Chapel Hill News

‘Diversabilities’ celebrates the arts and autism

“Untitled thought” by Susan Kermon.
“Untitled thought” by Susan Kermon. Susan Kermon

For most of her life, Susan Kermon, 49, suspected something about her was different. She couldn’t put a finger on what, but it bothered her.

From a young age, too, she was drawn to make art, but rejected these tendencies as a symptom of that something – if she quit art, a school-aged Kermon thought, she’d be “normal.” It didn’t work, and she found herself taking art classes at UNC-Greensboro.

Still, something she couldn’t quite identify kept bothering her. So Kermon, a sculptor, got work as a painter instead of applying to graduate school. The next two decades were a miserable time, she says, and she drank too much – though she tried to hide what she was going through.

“In 2010, I think, I decided I had to make a last-ditch effort and sought out the fourth therapist to try and figure (it) out,” Kermon said.

The verdict: She has high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorder and simply never knew it.

Kermon, then-45, spent a year unsuccessfully trying to disprove the assessment. Today, she’s moved beyond the depression and the frustration – and back into actively making art.

Kermon’s first major art exhibit opened April 7 at Chapel Hill’s FRANK Gallery as part of Diversabilities, a month-long celebration featuring actors, musicians and artists who are on the autism spectrum. Kermon is the featured artist, and her contributions – sculptures displayed alongside photo portraits by FRANK Gallery outreach coordinator Barbara Tyroler, and paintings at the Carrboro Branch Library – are centerpieces of Diversabilities.

April is Autism Awareness Month. Yet Kermon wonders about the usefulness of such a month – particularly if it doesn’t go beyond lip service. Her work and events like Diversabilities aim to help it mean a little more.

“I think ‘autism awareness’ has become cliché,” Kermon said. “I think most everyone is aware of autism. It has become mainstream, this awareness. Now it is time for it to mean something.”

What’s needed, she said, is an understanding of what makes people like her different and actual inclusion in the greater conversation.

Appropriately, it’s Tyroler’s job at FRANK Gallery to include people who haven’t had the opportunity to show their work. So she brought in Kermon – and challenged her to try new artistic directions. The partnership of Tyroler’s photography and Kermon’s sculptures, for instance, has been equal parts intimidating and exciting, Kermon said.

“The fact that it will be a dialogue between myself and Barbara, captured in two dimensions, beautifully parallels the reality of autism as I see it,” she added, “combining both an inside and an outside view.”

A welcoming

“What’s different about Diversabilities is this is more a sense of celebration and a welcoming,” says Deborah Zuver, director of advocacy initiatives at Carolina Institute of Developmental Disabilities.

Too often, Zuver said, people on the autism spectrum are relegated to the fringe, or their challenges are highlighted rather than their abilities – or their remarkable variety.

For Kermon, it’s an exciting exhibit and an exciting time.

“My life has been defined by artwork of some form, more often than not by the absence of it,” she said. The future, though, may be rich with it.


Meet Marian Kaslovsky

Marian Kaslovsky is the coordinator of the Adapted Recreation and Inclusion Program in the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department. She also is a board member of the Autism Society of North Carolina, Orange-Chatham chapter.

Q: What do you do?

A: We do some specialized programs as well as inclusion support, and 90 to 95 percent of the people I support are on the autism spectrum. Just by the nature of autism, there’s a lot of people who can’t deal with large crowds and a ton of waiting time within an event, so we try to tighten them up, keep them small, and let people know in advance what to expect.

Q: How do you keep them from feeling crowded or from having wait times?

A: When you plan well in advance you have all your supplies right there, so you’re not scrambling for things. Some of the activities we have have eight to 10 people in them maximum.

Q: Tell me about the aquatic therapy that you do?

A: The Adapted Aquatics class – if you have one instructor talking a whole group, with all the noise at the pool, a lot of kids with Autism can’t focus, so we provide an instructor, but also a volunteer who works one-on-one with each of the kids. I’ve had kids who were afraid of the water at the beginning ending up on their schools’ swim teams – and beyond. It might take a while, but it does happen.

Q: What are some other adapted recreations that you have?

A: We have a Friday fun night once a month – it’s usually the first Friday of the month – for families. A lot of families that have a child with disabilities can never do anything with all of their kids. Some of the siblings of kids with disabilities can meet the siblings of other kids with disabilities and realize that they are not alone.

Speaking of siblings, we also run a Sibshop. It’s a national program for kids with siblings with disabilities where, again, they get to know each other and they learn that they’re not the only ones who feel embarrassed or might feel angry the moment the focus is on the kid with disabilities. We teach them about disabilities as well. In May we have Bikeabilities, a bike-riding clinic for kids with special needs and their siblings. They can learn; they can try adaptive bikes. We have a drama therapist who does a class called “Acting is Awesome,” which is sort of improvisational theater where they take the lead.

Correspondent Corbie Hill

If you go

April 7-May 3: FRANK Community Outreach Gallery Presents Art Therapy Institute “Reflections” Exhibition with a reception from 2-4 p.m. Sunday at FRANK Gallery, 109 E Franklin St., Chapel Hill.

April 18 at 2:30 p.m.: Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation’s Adapted Recreation and Inclusion program presents “The Social Group,” short film and discussion, Chapel Hill Library, 100 Library Drive.

April 2-June 14: “Diversability” reception/meet the artists, 2-4:30 p.m. April 19 with Susan Kermon, Steve Hockenyos and Michael Buxton, at Carrboro Branch Library, 900 Fayetteville Road.

April 21: Dine 4 Autism, an all-day benefit for the Triangle Autism Society of North Carolina chapters. For participating restaurants go to