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Careers in art for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder at Gateway Arts

James_bioSitting quietly in a sunny corner, James Brendan reads a book on reptiles. Suddenly, he leaps out of his seat, spouting facts about the cold-blooded species. He circles the studio, picks up his paintbrush, settles back into his seat, and begins to paint again.

James Brendan (better known as JB) is a 27-year-old artist living and working in the Greater Boston area. He spends his weekends with his family and friends, and has a love of learning. In addition to his art career, JB spends every Wednesday and Thursday afternoon working at the local library- a perfect job for the self-proclaimed book worm. His artwork has been exhibited at many venues throughout Massachusetts, including Outside the Lines, The Gateway Gallery, Barneys NY Retail outlet, and Lesley University.

JB has been diagnosed with Autism, a fact he and his family are very open about. JB and his family began exploring possible careers quite early on. For youths on the Autism Spectrum, or diagnosed with disabilities, planning their career and the rest of their lives can start as early as age 14. This planning begins as part of the Individualized Education Program (IEP), which can be implemented for children as young as age 5. “The IEP is meant to address each child’s unique learning issues and include specific educational goals. The IEP is a legally binding document. The school must provide everything it promises in the IEP.”*** For students ages 14- 22, government agencies, schools, and families work collaboratively to plan the child’s transition from school to work or vocational programming. This planning is what eventually led JB to the Gateway Studios.

Until recently, individuals like JB have been unable to receive necessary government supports which would allow them to more easily live the lives they desire. With the newly implemented Autism Omnibus Bill, “Chapter 226 of the Acts of 2014,” services for youths and adults with autism spectrum disorder and their families have increased. In the United States, 1 in 68 children are affected by autism spectrum disorder, and boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed than girls*. Despite an increase in research and diagnosed individuals, professional opportunities for this population are minimal and often marginalized.

This bill not only provides financial assistance, but also extends the Department of Developmental Services (DDS) eligibility to many individuals with autism spectrum disorder who were previously denied services.** Individuals will now be supported through DDS based on their functional ability rather than IQ scores. While historically, DDS provided support only to those whose developmental and cognitive disabilities beget low IQs. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder can test higher than the previously imposed range of IQs needed to qualify for DDS support. Thus, DDS is now beginning to acknowledge that an individual’s IQ is not necessarily accurate in assessing their independent functional ability. The Autism Omnibus Bill is another critical step towards increasing person first services.

Gateway Arts (a Vinfen service), located in Brookline, Massachusetts, provides an alternative and viable career in the arts for people with disabilities. The Main Studio at Gateway Arts provides the experience of maintaining a cooperative art studio. This includes access to high quality art materials and the ability to work side-by-side with other artists. Artists who participate in Gateway’s programming receive case coordination and mentorship by a staff of professional artists with human service training. Facilitators bring real world experience to the studios and help shape each artist’s practice and vision. Gateway serves a wide variety of populations including those on the Autism Spectrum.

In addition to serving the young adults’ creative and vocational goals, Gateway Arts is dedicated to supporting their social, psychological, and medical well-being. Facilitators receive clinical training and work side-by-side with counselors, therapists, and individual support teams. All studios incorporate specific social cue games, personal boundaries curricula, leadership groups, and role playing. These efforts are combined with studios such as Adult Education, Film and Wellness, and Movement to develop appropriate interpersonal and social skills necessary for a career in art and community independence. Gateway’s programming focuses not only on the artists’ body of work, but also in helping the artist become a fully autonomous participant in society.

Gateway is an integral part of individuals’ growth. Our staff works with each artist’s support team in helping ensure their individual needs are being met.



For questions about Gateway Arts and their services, please visit: or contact Courtney McKenna at 617-734-1577 or


**Murphy Bentley, Bernadette. Massachusetts Autism Omnibus Bill Enacted; Autism Consortium, September, 2014. (retrieved online:

***Stanberry, Kristin. Understanding Individualized Education Programs; Understood for leaning & attention issues. (retrieved online:

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