A talented young woman with autism designs beautiful jewelry
Interview with Swathi Chettipally, Siri’s mother
Questions compiled by David Moreno
How did Siri’s talent come to light? Was this talent observed when she was working on an art project at school or home?
We knew that Siri had a liking for a variety of things to wear, including jewelry. She also has a unique sense of color, the way she mixes and matches her outfits. She also likes doing craft projects at school and at home. She has good fine motor skills and is very meticulous when doing repetitive tasks, like cutting vegetables. I always wanted her to be able to do some productive work using her strengths. When I put all these strengths together, jewelry making was one of the first choices that came to my mind.
How was this artistic ability developed into jewelry design? What was the process? What were the challenges along the way?
Last year after she graduated from the school system, we could not find a day program that was at an appropriate level for her functioning and be able to meet her needs. Siri falls in the middle of the autism spectrum. It was frustrating for us to see her stay at home and not have a place to go to. This 6-month period was a blessing in disguise, where I was able to uncover her unique strengths. I started working with her at home mainly to keep her busy and not get bored. We wanted to see if there was an activity that she likes, which can be repeated and can also give her a sense of accomplishment. Jewelry making was one of them. I started with simple designs. I noticed that she was enjoying the work and feeling proud about it. There were several challenges along the way. First, I had to learn the techniques of jewelry making myself, to be able to teach Siri. Second, her attention span and focus was a concern. I had to gradually build it up. There are days when she will say “no” and I let her use that option, so that she can work only when she feels like it. When we talk to other people about her work or shared her work, she felt very proud and that motivated us to keep her going. Now, she is able to work 2 – 3 hours at a time, few days a week. Finally, we needed to make sure that, the work she does can be sustainable. Siri also received a lot of encouragement from family and friends.
Who helps and supports Siri with her passion? What is this person’s role?
I help Siri with the selection of materials, picking designs that are doable, putting the word out and making contacts through social networks, and helping out with the logistics. I spend a lot of time learning the techniques and simplify the steps, so that Siri can learn and master them. Although I am the primary decision maker, the whole family helps her succeed in this venture. Her dad built a website for her. Her brothers help set-up and provide the supports needed at events, where her work is displayed.
Please describe Siri’s journey from designing jewelry at home to exhibiting at shows and other events? Again, please describe challenges, if any, with this process.
Once Siri got the hang of the technique, she started making many pieces – 10 to 20 a day. We started with inexpensive material. Soon, we had a few hundred pieces! The first challenge was – what do we do with all these pieces? We started donating some of them. We also wanted her to derive value from the work she created. Our hope is that this will become self-sustaining venture, and create a path for others with special needs to follow. Our second challenge was to find a channel to promote her work. We approached Irma Velasquez of De Colores Arts with the idea of creating a platform to promote talents of special needs individuals. She was very supportive of Siri’s work, offered studio space, provided equipment to show case her work and hooked us up with crucial contacts. Soon we were approached by non-profit organizations, who offered display space at their events, to bring awareness and help with fundraising efforts. The third challenge is to be able to differentiate Siri’s work from that of regular jewelry makers and scale it up. We are still trying to figure out the solution to this challenge.
What does Siri like to do with her time when she’s not designing jewelry? How does she communicate?
Siri is fortunate to have varied interests and is not afraid of venturing into new places. Her first choice would be to go shopping! She loves buying clothes, toys and books. She also likes to go to the movies and birthday parties. She loves walking and swimming and is fairly active outdoors. Siri uses short phrases and words to communicate. She has a fairly decent vocabulary. Siri has difficulty pronouncing words, and her echolalia, makes it difficult to understand. This sometimes develops into frustration for her, resulting in undesirable behaviors. When we have a hard time understanding Siri, we have her write it down on paper.
How does she relate to other members of the family? Are there any activities she enjoys doing with her siblings?
Siri is fairly social. She loves to hang out with her family and misses people when one of us is not around. She does take breaks in her room when it gets overwhelming. She loves to be with her brothers, who are active teenagers and looks for activities to do with them.
What was a recent event at which Siri exhibited her jewelry? What was the response?
Siri was given an opportunity to exhibit her work at a national cultural event of NATS, at Anaheim Convention Center last weekend. It was a large Indian American cultural event with several thousand attendees, for 2 full days. At first we were hesitant, not knowing how people would respond and how Siri would react. We were pleasantly surprised by the organizers’ support and attendees’ encouragement. Siri was able to stay at the stall and meet people most of the time. We made some good connections. Her brothers and a cousin helped with the stall and display. Siri had a blast taking pictures with celebrities and shopping!
Siri’s talent is inspiring to all of us and is a good reminder to all families with autism to give their children opportunities to express themselves and build confidence. Please describe in what ways Siri’s artistic expression has helped her.
Jewelry making has been therapeutic, helping Siri calm down and build patience. The exposure and encouragement she gets from visitors has been a tremendous confidence booster for her. She can now actively engage with others through her jewelry. We have not seen this side of her personality before. It also made a difference in her relationships with her brothers, where she sees them as part of the team helping her succeed and they see her as a contributing member. It has brought encouragement and hope to other families who are dealing with autism. We see a smile on the faces of anyone who comes in contact with her work. That has given me a tremendous boost and motivation to help her take it further.
What is the role of De Colores Arts in supporting artists like Siri?
De Colores Arts is a non-profit organization to help artists with special needs. Siri is the first such artist that is being supported by this organization. They provided her with studio space and equipment. They help her with fundraising, networking and showcasing the work. Their plan is to build similar success stories to be able to help more folks with special needs. All the money raised goes back to support artists in their endeavors.