Cape Town – It started with a drawing of an elephant by the then 5-year old, autistic Shane Dennis.
Since then his artistic talent has developed into drawing multiple characters from an imaginative world of animals, now used in the design of a range of bags, backpacks, pencil cases, stainless steel cutlery and even a colouring book.
Shane, who lives in Rustenburg in Joburg, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at 3.
“Shane was 5 when he started to write words. He always watched movies with English subtitles and started to associate the sounds with the spelling,” says his father Ronald Dennis.
“The first thing he wrote in class was ‘Walt Disney Pictures present Finding Nemo’, in exactly the same font as in the movie on a blackboard. He wrote ‘EXIT’ with chalk on the carpet.
“After that he started to write words and make basic drawings of animals, his first animal drawing was of an elephant. It never stopped,” says Dennis.
Twelve years later it has translated into the creation of animals, trains and other characters – evidence of a unique, creative imagination – and the range of goods promoted under the name “aspeciali”.
Shane, now 17, is in his final year at the Unica School for Autism in Pretoria and lives in the school hostel.
Dennis says when Shane was diagnosed with autism they went through different emotions.
“We were shocked, scared, heartbroken, surprised, angry… but also relieved to get a diagnosis in order to move on from somewhere.
“This diagnosis made it possible for us to do the next thing, it was a place to start, somewhere to work from to make it better for Shane,” he says.
He explains that Shane was a very sickly baby.
“He reached all his milestones at the right time, but struggled with continuous ear infections and tonsillitis. He would start to say up to five words and after getting sick he would lose them.
“This also applied to his eating habits. We would start to introduce solid foods to his diet, he would get sick and then we had to start from scratch,” says Dennis.
“We also noticed that he preferred to play alone. He loved to play with animals, especially elephants. Growing up he loved books and movies with zoo, circus and ‘Noah’s Ark’ themes.
“He played with plastic animals that he placed in rows, two by two, throughout the house.
“He loves trains and Thomas the Tank Engine is a big favourite.”
Dennis explains that Shane has very limited speech and mainly communicates through his drawings and words written on paper. When he is at home, he enjoys swimming and shopping for stationary.
“Shane draws every day. He uses a lot of paper and pens. He loves to draw on white A4 paper with a black pen, occasionally he will pick a blue, red or green pen.
“He makes strong line drawings of elephant, giraffe, lion, and other animals. His art has developed from a single animal per page into multiple animals and trains,” he says.
“He draws stories with animal characters. Shane has a lovely, quirky sense of humour, and uses expressions and scenarios that make you want to appreciate his art,” says Dennis.
When Joburg-based Susan Slee-de Villiers of Maneki, a functional art and gifts range, came across a placemat with Shane’s art on it, she knew there was a special person behind the drawing. She approached Shane’s family about how his artwork could be used to create a livelihood for him, while raising awareness about autism.
“His drawings are so perfect and bold, he is an absolute genius. The way he draws the animals showcases his sense of humour.
“His technique of drawing neat and prominent lines makes it easy for us to reproduce the images,” says Slee-de Villiers.
“Seeing his creations has given a lot of people hope, especially parents with autistic children. This is just the beginning, we are planning to create a lot more products with his artwork,” says Slee-de Villiers.
We met Slee-de Villiers at the Ma se Kinners kids store in Church Street in the city centre where they stock the “aspeciali” brand.
The specialised kids retail store is a beautifully decorated space that sells anything from cushions to custom-made monkeys.
Owner Evert Erasmus says the concept store was designed with working parents in mind.
“We wanted to create a space where parents can sit and work or have a cup of tea while the kids are doing their shopping,” he says. All products are sourced locally and are mostly handcrafted.
A percentage of each “aspeciali” sale goes to the Shane Dennis Trust and is used to further his interest in art, his education, and to raise awareness about autism.
Dennis says that it’s important for parents to get professional help as soon as they suspect there may be something wrong with their child.
“Early intervention is very important. Do not lose hope or feel helpless, there are people who can help and want to help you. Do not be afraid to ask questions or for help. Never give up, your child needs you,” he urged.
* For stocklistings in Joburg and Pretoria, contact Susan Slee-de Villiers at [email protected]
* For more information about autism, call Autism Western Cape on 021 685 9581 or its 24-hour emergency service on 072 779 9726.