In 1998 my youngest brother, Kelton, was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disability that affects communication and social interaction. Autism currently affects 1/88 people in the United States. Kelton is a talented individual who runs cross-country and track, wrestles, plays the drums, loves history, and collects bobble heads and keychains.

This year Kelton decided to enroll in his first art class where he discovered his skill for drawing. His unorthodox style made me reconsider my artwork and examine the differences and similarities that exist between our perspectives. According to Paul Collins’ Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, artists are four times more likely to have autism in their families. Considering the number of artists in my family, this statistic made me question the similarities that exist between Kelton and me. For this reason, we have decided to draw one of his 6,481 keychains a day for one year. These drawings will be as simple and uninhibited as possible. This project will explore our individual perspectives and examine the similarities that exist between us as artists.

Day 365

Kelt's Dream Poster, inspired by Justin Canha's

From this project I learned that I'm really good at art. I like drawing the most, especially things from my mind. I also want to be in more shows. I like talking to people about my drawings. Many autistic people are good at art. I want to be famous and somehow put art and history together. -Kelt

Day 364

For the rest of the project I'm going to have a few
people in Kelt's life write guest posts. This entry is by our dad.

It’s not hyperbole to say I’ve had a thousand unusual experiences in checkout lines with Kelton over the last dozen or so years. He and I often travel together to stores to purchase things we think we need. There have been the best and worst of times at the checkout line; that’s an understatement. Some were maddening, others humorous, some revealing, others sad, and many surprising, and thirty or forty, downright embarrassing. I’ll never forget the man Kelton told that he stank like fish; he did, too. I can honestly say that I have felt the full gamut of emotions in checkout lines. I could write a novella and it would be called “Checking Out with Kelton,” with the subtitle “Not for the Faint of Heart.” If I really pondered the subject, it would turn into a Stephen-King-size novel, with just some elements of horror. Many experiences I’ve forgotten, only occasionally to have some event trigger the memory. Other experiences I would like to forget. But there are some encounters I often recall with an internal smile. Would I trade in all those experiences for a normal checkout life? No.

We all wait in checkout lines; most of us quietly move forward until it is time to pay; maybe a few remarks to the cashier or the box boy or even to those immediately near; for the most part people keep to themselves. Not Kelton. If the line is long and slow, Kelton doesn’t hesitate to begin the inquisition. “Where did you graduate? What sports were you in? Do you know ‘so-and-so’? Did you know that my dad looks like Nathan Blueberg from Nooksack? Yaah, I collect key chains. I have 6,481. Do you collect anything? We have the worst football team. Did you know” . . .

I used to try to discourage him from talking or questioning strangers. Not any more. It is futile. Now, I go with the flow; try to enjoy the ride. It’s a challenge that requires a special set of skills that I have developed over the years, but mostly it’s falling into a hypnotic state and having a sort of “out-of-body” experience while remembering the details of using a debit card.

When there are multiple checkout lines, ours is often the most colorful. Once in a while, I can’t help sensing there is some “checkout-line envy” in the neighboring lines. I’ve come to appreciate “good” checkout banter, even if it is mostly by one enthusiastic young man. There is the benefit of being in line again with the same purchasers: “Don’t you collect key chains?”

“Yes, how did you know? Do I know you?”

“You told me last time we were here. We were in the same line.”

“Oh. I collect bobble heads, too.”


Then it begins again.

I’ll just tell one story, mostly in its entirety. We were in a crowded Costco. In line of course. There were many lines and they were all long. Why I picked the line I did; I don’t know. I often pick the slowest even when it appears the shortest; it’s an uncanny knack I have. The usual was occurring: “I collect key chains? What school did you graduate from? Do you know” . . . Before we got to the front of the line, just two or three ahead, I saw that the cashier had only one arm. Instead of a full arm on his right, from the elbow down was a black, leather arm with a pinching hook on the end. It was unusual to say the least. I knew what was going to happen, but there was no turning back. We were next.

