By RYOKO NAKAMURA
RAFU JAPANESE STAFF WRITER
“Hikaru doesn’t speak much, but she definitely knows colors,” a daycare staff told Akiko Fong about her three-year-old daughter, Hikaru. It was around the same time that Hikaru was diagnosed with autism and intellectual disability by specialists at UCLA.
According to research released in May by the Centers for Disease Control, about one in 68 children has been identified with autism, a diagnosis that has become increasingly common in the past decade. In the early 1990s when Hikaru was diagnosed, however, information, knowledge, and public support were not widely available. Akiko and Ken Fong researched autism on their own and gave the best care they could to their only child.
Eighteen years have passed. Now 21-year-old Hikaru is preparing for her very first month-long art show at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex at California State University Los Angeles next June. Akiko and Ken are still in disbelief over how far they have come after this long, emotional journey.
Red, blue, yellow, green, brown, pink…. Surrounded by many colorful markers, Hikaru’s art studio is next to the kitchen and dining area in her house. She is currently working on her new drawing, “Little Mermaid,” which was inspired by a performance she watched at a theater when visiting Japan last April.
After drawing a rough sketch of the mermaids with a pencil, Hikaru carefully colors them with vibrant markers. Her use of color and brush strokes clearly shows her positive and cheerful personality.
Since Akiko and Ken are both illustrators, Hikaru grew up surrounded by many different forms of art. She began to draw when she was really young, but she started to enjoy drawing her experiences when she was in elementary school.
As an artist herself, Akiko, who is the principal face designer at Mattel, sees her daughter’s art pieces as one of a kind. “Her drawings by themselves can often be scribbles, but her distinctive use of color is very appealing and engaging. It draws me into Hikaru’s world.”
It wasn’t easy for Akiko and Ken to come this far emotionally. They both went through many emotional stages from denial, isolation, anger, depression, and finally to acceptance.
There were several occasions when therapists didn’t believe in Hikaru’s improvements. Since autism was still relatively unknown back then even among specialists, Akiko and Ken were often mistaken for being “bad parents” every time Hikaru displayed repetitive behaviors or difficulties with social interactions.
Despite many challenges, they were convinced that creating art and raising a child were similar in many ways. “The more passion and love you provide, the outcome will be even better than the effort you put forth,” said Akiko. And they were right.
Hikaru has shown significant improvements in her communication, socialization, and physical skills over the years. For Hikaru, who has a difficulty verbalizing her feelings, drawing has become a necessary communication tool. Through art, she feels connected with the outside world, which makes her feel better, knowing that she is not isolated anymore.
“Compared to other kids her age, Hikaru may have seemed way behind, but she has developed tremendously since a few years ago. When I let go of my preconceived expectations, I was finally able to accept my daughter as who she is,” Akiko said.
Thanks to incredible teachers who believed in Hikaru’s abilities and cultivated her individuality, her drawings have attracted many people.
“Having a solo art show marks a big step forward for Hikaru’s independence. It is going to be a valuable opportunity for her to make a contribution to the community as well as be a proud member of society,” said Akiko.
Hikaru’s first art show will feature at least 20 pieces—works on paper—as well as a short self-introduction film. On the opening day, her newest work, a 32-foot-mural portraying her life, will be displayed on the entrance wall at the Martin Luther King Hall at Cal Sate LA.
Akiko and Ken hope that Hikaru’s artwork can help raise awareness about people with autism and other disabilities. Even with her disabilities, Hikaru creates bright and cheerful art. “We want the public to recognize that people with disabilities have emotions and possess a rich inner self that an outsider would never imagine. People with disabilities have infinite possibilities for their future.”
Hikaru continues creating new work everyday, humming a tune at her art studio surrounded by many colorful markers. She is looking forward to sharing her feelings through her drawings at her very first art show.