enable people to communicate), to help Paris develop essential communication skills. They attended every course available to learn more about autism in order to help improve Paris’ quality of life.

At the age of six, Paris’ school teacher identified that she had a brilliant picture memory. As time went by she also began to show huge interest and skill in mixing colours and painting. Realising this was her attempt at communicating with them and expressing herself, Sheraine and Yugen stocked up on canvas and paints. They watched in awe as their daughter began to sketch, draw, paint, create and discover her own potential in a way far in advance of her age.

“I am a feminist,” says Paris. “I have strong opinions, I am a strong human, and I know this is because I have parents who cared to show me how. Without them, I would not be the person I am today.”

And there’s a great deal of truth in what she says given that both Sheraine and Yugen gave up their full time occupations to open their Autism Learning Centre. It now caters for autistic children with various abilities.

“Watching other kids in the school learn to read made me sad and frustrated because it’s something I can’t do. But my parents have taught me that you don’t have to be wise to be able to read. You don’t have to try and make yourself perfect. You are allowed to embrace your own unique beauty, and that’s what I do. I’m also just a kid, trying to fit in.”

When asked about her best traits, Paris proudly speaks of her ability to show kindness towards people and animals. This kindness is however marginalised through her struggles with physical touch and her inability to tolerate large social gatherings.

However, she has learnt to self-regulate through drawing. Paris loves to dance, (she often wears headphones as a means of noise cancelling), has an extensive general knowledge and is passionate about politics, animals, anything non-fiction and human pregnancy. She wants to be a doula one day.

“Sometimes I feel like a tail. I am not aware of myself. But I have good parents who help me to understand myself better and also teach me about situations – like boys. I have to have a conversation with someone to identify what is a good relationship and what is a bad one. I choose not to wear skirts and I carry a baseball bat with me because I know about child-kidnapping and paedophiles. My parents have taught me about these things, just like other children are taught, for my own safety. I am stronger because of this.”

Paris says that drawing is a part of who she is, but is adamant that she will never draw on demand. “I can swim like a fish, I love drawing cartoons and I love to paint and draw when I want to – and that’s okay. Sometimes I get an idea and I work with it. Other times I don’t feel like painting, so I don’t.”

But when she does, she’s phenomenal. Paris can sit for hours sketching, drawing, painting or making a collage out of other pieces she’s previously painted and has a new vision for. One of her most incredible pieces is a portrait of their helper, Fortunate Ezechi, which was created using cut up pieces of her own version of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, which in itself was outstanding. It’s a piece that often leaves onlookers with dropped jaws.

Her skills with a paintbrush have resulted in numerous requests for Paris to paint, sketch and showcase her art professionally. Some of these her parents chose to turn down because they believed at the time she was still too young to work. But, in the last few years she’s proved herself a confident and successful artist. She was invited to exhibit at ArtSPACE, Etchings etc Art Gallery and commissioned to do a number of private works.

In fact, she’s been so successful, that one of her stories (she loves to inspire) was published as a book about acceptance and love. At the age of 10 she was awarded a scholarship to attend Durban’s Centre For Fine Art Animation And Design, where she now sits, amongst adults, and studies with a curriculum adapted to suit her. She’s also started her own line of merchandise.

“Art for me is a form of escapism. When I’m painting or sketching I feel safe and good. I feel like I’m back to myself. Autism is like a birthmark and I have embraced it. I want others to do the same. I have dreams just like every other person. They are quirky and weird. I even dream about dating. That doesn’t make me any different to any other kid. Unlike others, who may fear mortality, I believe that we should forget about dying and learn to live. I don’t want to be defined by autism, I want to be liked and loved because of who I am and defined by me.”

Details: FB: Paris’s Art Diaries, www.parisautisticartist.com

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