“What happened to your arm?” were the next words I heard stinging my ears as I tried to use the debit machine faster than I ever had.

“It got blown off from some fireworks. They went off before I knew it.” Everyone was silent in line as the boy and man spoke to each other.

“That’s too bad, but your black arm looks really cool!”

The cashier smiled and his tone was different, softer, and his expression sincere and maybe with some relief. He said, “Thank you.”

“Bye,” Kelton said.

“Bye,” he said.

We hurriedly left. I could only think to say as we approached our car, “you should always be careful with fireworks, Kelt.”

“Of course, dad, I know that.”

Day 363

For the rest of the project I'm going to have a few people in
Kelt's life write guest posts. This entry is by our sister Kenzi.

I thought my dad was joking when he told me I was going to be Kelton's new aid at Whatcom Community College. I realized that he was being serious after attending orientation. As a recent Washington State University graduate, I was not exactly thrilled with the idea of spending my first year in the real world at community college.

It was a difficult process finding classes and programs that would work best for Kelt. After hours of research, tests, phone calls and meetings, my family realized that he would need an aid to be successful. We went back and forth between my mom and I, but finally decided it would seem more normal if I was the aid rather then his Mommy!

The first day of school Kelt introduced me as his personal secretary; last week he announced during math class that my breath smelled like grass; and in weight training he continues to tell everyone that I'm weak and can only do one pull-up. Being his personal secretary and sister can be unpredictable and nerve-racking, making it hard to decipher my role (sister or aid). Through this experience I have realized more then ever that I need to let him be himself. It’s important that people accept him for who he is.

If you were to ask Kelt about college, he would tell you that he's having fun and loves seeing people he knows. I'm happy that I'm helping my family and that Kelt gets to experience college. We've been going to Whatcom for four weeks and each day continues to be exciting. Wish us luck for the rest of the quarter!

Day 362

Prom 2010

Tacoma Dome, state tournament, 2011

For the rest of the project I'm going to have a few people in
Kelt's life write guest posts. This entry is by our brother Camden.

Growing up with Kelton gave me a different perspective on life. Early on I realized that I had opportunities that he never would, no matter how hard he tried, which made me work harder in sports and school to make up for everything that he would never get to do.

I loved having Kelt in high school, even though it meant watching him on sport trips, mediating school problems, and helping him with homework. Sometimes I didn't get to experience the same things as other kids; while my friends were drinking before prom, I was watching Kelt to make sure he was acting the right way and having a good time.

I love all of his stories, even though sometimes they drive me crazy. Overall he makes me laugh more than anyone I know. My friends liked having him in school because he had a great sense of humor. There weren't too many times that I had to stand up for him because most people were understanding and enjoyed his company. There were a few times that I had to say something, and when I did, my intentions were clear. Those people soon realized that he deserved the same treatment as everyone else.

I also felt like he looked up to me when it came to sports and grades, so I wanted to try as hard as I possibly could. I once said, "I would give up my 3rd place state wrestling medal for Kelt if it meant that he could compete in the state tournament." Beyond everyone's expectations, he ended up going to state and proved that anyone can accomplish their dreams if they're determined. He never made me feel left out. If anything he's helped me connect with a larger group of people and made me appreciate every little thing. I love my brother and will always be there for him. Kelton is the most inspiring, fun, and random person that I know and he will do great things, even though he was given these struggles.

Day 361

For the rest of the project I'm going to have a few people in

Kelt's life write guest posts. This entry is by my friend Zach.

About half a year ago Ainsley and Kenzi introduced me to Kelton. Before then I only knew a handful of things about him. Throughout the years I've learned from their stories that Kelt was hilarious, social, caring, easy to love, and easy to be loved by. Still having little knowledge of autism at the time, I had no idea how meeting him was going to turn out. All bets were off!

Within a minute of meeting Kelt he gave me the nickname of Joey, which has stuck ever since. He says I look a lot like one of his high school friends with the name... that's right, JOOOOEEEY! The name grew on me fast. It actually catches me off guard when he calls me by my real name.

