Photo contributed Above: Leifen Mitchell-Banks at work on one of his creations during a class at Salmon Arm Secondary.

Drawings connect autistic student with the world

Leifen Mitchell-Banks creates colourful cartoon characters at Salmon Arm Secondary.

The winter sky may be dull and grey, but inside Salmon Arm Secondary, a colourful display of “paper people” brightens one of the hallways.

Many of them are life-sized and all feature large, black eyes, with long, dangling arms and barely discernible penciled smiles. Most of them have their feet turned outwards.

They are the work of Leifen Mitchell-Banks, a 19-year-old student who is on the autistic spectrum. And, while he does not communicate in the same way as the majority of people, his art speaks volumes.

Mitchell-Banks is extremely bright and gregarious.

He is described by his team, art teacher Chris Schielke and education assistants (EAs) Karen Beggs and Debbie Parke as being “differently abled.”

Unburdened by the notion of peer pressure, if he hears music he likes, he will stop what he is doing and dance, says Parke, who has worked with Mitchell-Banks for four years.

“He’s got a love of life, a joy,” adds Beggs. “And this school is so accepting.”

Schielke agrees and says the kids in the art room are not only welcoming, they love it when he’s there because he’s so animated.

The talented and prolific artist began drawing at the age of eight or nine when he attended Carlin School.

“Drawing opened the door for communication,” says Parke, pointing out initially his EA drew the characters according to Mitchell-Banks’ very specific directions about the size and expression of his characters. “He was learning to use thoughts and words.”

In time, his EA stopped drawing and encouraged the initially resistant artist to advance from colouring the creations to drawing them himself.

That led to the emergence of his own Sesame Street and a growing population of cartoon characters.

“These are his friends, they are personal and he doesn’t like to give them away,” laughs Schielke, who was touched to have been gifted with a giant drawing of Jafar recently. “There is so much going on in his brain; it is so complex.”

Mitchell-Banks colours his drawings without worrying about the lines, then expertly cuts them out.

His favourite medium is pastels and he trades one piece of art a week in exchange for a trip to Salmon Arm Stationery to purchase more colours.

He is grasping the notion of trading his “friends” for monetary gains in order to acquire other things he wants.

Other SAS students are impressed with Mitchell-Banks’ colourful people, including Nick Lourens, who created a 3-D version of a pirate character using the school’s new printer.

This delighted Mitchell-Banks, who has begun painting them.

“Now he’s decided he wants some action figures that move,” laughs Beggs, noting students are now trying to create them as well.

Mitchell-Banks is developing literacy skills, is interested in reading and can now go to the computer and find characters on his own, says Beggs.

“He’s liking words now and can read simple sentences,” she says. “That empowers him so he can learn what he wants. He’s a very curious person.”

Michell-Banks is in the school’s Individual Achievement Program (IAP) with support from his team that focuses on his interests.

Learning resource teacher Eberle Balfour says she was “blown away” when she arrived at SAS and discovered IAP students receive individual support and that an attitude of inclusivity permeates the entire school.

“At Leifen’s house there is no computer so he creates most of his art there,” says Parke of his prolific “friends,” many of whom have been brought to school. “His art has grown so much because he explores his creativity.”

Eberle agrees, noting that the team is now focusing on Mitchell-Banks’ career and trying to find ways for him to benefit financially from his art.

Mitchell-Banks works part time at No Frills and is expected to graduate this year. He will pursue his career goals with a new community team to provide support.

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