Girl in Action Amanda LaMunyon: We All Have a Gift to Give
These are the words of Amanda LaMunyon, a" 16-year-old girl with Asperger's Syndrome." Despite the" challenges she faces, LaMunyon doesn't let Asperger's stop her from sharing her skills to help others. In fact," through her generosity, talents in the arts, and a website where she sells prints of her paintings, LaMunyon raises awareness for children's health issues and autism foundations. LaMunyon shares her artistic and singing talents at numerous events for such organizations as Children's Miracle Network, Children's Medical Research Foundation, and Autism Speaks. Amanda will be a keynote speaker on April 2, 2012 for Strokes of Genius at the United Nations Plaza in New York. Amanda was awarded the Kohl's Kids Who Care award and scholarship. Since her diagnosis in the first grade, LaMunyon has realized that her story can help make a difference. She spoke with Teen Voices editorial art intern Erika Swift and told us how one girl's life can touch the lives of many.
Teen Voices (TV): Could you provide our readers with some general information about autism? What is Asperger's syndrome?
Amanda LaMunyon (AL): Asperger's is categorized as a neurological disorder, but I think of it as more of a difference, not a disability. It is usually noticed at about age three, but doctors say they cannot properly diagnose it until about age five because Asperger's children are commonly misdiagnosed as ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). Symptoms vary, so two people with Asperger's may not have the exact same symptoms. Usually people with Asperger's will have a very hard time relating to others. It doesn't mean they avoid social contact, but they lack the instinct and the skills to help them express thoughts, and may sometimes interrupt conversations thinking that they are speaking at the right time. I have that problem sometimes. Sometimes people with Asperger's come off as being extremely rude but they don't mean to be. If they think they are boring [someone], they think they should talk louder to be more interesting. Like for me, whenever there is a pause, I automatically see that as my cue to cut in. We lack the skills to express our feelings and notice other people's feelingsMost people have that ability, but we have to learn it. Some children with Asperger's might stare at people, for example. Others may not make eye contact. I used to have really bad eye contact. I could not look someone in the eye without being distracted...Some children have speech that is flat or hard to understand. In my case I talk really fastSometimes they have a more formal style of speaking that is advanced for their age, like [using] words you would have to go to the dictionary to find out what they meant.
We also tend to like fixed routines, such as: get up, eat breakfast, go to school, come home, do homework, watch TV. If that pattern is interrupted, it is really, really hard [to deal with]. I think" this is really enhanced for people with Asperger's. A little change can basically ruin their whole day whereas other people can move on. I think also with being a teenager social interaction is a lot harder, but I think hanging out with my good friends has helped me. I think I'm getting better; I'm working on it. I'll never get perfect at everything, but I'm just trying to get as close as I can.
TV: When did you first discover your interest in the arts?
AL: It all started when I was having troubles in school, having to be quiet and not knowing when to speak. Teachers said I knew the rules but did not seem to know how to apply them to myself. My parents took me out of school in the first grade. I could already read and my parents thought maybe I was just bored. But we found out later that it was a lot more than boredom. My mother remembers that I became very sad because I seemed to be in trouble all the time. She tried to find me something to do that could hold my interest and help me to focus. I was seven when we found my art teacher, Lillian Foulks." My parents took a chance and left me with her for two hours with just a canvas and new paints. My mom didn't really think I'd make it that long, but because of Mrs. Foulks's patience with me, I learned how to paint.
I loved painting. Every week, I would go to her house for about two hours and come home with a new piece. She would paint on the canvas next to mine and that's how she taught me. At first, my paintings looked nothing like hers"“mine looked impressionistic and hers looked real. At first I did not think my work was any good, but after my parents gave me a book on Impressionists, I realized it was [good]. I really began to enjoy painting more when other people liked my work. I think that people who knew me and knew the difficulties I had could see that painting was beginning to change my life. I think this gave me a lot more confidence. I also loved to sing, so I began to paint my impressions of songs.