Since that day Kelt has been nothing less than a good friend. He can bring a smile to my face even when it's not intentional. His positive outlook and attitude is refreshing every time I see him. Although our friendship is fairly new, I'm excited to have the opportunity to learn more about him and how he operates in years to come.

Thanks Kelt!

Day 360

Justin and his family: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Justin with girlfriend Paloma: Andrea Morales/The New York Times

Justin working at Gencarelli's Bakery in Bloomfield, NJ.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Justin's composition book: Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Justin Canha: Mother and Child 3

I recently read the article Autistic and Seeking a Place in an Adult World in the New York Times. Justin Canha, a 22-year-old artist from NJ, has successfully found work, friends, and a girlfriend despite his struggles with autism. Through his family and transition teacher, Kate Stanton-Paule, he’s developed social, vocational, and sensory strategies to cope with the overwhelming rules of our society.

Canha started drawing as a young child as a form of communication. From there he started filling his composition books with miniature cartoon characters and used art to complete school assignments. In 2008 the Ricco Maresca Gallery in NYC sold 12 of his paintings at the Outsider Art Fair, some for as much as $4,000! With such early success, his family started thinking about a future in art. After his senior year, he started the 18-21 transition curriculum at Montclair High, which was a progressive post-secondary program that emphasized community interaction. He volunteered at a library, animal shelter, and elementary school and eventually got an internship at an animation studio, Nightstand Creations. After the internship he started working at a bakery and currently works in an art store. He hasn’t become a famous animator-illustrator yet, but continues to draw and paint until he reaches that goal.

Day 358

"I was in 3rd grade when 9/11 happened. My Mom was sad that day. I was watching Ed, Edd n Eddy in the morning when I found out. That day was really important for me because that's when I learned that people could die." -Kelt

Day 357

For the rest of the project I'm going to have a few people in Kelt's life
write guest posts. This entry is by our Mom about Kelt's first day of college.

Today Kelton was tested in math and English at Whatcom Community College through the Adult Basic Education Program. The instructors told him that no one fails; the school just wanted to determine his academic level, but I knew that he had to have a minimum score to be accepted into the program. He ended up barely meeting the requirements and passed at the lowest level.

Before the test I felt negative about Kelton attending the community college because I didn't think it was the best way for us to use our time. My husband was being the positive one, which is a role reversal for us. I felt less anxious after Kelton passed the test, we went through orientation, registered for his two classes, and paid our $25 quarter fee. Once this process was over I realized that my concerns came from the fear that he wouldn't meet the course requirements and be disappointed that he couldn't take any academic courses at the college. Even though these classes aren't for credit, he doesn't know that and will feel like he's in college.

So our new adventure with Kelton begins and hopefully it's a positive one. There are always obstacles we have to overcome.

Day 356

For the rest of the project I'm going to have a few

people in Kelt's life write guest posts. This entry is by our grandma.

I'm Kelton’s grandmother and would like to add a little story to his blog.

Kelton loves history – any history, whether it be famous people, wars, or just history in general. Could he be on Jeopardy? I think so. He's smart! To help himself with history he has developed a special way to learn the facts that interest him. He reads each paragraph in his books and rewrites them in a journal. Yes, he rewrites them! This takes many hours and lots of patience by his parents and siblings because he asks numerous questions about the words he doesn’t understand. Also, he's not satisfied with just any answer. It may take several inquiries before he gets the answer he thinks is suitable. He uses the computer dictionary, but is not satisfied with just any answer because he wants to understand what he's reading. I don’t know if there's a word that fully describes his passion for history, but to give you an idea, he has rewritten 16 journals of history facts.

Kelton would like to be a historian someday. Webster describes a historian as “a student or writer of history, one that produces a scholarly synthesis.” Of course I'm bias, but I think he's already a historian and will continue to write and improve. He's attending community college and I hope that his studies will include more history and, yes, he will get an A in the course!

We love you Kelton,

Grandma and Grandpa