Local artist thrives despite autism

Torey Sciabarra sits at his booth next to his artwork during the Autism Society’s recent Lights, Camera, Autism event.

Local artist thrives despite autism

The San Diego Autism Society held an event to showcase a potpourri of talented autistic artists and performers on Sept. 21. Scripps Ranch resident Torey Sciabarra was one of the stars of the show.

Torey’s amazing paintings of dogs drew throngs of admirers to his booth. Displayed next to him were portraits of his canine pals.

“Ritchey is a chocolate Lab, he’s my first painting. … I started painting dogs because I grew up watching Disney movies and I was amazed at the art and I wanted to follow in the steps of my greatest idol, Mr. Walt Disney,” said the 28-year-old artist.

“Torey’s success is nothing short of a miracle,” said his father Pete, a retired Navy captain. “I was deployed to Desert Storm when he was born. I didn’t meet my son until he was seven months old. It was our first kid, so we didn’t know what was normal and what wasn’t. But my wife Carol noticed the behavior of other kids at the playground having fun while Torey was in a world of his own. Just before he turned four, Torey was diagnosed with autism, that was in 1994.”

There are three most common forms of autism: Asperger’s syndrome, autistic disorder and pervasive developmental sisorder. Each differs in severity and impact; one of the most devastating is loss of speech. Sadly, Torey began losing his ability to speak at age two. By age four, he was completely non-verbal. Fearful that their son was facing a bleak future, his parents began a search for help.

“The very first therapist that we worked with was Dawn Holman,” Pete said. “She was working with Dr. Ivor Lovass at U.C.L.A., a pioneer in the field of behavior modification therapy for individuals with autism. … Dawn created a unique program for us to follow, but we had to find and pay the salary of three young interns that were willing to be trained by Dawn so they could administrate her program to our son. One of those students was Susie Jordan, who to this day continues to interact with Torey.”

Obviously, Torey’s story has a happy ending, but the odds were not good to get him from the non-verbal stage to where he is today. With the cards stacked against them, the Sciabarra’s rolled the dice. Their first task was an attempt to teach Torey how to speak again.

“Torey went through discreet trial methodology, which was basically a reward system,” Pete said. “For example, Susie would sit face-to-face with him and say a word, like book. When he eventually repeated that word, Torey would get a reward like a cookie or a toy. This went on 40-hours a week. That’s why we had to hire three individuals to administer Dawn’s program. And that is literally how we taught Torey to speak again. One word at a time, until he began to string words together and eventually spoke in complete sentences.”

Torey’s parents wanted him to be enrolled in a full inclusion class in school. He ended up getting a regular diploma, not just a certificate, from Scripps Ranch High School in 2009. After that, he attended Miramar College where he studied art.

Now, Torey holds down three part time jobs and plays the piano. He played eight years of ice hockey and is an accomplished working artist.

“He has a good life, but it’s not perfect,” Pete said. “Torey can’t drive and lives at home, but he lives a full and active lifestyle as much as anyone can that has autism.”

One in 68 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and to date there is no medical cure. ASD is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States.

Torey Sciabarra greets guests viewing his artwork at Lights, Camera, Autism.
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