Bay program provides insight into autism

Jordan Beck | Daily Press Tracy Thresher, right, one of the stars of the documentary “Wretches & Jabberers,” communicates by typing with support from Harvey Lavoy during an event at Bay College Tuesday.

ESCANABA — Bay College celebrated Autism Awareness Month with a visit from the stars of the documentary “Wretches & Jabberers.” Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher made an appearance at the college Tuesday.

Last week, “Wretches & Jabberers” was screened at Bay. The film focuses on Bissonnette and Thresher’s travels around the world to change people’s feelings towards autism.

During Tuesday’s event, Bissonnette and Thresher — who both have autism — communicated with attendees by typing on iPads. They were supported in doing so by Pascal Cheng and Harvey Lavoy, respectively.

Presentations written by Thresher and Bissonnette were shared at the event. Lavoy read much of Thresher’s presentation on his behalf, and the same was true for Cheng and Bissonnette.

In his presentation, Thresher noted learning to communicate by typing was a milestone for him.

“The introduction to typing was very much needed and without it I am sure I would have fallen into despair. It was truly a life changing moment for me,” he wrote.

Thresher also addressed the importance of self-advocacy for people with autism.

“I think sitting on committees and other structures that plan for and make decisions about the lives of people with disabilities is extremely important — with so much at stake we need to voice our opinions front and center so that typing is seen as valuable input,” he wrote.

He touched on his experiences traveling around the world while filming “Wretches & Jabberers,” as well.

“Doing the movie ‘Wretches & Jabberers’ propelled my purpose to one of thinking more globally. I had often wondered how it was for people living with autism in other countries. It is my feeling that I have needed this journey to discover my true purpose in life,” Thresher wrote.

Bissonnette’s presentation focused on his love of art.

“I am an artist at heart on a mission to link words with thoughts and feelings,” he wrote.

His works were originally noticed as “outsider art” — art made by people with no formal artistic training.

“Lots of my work was potentially outside the mainstream because it was done with crayons and pencils and the naturally placed, around the picture, frames were made out of crudely cut pieces of old wood,” Bissonnette wrote.

As time went on, Bissonnette gained further recognition as an artist. He noted his work was displayed in a solo exhibit at a Burlington, Vt. gallery in the summer of 2015, and he won the second-prize award in the juried show at Burlington’s South End Art Hop in 2016.

As was the case for Thresher, learning to type played an important role in Bissonnette’s life.

“Typing let the person I really was out. It was quite like Superman resurrecting from Clark Kent,” he wrote.

After Thresher and Bissonnette’s presentations were finished, a question-and-answer session took place. During the session, Bissonnette was asked how he feels when working on art.

“Quite good is an understatement,” he replied.

In response to a question about the social lives of people with autism, Thresher said other people’s perceptions of autism have been his primary issue in this regard.

“It’s how people see the autism that gets in the way of being social, because they don’t take the time to get to know Tracy the person,” he replied.

Along with Bissonnette and Thresher, Kyle Kelly — a Bay College student who has a cousin on the autism spectrum — participated in the question-and-answer session. Kelly said, while his cousin has challenges, these do not detract from who he is as a person.

“For the most part, he’s surrounded by a really great support system, because not only is his mother a special education teacher, but so is my sister-in-law and her husband,” he said.

Bissonnette and Thresher are set to visit the Escanaba High School this afternoon.