For Anna Alcalde, art is like yoga for the brain.
“Art helps you with freeform thinking, thinking off the path,” Alcalde said. “A lot of people can relax a little bit more when they’re doing art. You’re not judged. There’s no right or wrong.”
Alcalde has worked with individuals with autism for over 10 years through her Lincoln art studio, Urban Legends.
“I noticed that for a lot of young individuals on the autism spectrum, especially once they’re out of high school, there’s not a lot of programs,” Alcalde said. “There’s a few for a few years after. And they’re great programs to help them with lifestyle skills, but they didn’t have a lot of socialization opportunities.”
In 2020, Alcalde decided to present a proposal to the Lincoln Arts Council for a grant to gather young adults with autism for creativities and socializing. After presenting her idea, Alcalde was awarded a grant and partnered with the Autism Family Network.
“We all know that people with autism have social deficits. And it’s one area where we underserved that population,” AFN President Cathy Martinez said. “So when the Lincoln Arts Council offered funding to do that, we gladly accepted because we knew that kids with disabilities are often isolated. And this gives them an opportunity to have friendship clubs.”
AFN holds monthly social clubs for teens and young adults, and for younger children. The teens and young adults meet on the fourth Wednesday of every month, and the children’s social club meets on the second Saturday of every month.
“My grandson has difficulty making friends because he’s in a wheelchair and he’s paralyzed in three limbs. So, a lot of times I think kids are apprehensive about approaching him and his limitations,” Martinez said. “So he loves to go, if there’s a night that he can’t go, he’s very upset.”
At first, Alcalde would provide step-by-step lessons for everyone to follow along with, then realized that wasn’t the best option.
“You have different levels of abilities and attention span,” Alcalde said. “So now I broke it down into two to three projects, with projects at each table from anywhere easy, like beading and making bracelets to a drawing and painting to something else tangible like clay.”
Although the social clubs are sponsored by AFN, they are not limited to individuals with autism.
“Anybody can attend. So we do have individuals with Down syndrome, we have a young woman who is visually impaired, we have a couple of individuals with cerebral palsy,” Martinez said. “We will never turn away somebody with a different diagnosis.”
While AFN uses art as a form of socialization, the Autism Center of Nebraska adds a business opportunity for individuals with autism through The Art Garden program.
The Art Garden strives to be a welcoming place for individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities to thrive creatively and professionally, while building relationships. Artists at The Art Garden are at least 21 years old and qualify for developmental disabilities services through the state, according to ACN Lincoln Area Coordinator Melissa Blakemore.
All profits made from selling the art and home decor are split up and given back to the artists. There are currently three locations in Omaha, Fremont, Lincoln and soon-to-be York, Blakemore said.
The Lincoln Art Garden focuses on upcycling and recycling donated craft materials to create new artwork.
“The items that we have right now have been donated by community members,” Blakemore said. “We actually had to tell people to stop because we got such a response from the community that we had too much and didn’t have anywhere to put it. So, that was wonderful to have to say stop donating.”
There are currently six artists working at the Lincoln location, but it isn’t open for shopping yet. Blakemore hopes to have the Lincoln Art Garden boutique ready to open in May 2023.