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‘What we’ve been through is a gift’

Amy Barton uses pencil artwork to tell autistic son’s story.

CHRISTINE HARKINSON/The Sun: Luke Barton and his mother Amy hold an original piece of her artwork made of pencils like the ones he made a habit of breaking. The Moorestown youth was diagnosed with autism in 2016, but finds comfort in the pressure of snapping the pencils in half.

Moorestown resident Amy Barton noticed something different about her son Luke’s laundry – she kept discovering broken pencils in his pockets.

“I took broken pencils out of Luke’s pockets, and I had been doing that for months basically,” the artist recalled. “I noticed like, ‘Okay, every single time I do the wash there’s broken pencils everywhere and they’re all in his backpack and they’re (on) the floor of his bedroom.’ And it just hit me that that was so unusual.”

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That was in 2016. Luke was diagnosed with autism as a young teen, what his mother described as a challenging time in a family that included Luke’s grandparents Renee and Wayne Slaughter, sisters Juliet and Cali, father Jeff, step-siblings Alec and Rebecca Vidal and stepfather Ed Vidal.

“I really strongly sensed that Luke might be on the autism spectrum because of some of the behaviors, but I didn’t know really much of anything about it,” Amy said. “So we were having a lot of frustration as a family. Suddenly it just hit me, ‘Oh, he’s breaking all of these pencils.’”

The habit ended up helping her son.

“It’s a sensory input that (it) felt really satisfying to break them,” Amy explained, “and then of course he was struggling with being able to express himself over some social things that were bothering him.”

“ (If) he felt anger about anything, he would break pencils.”

Amy came across a mixed media painting one day that her uncle Joe McAleer had produced decades before: It featured pencils like the ones from Luke’s laundry.

“It hit me like a brick,” Amy recounted. “It hit me so hard, because I had been painting by that point for 20 plus years, that somehow or another, together, I could use his material, his pencils, and my passion for creating art to just try to express myself about how hard this time was.”

“ … I just had the epiphany right then and there that I was going to put his broken pencils into some kind  of piece of art,” she added. “And it just came to me so easily at that point.”

Amy also incorporates items such as broken pieces of electronics and iPhone connectors in her work.

CHRISTINE HARKINSON/The Sun: Luke Barton holds a collection of pencils he broke that his mom Amy has collected over the years and uses in her artwork.

“Part of what is the biggest challenge with people that experience and live with autism is not being able to connect easily,” she noted, “not being able to express yourself easily, not being able to find the words.”

“Some people with autism are extremely verbal, like Luke, and some people are completely nonverbal.”

After Luke’s diagnosis, Amy used her artwork to share his journey with others.

“ … All of this was happening like a gigantic storm and there were plenty of explosive moments and difficult times,” she said. “And it was a lot to go through as a family. It was very hard.”

“The painting and his pencils gave me an outlet to kind of just start telling his story,” Amy added, “and it’s the story about, basically, everyone’s a little bit broken in different ways, and that you can make something beautiful out of it.” 

“You can make something whole out of it again.”

Amy previously submitted her artwork into a show hosted by MoorArts, a nonprofit that supports the fine and performing arts in Moorestown. She first shared her story with The Sun in 2017.

“The number of people that came to us after that first article came out, we could never have dreamed what would happen,” she said. “So many people wrote to us … These are heart-wrenching stories from people that are so frustrated and stuck and scared.”

“They’re either scared of the diagnosis (or) they’re scared of not having the diagnosis.”

Amy emphasized that by dealing with uncertain difficulties, she, Luke and their family continue to celebrate positivity.

“There’s such a freedom in being yourself, and it takes some people their entire adult life to get there,” she observed. “I realize that what we’ve been through is a gift, truly, because we found incredible people in our community who are our friends.”

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