Manitoba·Point of View

A doctor said our daughter would never speak — but her 'word art' has connected with thousands

When you have a child with special needs, you redefine words like "never" and "impossible."

Raising a child with special needs has taught Brenda Halprin to redefine 'impossible'

Melanie Halprin, who has autism and is functionally non-verbal, expresses herself in her art. Here, she holds one of her 'word art' pieces. Her work has been featured on greeting cards and in art shows, including one in Amsterdam seen by thousands of visitors. (Submitted by Brenda Halprin)

When you have a child with special needs, you redefine words like "never" and "impossible." 

When our daughter Melanie was born, she was perfect in every way and we were thrilled to be the parents of this beautiful baby girl.

But when she was a child, a doctor told us that she would likely never speak.

Yet now, she creates artwork using words that's been seen by thousands of people.

During the first year of her life, we noticed that she was reacting to certain colours, foods and sounds by gagging or vomiting, which was certainly shocking. We were surprised to see that our daughter could gag and vomit by just looking at certain things.

This was the beginning of our journey of learning to hear everything that is not being said with words.

Melanie has always enjoyed making art, branching out from her word art collages into paintings of flowers and glass fusion pieces. (Submitted by Brenda Halprin)

Melanie has many challenges. She lives under the umbrella of autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, hypothyroidism and last year, another diagnosis —​ Crohn's disease.

Although Melanie can echo language, she is functionally non-verbal.  One doctor told us if Melanie didn't talk by the time she was six years old, "she isn't going to talk."

However, as the years went by, we learned that her mind was a camera, hard-wiring every word that she heard and saw in print into her brain.

Melanie memorized words from her speech device, close-captioned TV and words in the environment, as well as by listening to people's conversations.

Melanie learned how to swear — who knew? When she was around 10 years old, she called me a "bitch" when I denied a request.

I was shocked. I looked at my daughter and said, "It's too cold to go to the beach today!" If looks could kill, I would have been vaporized. My daughter thinks I'm the dumbest person she ever met.

Discovering 'word art'

In dealing with Melanie's challenging medical issues and behaviours, my husband, Phil, and I created a bubble of protection around her. We secluded ourselves from many family occasions, both happy and sad, as well as many community events. It was easier to hide in our bubble than it was to manage in the mainstream world. 

In that "bubble," though, art activities were always a way to keep Melanie busy and something she has always enjoyed.

Over time, as her development progressed, she started calling out words she had memorized for her father and I to write down on paper for her.

We always knew Melanie knew a lot more than she let on. One day, she got mad at her dad when he misspelled "Sesame Street." Turns out she can spell better than her dad.

On another day, we got busy when Melanie wanted to do her word activity. Phil and I got distracted (lousy room service). So Melanie figured if her parents weren't going to write, she would just have to do it herself.

Melanie holds another of her art pieces. She started making the collages when she got tired of waiting for her parents to write words out for her — and decided to do it herself. (Submitted by Brenda Halprin)

Eventually, we discovered a sheet of paper full of printed words. Melanie got tired of waiting for us and did it herself, which is what she's done from that day onward, making her own "word art" — colourful collages of words she prints on poster board.

I remember the first time we met Melanie's behaviour therapist. We showed her a page of Melanie's printed words. The therapist looked at the word sheet for a few minutes and then said, "Well Brenda, anybody that uses punctuation can certainly learn to behave themselves."

When we thought about that, it carried a lot of weight. Yes, Melanie's printed word pictures have punctuation, and Melanie did learn to behave herself!

An audience in Amsterdam

Melanie kept making art, branching out into paintings of flowers and designing glass fusion pieces in addition to her word collages.

When Melanie was a teenager, a friend of ours ask us if we would consider scanning Melanie's flowers and word art onto blank gift cards. Our friend said that if we did that, they would buy Melanie art cards. A few months went by and we eventually decided to have the cards printed. 

A friend of ours sent one of Melanie's word art cards to a friend who lived in Amsterdam. An artist-in-residence at an art institute in Amsterdam was visiting the "mutual" friend. The artist, Justin, sent a message asking if he could purchase an original word art poster and how much Melanie would charge him.

In addition to word art and paintings, Melanie makes designs glass fusion pieces like this. (Submitted by Brenda Halprin)

When we received this message we were stunned. After all, what do you charge for words that free-flow out of our autistic daughter's mind onto Dollar Store poster board? Keep in mind, the artist in Amsterdam didn't know that Melanie was non-verbal and had autism.

What did we decide? Nothing! We were too shocked and we lived a life in a bubble to protect Melanie from the outside world. After all, we were just keeping Melanie busy at home, telling her it's time to print words.

Three months later we heard from Justin in Amsterdam again. The art institute was having its annual art exhibition and he wanted to show two pieces of Melanie's art in his studio, alongside his work. He promised us if we sent him her art, he would return it.

This time, we Googled the art institute to make sure this was for real, and then we believed him. We mailed posters to Justin in Amsterdam. 

He framed and showed two pieces of Melanie's art in his studio for that exhibition. We read that 7,000 people attended that art show. 

'Impossible' is just an opinion

Melanie is an "outsider artist." She is untrained and does art by herself for herself. She loves creating her art. She also loves compliments, but is not concerned with the finished product at all. The fact we enjoy what she creates is a lovely surprise. She doesn't care.

The truth is that Melanie is very annoyed if we try to take her picture or videotape her working. She will smile for a second, and then yell at us. Melanie has trained us not to bother her when she is creating. Of course, not bothering Melanie is a work in progress for her parents.

That's not all we've learned from her. Raising Melanie has made us better people in many ways.

Melanie's art 'has given us tremendous insight into her mind and the things that are important to her,' says Brenda Halprin. (Submitted by Brenda Halprin)

It takes a village to raise one child. It certainly takes a village to raise one person with special needs and a large support network of teachers, teacher's aides, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, respite workers and adult day-program workers. Melanie is the amazing person she is today because of all the support she receives from so many people.

Our family is participating in life in a much bigger way than we could have dreamt possible, and we are grateful to Melanie's special community for coming and getting us out of our bubble.   

By observing Melanie's behaviour, we've learned that there is a reason for every behaviour. Through her printed words, she has given us tremendous insight into her mind and the things that are important to her.

And we've learned to never say never — because "impossible" is just an opinion.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Brenda Halprin lives in Winnipeg and has been married to Philip for 32 years. They have two adult children. Brenda has presented to several groups over the years about the impact of non-verbal communication in autistic people.


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