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A spectrum of views autistic artists visiting the Falls

Niagara Gazette - 3/25/2017

March 25--The city's natural wonder received a visit Friday from two young people who some believe are wonders of nature themselves.

Holding hands as they walked Goat Island were two noted young artists, both of whom have been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.

Facebook friends Dani Bowman, an award-winning animator and author from Los Angeles, and James Jagow of Getzville, a musician and composer, finally met in person this week when Bowman came to the region to be the keynote speaker at a conference on autism and the arts.

The young artists and their guardians were shown around Niagara Falls State Park by Michael McDougald of People Inc., a musician himself who performs in Jagow's local band called Universal Mind, which is comprised of musicians with various disabilities.

Jagow, whose Youtube channel, Zephor, has had almost one million views, and Bowman, an award-winning short filmmaker, took some time out from their stroll on Goat Island to talk about what life is like when pursuing artistic goals with an autism diagnosis.

Bowman talked of discovering her love for animation as a toddler when her dad, a professional photographer, would sit her down in front of a TV to watch cartoons as he worked. She was intrigued by what made the cartoons come to life and when she asked her dad about it, he encouraged her to figure it out for herself. She started making stop-motion books using her teddy bears and a camera.

She always knew she was different, but when she was 11, her aunt and guardian, Sandy Vielma, told her why.

"I did not know what autism was until my aunt pointed it out to me," said Bowman, who described how her aunt explained it. "It was just a different way of thinking. Like the difference between a PC and Mac."

The autism diagnosis never stopped Bowman from pursuing her dreams.

By age 14 she opened her own animation company. Her six short films have won awards at the San Diego Comic-Con, and she has written six books.

Jagow picked up a guitar at 13 and a music teacher told his mom, Lori Jagow, that "he learned in one lesson what some people might take 20 years to learn." At the same time, his academic test scores showed he was reading and writing at a college level.

McDougald said about Jagow that after those early guitar lessons, "He became a virtuoso."

Jagow has since written countless songs, which he posts on his Youtube channel. He has also written the music and performs for a documentary produced by Joey Travolta, actor John Travolta's brother, called "Normal People Scare Me Too" which examines life from the eyes of those who have been diagnosed with autism.

Both Jagow and Bowman are considered "highly functioning autistic" but Bowman doesn't like to use that term.

"I'm not using that term because it's an affront to those diagnosed with severe autism," she said.

Her aunt interjects: "She has some friends who are non-verbal but who are amazing artists."

Overall, both James and Dani say that while they are successful creating with the autism diagnosis, there are challenges. Dani has trouble staying focused sometimes because she has a tendency to daydream, while James on occasion gets uncomfortable in social situations.

Their guardians believe that, for their children, autism is just another characteristic, like having green eyes. Lori Jagow says that she believes autism "is a gift, not a disability." After thinking about that idea, Dani added, "...for some."

Her message at an art and autism conference Thursday at Daemen College was that just about anything is possible for many diagnosed with autism. Her presence at the seminar fortified her message, according to Kathleen Boone, Daemen's associate vice president of academic affairs.

"She was an ideal fit for our conference," Boone said. "As she said -- and it was so evident -- you don't have to let your disabilities stand in the way of achieving your goals. Being on the autism spectrum can actually be leveraged in creative ways and that was good for people to see."


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