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Painting Series by Jean-Sebastien Choo, Self-taught Autistic Artist #20—That Happy Place

by Choo Kah Ying

In a recent conversation with a newfound friend about my posts on my autistic son, Sebastien, I commented casually that writing and thinking about Sebastien living in Bali is my "happy place". But my casualness belies the importance of this "happy place" to me. The truth of the matter is, amidst all that is going wrong with this world—climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic that has prevented me from visiting Sebastien in person in 20 months, writing these posts that transport me to Sebastien's "Bali Bubble", where he is experiencing a one-of-a-kind transition towards increasing well-being, is my escape and refuge.

His transformation is a kind of progress that can elude most people's attention. The clues can be right before your eyes, but if you fail to grasp their significance, they will slip past you easily. One example is this photograph of Sebastien sipping coconut water. What's so remarkable? Well, the easily anxious Sebastien I once knew would not have been willing to try coconut water or sip it out of a coconut (not a usual receptacle for a beverage). This small combination of "firsts", based on the utter lack of familiarity, would have been too stressful back then. The fact that he was doing so happily—an utter non-event—is a testament to the remarkable nature of this progress.

Take another food example. It actually took me several weeks to realise that Sebastien's fortnightly preparation and consumption of a pizza covered with chicken, lettuce, carrots, and red peppers was a big leap. I had been so caught up by his happy grins working next to my carer's wife and the airs of a chef he had taken on in doing his maneuvers that the momentousness of the change in his palate had eluded my attention. The thing is that Sebastien was once a "pizza purist": he ate pepperoni and cheese pizza with a little bit of tomato sauce. He was so pernickety about the tomato sauce that additional napkins would need to be left on the side for him wipe off any "excess" tomato sauce. The fact that he would be willing to have his pizza covered with lettuce and carrots (two vegetables he ate, but not on a pizza), not to mention red peppers (an additional vegetable that I didn't even know that he had come to eat), signaled a change that I almost took for granted!

Sebastien's expanded food choices may not seem like much to people in the neurotypical world unless they have fastidious eaters in their lives. But ask any caregivers of autistic individuals and they may appreciate the significance. For they testify to Sebastien's shedding of rigidities and increasing openness to suggestions from my carers about different types of foods.

Essentially, this change in Sebastien's palate is about so much more than food. Rather, it is part and parcel of a less anxious and thus more flexible Sebastien who was able to adapt to the first-time situation of embarking on a one-week holiday with his carers and then adjusting to his new environment and routine very comfortably.

And then, despite my slight concern that Sebastien could be upset about returning to the villa after such a relaxing holiday (as had happened with commonly with Jerome and me in the past), he did not kick up a fuss. The photo of him sipping the coconut water was actually preceded by one in which he seemed to be sitting in a meditative pose while his carers were purchasing coconut drinks, on their drive back.


Once upon a time, Sebastien's constant meltdowns during his adolescence would break my day. These days, Sebastien's amazing and steady progress in his "Bali bubble" is the flame of hope that makes my heavy heart, weighed down by these troubled times, sing. For it offers an affirmation of my faith that if we can figure out how to take the right actions, challenging things can turn around for the better.

In Sebastien's case, we have learned that treating autistic individuals with love and respect, instead of imposing our mainstream agenda on them (for their own good), holds the key to bringing forth the kind of joy that we neurotypical individuals cannot imagine. This is particularly the case with non-verbal autistic individuals whose experience of our environment and connections are not accessible to most of us who only speak formal languages. It is my hope that other parents and professionals can also come to help their autistic loved ones and recognise the significance of that happy place.

Thus, I have decided to call this painting, with its golden glow radiating amidst the encroaching darkness, "That Happy Place".

(That Happy Place, 12 x 9 in, water color and poster color, canvas panel, SGD140 + shipping)

I hope that this painting will also evoke your very own "happy place" too!


To support Sebastien in his artistic pursuits and his life in Bali, as well as A Mother's Wish's mission of advocating for non-verbal autistic individuals:

Digital versions of Sebastien’s art for Patreon sponsors and epubs with insights about his artistic life: (you can support his existence for as little as USD5/month!)

Thank you so much!


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