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Celebrate Neurodiversity with the STARS of City Honors

March 21, 2022

Artwork by one of the participants of Creative Connection. Photo: Tom Loonan for Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Using guided tours, hands-on art workshops, and discussions, the Albright-Knox’s Creative Connection program partners with groups that provide services for people with disabilities. Through the program, art becomes a vehicle to play and interact, increase sensory awareness, help identify feelings and sensations, and express oneself. For Neurodiversity Celebration Week we wanted to tell you more about just one of those longstanding partnerships: STARS at City Honors in Buffalo.

“This group,” says Karen Duval, the Albright-Knox's Access & Community Programs Coordinator and Interim Director of Learning and Creativity, “I do really love.”

STARS stands for Students with Autism Rising to Success. For over ten years Lauren M. Smith and Sarah DeGrandpre have been teachers in the program, providing a mix of academic instruction and community-based programming. For about six of those years they’ve been bringing students to the Albright-Knox.

Between Smith and DeGrandpre’s classrooms there are usually about a dozen students. Even with a small number, the group makes a big impression. Some are completely nonverbal or have very little communication, Duval notes, while others are happy to chat away. Part of the program at the Albright is to teach students what to expect at a museum: what do you look for? How do you interact with people in that space? But tours of the exhibitions also lead to unexpected discoveries.

“Many of our students have hidden artistic talents we would otherwise not know about,” Smith says.

In the tours, the students begin to focus in on the artwork. Duval likes to keep the discussion open ended, stopping and asking people just to take a moment and look in front of them: What do they see? What is in this work of art? And the things the STARS notice blow her away. They’ll pop off like popcorn, focusing on the work and saying anything that comes to mind. Duval will put her own two cents in to point out what she sees, and the conversation mushrooms from there.

Then comes the art activity, usually built directly out of the work they had seen on the tour. “The artwork that they make always surprises me,” says Duval. People come into the class with all different skills and abilities, and different projects bring out the diversity of the group. "I like using all that different stuff, like paint and drawing," says one of the students.

A member of the STARS program at work. Photo: Robert Allen for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

A member of the STARS program at work. Photo: Robert Allen for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

A member of the STARS program shows off her work. Photo: Robert Allen for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

A member of the STARS program shows off his work. Photo: Robert Allen for Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

There is an air of calm that settles over the excited group in the activity room, as they concentrate on making. Some get immersed in process, maybe taking off from an element of the work on view, repeating a motion, a gesture, extending and developing it. Others might become highly attuned to details, elaborating densely packed works in miniature.

"My favorite thing to do is art,” says one of the students, and the pride is evident. Students would return with family to the Learning and Creativity gallery, where their works are often hung. The last few years have required some adjustments.

“Visiting the museum and being able to participate in actual hands-on projects was wonderful,” Smith. Of course, the pandemic put a halt to that. Eventually, the program, under the lead of Robert Allen, the Art on the Go/Creative Connections Educator—affectionately Mr. Bobby—transitioned to a virtual gathering, where he is still able to teach about the works in the gallery and provide activities.

Smith says, “The virtual lessons were just as important, and our students adjusted accordingly, getting just as pumped for our monthly lessons.”

"Working with the STAR program is a very meaningful and rewarding experience. Every participant in the program brings their own aesthetic and style to their work, and it’s wonderful to see their enthusiasm for learning about the art featured at AK Northland and the permanent collection!" says Allen.

Allen, thankfully, has been able to return to the classroom, traveling to the STARS classrooms themselves to provide in-person instruction.

That kind of continued interaction is important. “It feels like you're also building a personal connection. You get to know the students a little better, and they feel more comfortable with you,” Duval says. “They feel more comfortable speaking, they feel comfortable greeting you or saying goodbye. And all of these things are just a big deal if you're navigating the world while being on the spectrum.”

As she looks ahead to the reopening of the museum as the Buffalo AKG Art Museum, Duval notes the expanded space for Learning and Creativity, including new classrooms and workshops—and the all-important space to display students’ work.

The accessibility work at the museum is about equality, and giving people a place and inclusion. People have a kind of a right to come and to see. It's important that we make a provision for specialized group visits that allow people to feel really comfortable and make a repeat visit.”

STARS is evidence of what that commitment can bring. When the museum reopens, the Learning and Creativity team only hopes for more. Besides, as one STARS students says, "It is very cool."   

Organizations that provide services for people with disabilities are invited to schedule free individualized group sessions through our Creative Connection program. If you or anyone you know belongs to such an organization, please feel free to get in touch with us. For more information, or to schedule a virtual session, please contact Access & Community Programs Coordinator Karen Duval at 716.270.8249 or