Artist Taylor Crowe of Cape Girardeau has traveled across the country sharing his work, and his life, in an effort to explain "autism from the inside."
From Miami, Fla., to Fort Yukon, Alaska, Crowe has spoken to educators, school groups and parent groups, answering questions and sharing what to do -- and most importantly what not to do -- when working with an autistic child.
"Every group I speak with has different questions," said Crowe. "But really, they all want to know how their children will learn growing up autistic."
Crowe points out that a common problem for autistic students is communication with instructors. An exaggerated remark made absent-mindedly by an instructor could be perceived as a literal concern by an autistic student.
"Once, in first grade, I had a teacher who told me I couldn't leave until I finished an assignment," said Crowe. "It really scared me then because I thought she really meant it."
While these small but important lessons play a role in Crowe's motivation, he said defying stereotypes is what keeps him going in his cross country lectures. As a college graduate, successful artist and licensed driver, Crowe has conquered a long list of "nevers" from doctors.
"I just want to show people how much I've defied that doctor that diagnosed me," Crowe said. "And show that the same can happen to other people with autism."
While he gave lectures in more than a dozen locations across the country in 2012, Crowe did not lose focus on his art.
In addition to providing regular editorial cartoons for the Southeast Missourian's Opinion page, Crowe's work gained national exposure in 2012.
Autism Speaks, a leading group in autism science and advocacy, featured an original painting by Crowe on the front of its most recent greeting card.
While Crowe originally submitted the piece to the United Nations for its 2012 Autism Awareness postage stamp design competition, Autism Speaks quickly expressed interest in acquiring it for use in its organization.
"I was really excited," Crowe said. "This is a chance to get really good exposure for my art."
The back of the card also features a brief biography of Crowe's life and work.
Crowe's opportunities to exhibit art on a national scale didn't stop there.
After delivering a lecture to a group in Miami, Fla., author Beverley Brenna approached Crowe about designing the cover of her next book, "The White Bicycle." Because the story features a girl on the autism spectrum's journey to independence, the author found Crowe's artwork to be a perfect fit.
"I decided to start by painting five large pictures," said Crowe. "Then the author and publishers chose the final cover from those."
The book, published in October 2012, also features small sketches designed by Crowe on the first page of each chapter. At the end of the book, his brief biography is included.
For Crowe, however, illustrating books is nothing new.
Through the United Way "Read to Succeed" program, Crowe was commissioned to illustrate more than 50 children's books. Written as beginner books for kindergartners, Crowe said these designs were "much simpler" than those for "The White Bicycle."
The books can be found at Blanchard Elementary school, where Crowe remains an active part of the children's reading program.
With "illustrator" added to his growing list of achievements, Crowe said he is excited about new prospects made available by this experience.
"It was something I really liked (illustrating)," said Crowe. "And now it's also easier to meet new people for more opportunities later."
Dr. Ann Porter Gifford, who wrote the books illustrated by Crowe, said the reaction to the illustrations has been positive.
"Taylor has a wonderful, creative mind and a charming sense of humor, which made the stories for the children come to life," Gifford said. "The books were sent to California and Washington, D.C. for extra peer editing, and the teachers using these books all commented how much their children enjoyed the clever illustrations."
Although Crowe plans to continue lecturing in 2013, his artwork remains his first passion. While they have taken a back seat to other achievements in his "big year," Crowe said he hopes to work more on his cartoons.
"The dream is to one day become a syndicated cartoonist," Crowe said.
Crowe said he has a brief vacation from lectures, and plans to use that time to work more on characters for his own comic strip.