Art and Autism: Through Jimmy’s Eyes

September 30, 2011

Jimmy Reagan’s story unfolds through pictures. It begins with baby photos his parents treasure: Jimmy as an infant, snacking in his high chair, impish grin stretching between rosy cheeks; Jimmy frolicking with his dad in a pile of leaves, bright eyes focused on the camera. Then the images reflect a dramatic change. Jimmy the toddler is no longer laughing and snuggling with older siblings. His smile has faded. Black circles underscore his vacant eyes.

Somewhere around his second birthday, Jimmy regressed from a typically developing child to one, who like hundreds of thousands today, is living with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Although Brian and Peg Reagan of Mendota Heights cannot explain their child’s regression, it is highlighted by limited conversational skills and social interaction.

The years following Jimmy’s 1996 diagnosis were frightening and frustrating. Along with social and communication deficits, Jimmy experienced incapacitating health problems that eluded diagnosis and treatment. He lost so much weight his older brother worried aloud that Jimmy was dying before their eyes and implored his parents to take action. Midway through eighth grade Jimmy withdrew from school. As doctors eventually identified and addressed his various ailments, Jimmy’s chronic pain subsided. His appearance improved. Yet his language did not return.

Several years ago, Jimmy’s in-home teacher and her artist friend stumbled upon a life-changing discovery: The young man with limited verbal skills has a talent for drawing and painting. Now 18 and in stable health, Jimmy spends his days working with paintbrushes and colored pencils. Embracing an opportunity to leverage his interest, Jimmy’s parents wove his passion into his educational curriculum. He visits museums; reads art books; and takes art classes. He names his paintings and writes about them.

A fan of Vincent Van Gogh’s work, the novice artist has generated an impressive collection of landscapes and portraits. He produces multiple pieces reflecting different perspectives of the same scene or object, no two alike. He may take a first crack at a piece with colored pencils and paper, then move on to oil pastels and canvas.

No longer chasing medical diagnoses, Peg is helping Jimmy to develop and market his art. His work is displayed around the Twin Cities and sold through his website on canvas and prints, note cards and t-shirts ( The portfolio of this emerging artist is marked by short lines called tick marks and vivid colors juxtaposed to make them pop.

Identifying and nurturing talents is the ticket to a meaningful and productive life for all her kids, Peg said. Yet, discovering Jimmy’s aptitude for art has been especially promising considering the unique life-long challenges his autism presents. She encourages other parents whose children have autism to keep looking “because everybody has gifts and everybody has different ways of communicating.” She added, “Jim is really the one who showed this to us. I didn’t find this for him. We’ve certainly helped facilitate it along the way but he’s the one who wants to do it.”

Jimmy is not much of a conversationalist but he knows a compliment when he hears one. He enjoys being told he’s done something well, his mom said. Some fans have called him a genius. “He doesn’t have the brain of a 2-year-old,” Peg said. “That’s what we miss in a lot of these kids. Just because you cannot communicate does not mean you’re not able to understand what’s going on around you. I think the vast majority of these kids understand what is going on.”

The once sickly young man is being seen in a different light at an institution where he’s been a frequent patient. This past summer, the Minnesota Medical Foundation invited Jimmy to paint the signature piece for WineFest, the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital’s annual fundraiser. Having contributed art the year before, Jimmy was excited by the honor.

“With the opening of the new hospital, we felt it was important to highlight its heart and soul – our patients and families – as a part of this year’s festivities,” said Dr. Joseph Neglia, physician-in-chief. “It is the perfect year to showcase Jimmy’s brilliant artwork.”

His mother is enjoying the shift from managing medical issues to cultivating Jimmy’s potential. “Some people have jobs they hate. Jim happens to do something that he loves, and we’re fortunate that people appreciate it. How long it will last, I don’t know. It keeps getting more complex and more interesting,” Peg said.

The change in Jimmy’s spirits since he began painting has been notable. “We’ve probably underestimated his depression and anxiety as a result of being so isolated,” Peg said. She blames his chronic health problems and difficulty conversing for the isolation but adds, “In the absence of language, his art has created a completely different level of respect and understanding of what goes on in his head.” Moreover, his gift enables his family, friends, and fans to see the world through Jimmy’s eyes.