What I learned from painting with my autistic son

A few months ago, an old friend reached out to me on Facebook. I interned in her office many years ago but we’ve managed to keep in touch. My friend wanted to know if there was any chance I could donate a painting to a fundraiser for her son’s school, Benton Hall Academy.

Benton Hall’s mission is to “educate children who learn differently.” My friend’s son is autistic. This is important to me because my son Greg is also on the autism spectrum. Greg is high-functioning, but being a little different does create some challenges for him (and us). He’s a determined little guy who works hard and I think he’ll turn out all right. He’s getting a fantastic education in Wilson County. He’s a great kid.

So for the Benton Hall auction I decided I wouldn’t pick through paintings I’ve already done. I thought it would be a great opportunity to collaborate with my son. It might teach him to help other children who face similar challenges.

Except it didn’t turn out that way.

I don’t guess I really explained it very well because he thought we were just doing a painting together. This became apparent when he got really upset when we delivered the painting to my friend.

I had to promise him we’d do another one. (We should probably follow up on that very soon. I know he’ll start reminding me. Parental guilt is the worst.)

But he certainly had a blast!

However, there was no real plan when it came to the canvas we collaborated on. Initially I was just painting something I wanted to paint, primary-colored abstract that just wasn’t quite coming together like the image I had in my mind.


I was working at my easel. The boys were playing at their IKEA MÅLA easels, combining all their paints into one color  to make it blackish mud. That mud was cheerfully smeared onto the roll of paper.

Then the phone rang. It was my mom on FaceTime.

I had to step away for a minute so I could hear Mom over the little boy giggles. I looked over.

Greg had proudly put a blob on my canvas.

My heart stopped.

You painted on my canvas! You can’t do that! You messed up what I was doing!
But I caught my tongue.

And then I noticed…

It actually kind of worked. The blob looked like a black submarine.

Greg gleefully said it was as submarine and he started singing “We all live in a black submarine.” (If you can’t see the video, click here.)

(The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine Songtrack CD stays in the changer in my wife’s minivan. So it’s on heavy rotation on the way to and from school, church, Chick-fil-A, the grandparents’, anywhere else we might go. The kids love it and listen to it all the time.)

So I decided to keep it, and turn this into the collaboration piece for the auction. It wound up being a lot of fun.

Time-lapse video of him painting. (Can’t see it? Go here.)

The piece turned out to have two more black submarines on it, and Greg added the ocean below.

Three Submarines, Greg and Brad Blackman, February 2015. Acrylic on canvas. 12 x 12 inches.

I think it’s one of the more memorable father-son moments we’ve had together.

While I was trying to teach him something about helping other people, I think I got the most out of it.

I am incredibly blessed.