TV: You have just added a new gallery to your website and some of the paintings like "Bubbles, Ribbons and Flowers" and "Records" are quite different from your more observational paintings of animals, landscapes, and people. Did these paintings present a greater level of difficulty?
AL: When you start out doing something you have not done before, it's a little challenging. I wouldn't consider it a great deal more challenging. I just really wanted to break away. It was really fun being able to experiment with these and I think they came out really well.
TV: When did you first discover you wanted to use your artistic talent to help others?
AL: At first I wanted to give my paintings away, but we wanted to keep the actual paintings so I switched to prints. I gave a print to my first grade teacher, Mrs. Brock. She was sick with colon cancer and then she passed away. It was a picture of a winter snow scene...She hung it at her bedside while she was ill and at her funeral they played a clip of her and her daughter singing "Winter Wonderland." She loved that painting so much. [I realized] it brought a lot of relief for people in their final hours of life. I decided to start giving more and more, and that eventually led to me wanting to help use my story of overcoming challenges to help other.
TV: Could you tell us about some of the organizations you have worked with?
AL: Not long after I started painting my impressions, a lady from Abounding Grace Ministries asked if I'd like to show my art and design a song for a benefit for the organizationI was eight years old at the time. Not long after that, KSBI TV voted me one of Oklahoma's five most talented kids and I showed my art on a TV show, which was really cool. After that, the network" asked me to perform and show my art for one of their events. For almost every event from then on, I would donate a card [featuring a piece of my art] for each place setting.
I've been very fortunate to work with many organizations, such as The Lili Claire Foundation. They asked me to sing for a fundraiser in Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas, [which was] scary and exciting all in one. I painted a picture of their daughter who has passed, Lili Claire, and gave it to her parents at the event. I also had the privilege of giving the first lady of Nevada, Dawn Gibbons, a pastel I called "Eagle and Flag."
I have continued to work with Children's Miracle Network and Children's Medical Research Foundation, and I've tried to participate in any event they ask me to do and I always donate some of my art to them. They have blessed me in a lot of ways. I also work with Dr. Rosa Martinez of "The Strokes of Genius" to show my art and to encourage others to make art as well. Through Dr. Rosa in 2008 I was asked to show my art at the United Nations for the Inaugural Celebration of World Autism Awareness Day with Autism Speaks, where I was asked to recite my poem "A Little Secret."" It was totally amazing to be able to share [my art and poetry] with people from all over the world. I would love to participate more with Autism Speaks and I am grateful to have had this opportunity.
TV: How has helping others impacted you as an individual?
AL: It has encouraged me to keep on doing what I do because, well, I bring the sunshine of life to others. This is actually a play on a quote from James M. Barrie. If you do something for someone else, it helps him or her—you've impacted his or her life. Through encouraging people, I'm maybe helping a child to find out what he or she is good at, or helping a child with Asperger's who is having trouble in school. I've gotten letters from kids ranging anywhere from 5 to 12 encouraging me! People I don't even know saying, "Looked at your website; you're an inspiration," or "You've inspired me to do [this]." It's just like...wow!
TV: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
AL: Everyone has struggles in his or her lifeI think that no one is exempt from challenges because no one's perfect. If we were perfect we wouldn't have challenges. Even if someone may seem to you to have everything, they still may have some sort of struggle [you can't see.].
What I have found is that when I look outside of myself to the needs of others, my challenges look really, really tiny. It's all about what you do with your challenges, what you do to help others. God has given everyone something to give and it's what you do with it. I hope people find their gifts to give and I hope I keep having opportunities to help others. It may be just a friendly smile that can make someone's day. It can be just about anything.
To learn more about Amanda LaMunyon, visit: www.amandalamunyon.com/
To learn more about autism or Asperger's syndrome, visit Autism Speaks, or the National Autism Association, and/or look for the article "Girls with Autism" in the upcoming Spring/Summer 2012 issue of our print magazine.
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