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Art is communication for Western Tech special education student

Paul Sebsibe is doing what he does best.

He's drawing a picture of what he sees around him across a sheet of paper.

For the 11th-grader at the Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, verbal communication is a challenge.

His parents, Sebsibe Gebremariam and Bezunesh Tadesse, were born in Ethiopia and have limited command of English.

Sebsibe, 19, who has lived in Catonsville his entire life with his parents, has an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a term that includes a range of disorders on the autism spectrum such as Asperger's and Rett syndrome. The developmental disability affects 1 in 42 boys, according to Autismspeaks.org.

"I think whatever is going on in his head, because he can't verbally get it out to us — it's coming out in his art," said Jen Matu, a special education teacher at Western, who has taught him for the past four years in high school.

Matu said Sebsibe has been drawing since he was in elementary school.

"He used to draw all over the walls of his house, but he learned he can get paper to draw on any time he wants," Matu said.

His drawings, marked by distinct abstract shapes and patterns, may appear random and loosely structured.

But Matu said that in looking closely at the drawings, the letters of his name can be found embedded in the lines and shapes.

He's drawing pictures of the world he sees around him, Matu said.

"It's coming from him. It's him saying, 'Hey, this is who I am.' " Matu said.

Six of his drawings hang on display in the hallway near the special education classroom at the school on Kenwood Avenue.

But earlier this year, his work was seen by a much wider audience.

Jesse Dortzbach, chairman of the Visual and Performing Arts Department at the school, selected works by sophomore Kyle Oggle, senior Temi Kolawold and Sebsibe to represent Western in the 5th annual Towson Arts Collective Young Artists Showcase.

His artwork was a first-place winner in the drawing category that included entries from 44 high schools in Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

Students were from general education as well as special education classes. Sebsibe was the first to win in the drawing category from Western Tech, according to Erin Hancock, chairwoman of special education at Western Tech.

"The fact that he won this prize and the judges had no idea he was in special education is really significant," Hancock said. "It really sets a new standard for the students and I think it makes everyone realize that we need to make sure that these students are acknowledged, too."

He is part of the Communication and Learning Support (CLS) program at the school. The program offers a highly structured learning environment that uses visually-based strategies with an emphasis on the development of language and social skills and the use of sensory processing techniques, according to Baltimore County Public Schools information.

Teachers work with the students on an individual basis to provide the structure and environment to accomplish goals set by their teachers. If that structure and predictability is disrupted, as when, for example, a reporter visits the school, it's hard for students to maintain their focus, Hancock said.

Hancock said a predictable environment is very important for the students because it allows them to remain "calm throughout the day so they can focus on bigger goals."

One of the goals they've set for Sebsibe is to communicate using words more often. As with many ASD students, Sebsibe has difficulty talking and can only verbalize in a few words.

"We've seen improvement," Hancock said. "And with all of the positive reinforcement he's getting from the artwork ... he realizes he's getting attention ... which makes him want to try harder."

Hancock said one of the department's goals is to integrate the special education students with other kids at the school.

"Students and staff members at the school recognize a student they might not see very often. So the goal for our students is to mainstream them as much as we can with their nondisabled peers, " Hancock said.

Other students have asked about his drawings and he's had more contact with other faculty members at the school, Hancock said.

Russell Hite, one of his teachers, said the recognition for his student's artwork has had an effect.

"I think he enjoys getting the attention and the positive feedback," Hite said.

Using art is among several tools those with ASD use, said Rita Platte, a therapist at the Lighthouse Youth and Family Counseling Center, which offers social skills groups for ages 6-12 with developmental issues in Catonsville.

"They focus on that one thing," she said. "For him to communicate through art, that's a wonderful thing."

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