About one in 54 eight-year-olds is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to a 2020 Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network report citing 2016 data. Four times more common among boys than girls, ASD can cause social, communication, and behavioral challenges.
Diagnosed with high-functioning autism at the age of three, Polyvios Christoforos displayed challenging behaviors as a child, and did not speak full sentences until he was about six. Instead, he expressed himself through art. “I always tried to cultivate his artistic talents,” said his mother, Georgia Christoforos, a part-time Greek school teacher at St. Vasilios Church in Peabody, Massachusetts. “When you focus on the disability, you lose the ability,” she said.
Behavioral issues, Georgia Christoforos explained, are the greatest challenge in caring for a family member with autism.
Helping her son manage his behavior day by day, she taught Christoforos taught to speak using pictographs, and was the supporting figure behind one of Polyvios’ greatest achievements thus far, a book titled Sammy Smart Guy. “From a very young age, he always talked about other authors and artists, and I always used to tell him, ‘you can do it too,’” she said.
Today, 28-year-old Polyvios is spreading awareness about the unique challenges and gifts of autism through the book, which he wrote and illustrated.
“The message I’ve tried to spread through my book is to just follow your passion no matter what people say about you,” Polyvios said. “It doesn’t matter if you have autism or not. You can still do the things you love to do…to put it simply, follow your heart. Don’t let any obstacles stop you, and don’t let anything interfere with your dream.”
Published in 2019, Sammy Smart Guy can be found on RoseDog Books and Amazon.
“There’s a particular part of the book where Sammy’s mom walks into the room to discover he has drawn all over everything. That brings me back to when Polyvios was a little boy, because he did the same thing,” Christoforos said.
The National Herald interviewed Polyvios and Georgia Christoforos about a love for art and life with autism.
The National Herald: What does art mean to you, and how has it impacted your life as a child, but also as an adult today?
Polyvios Christoforos: Art helps me communicate my inner thoughts and feelings. Since I could barely speak as a child, I responded emotionally through pictures. They are visual, you can see them, and even when I finally learned how to talk and construct full sentences, I still continued to use art to communicate my ideas and energy. Art is truly my passion to this day.
TNH: Everyone faces different challenges at different phases of their life. What are some of your greatest challenges, and how do you overcome those challenges?
PC: My biggest challenge has been trying to come to terms with my behaviors and come to terms with the reality that I don’t know everything. I only know bits and pieces. I try my best to keep my temper down but sometimes my autism makes it hard to keep it cool. I try to overcome these challenges by doing things that keep me calm, like listening to music and podcasts, taking medication, and the support of my loving friends and family.
TNH: What part of creating your book have you enjoyed the most?
PC: The part I enjoyed the most is laying out the continuity and roughing out my storyboards and color scripts for my final illustrations. It was fun to create my own character, Sammy Smart Guy. Even though Sammy Smart Guy is a fictional character, I do think he’s a really believable character especially because he was inspired by my own personal experiences in life.
TNH: Do you have a role model?
PC: I have a lot of favorite role models. Having to pick one would be like asking a parent to pick their favorite child! But, if I did have to pick one, I’d say it’s Dale Baer. He’s a former Disney animator. My dream has always been to be a cartoon animator, and I admire Dale’s work in modern Disney films. I got to know his work through Robin Hood, which is the first film he got involved with.
TNH: Through your work, you are a role model to other individuals with autism, and their families. What is the most important message you wish to share about autism with the world?
PC: The message I’d like to share is that everyone is different and that’s what makes them wonderful. Everyone with autism has a unique skill they possess. People with autism should be accepted and celebrated for their achievements. We are just as capable as anyone else to do really great things.
TNH: I noticed that many of your paintings are Greek-themed! What about Greece inspires your artwork?
PC: I’ve visited Greece several times. My father is from Kalamata and my mom is from Samos. Greece is a recurring theme of my artistic landscapes. I love the Mediterranean scenes, bright colors and atmosphere of Greece. These beautiful picturesque scenes translate into beautiful paintings. The colors juxtapose the feeling you get when you’re walking through that actual spot in Greece.
INTERVIEW WITH GEORGIA CHRISTOFOROS
TNH: What are some of the greatest challenges a family with an autistic member faces that most people wouldn’t know?
GC: Behavioral issues are the greatest challenge. Sometimes subtle things can trigger a meltdown, something as simple as losing a pencil. It’s like walking on eggshells. Things that might be a minor inconvenience to you and me, can be very upsetting to him. Trying to manage his behaviors in public places is also very challenging. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, he can really lose his temper and he has even become violent. Helping him manage his behaviors is an ongoing daily process.
TNH: It takes courage and strength to know that you are a key (if not the key) individual Polyvios counts on for support. As a mother, and as a supportive figure, how has your role shaped your character?
GC: I have a lot of empathy for people who struggle with developmental disabilities. I am his best advocate and I need to be his voice. As his mother, I owe it to him to fight for what is best for him and to see him happy above all else. Being a mother to a son with autism has made me a very patient person because he feeds off of my emotions. I can help keep him be calm when he sees that I am calm.
TNH: You have said that parents of autistic children should “look past their disability.” How has doing so enriched your own child’s life?
GC: When you focus on the disability, you lose the ability. From a very young age, I always tried to cultivate his artistic talents. I still have the Dr. Seuss books he used to scribble in. He was non-verbal until he was 6 years old. I spent a lot of time reading books to him and using pictographs to teach him words.
I made it my lifelong mission to make sure that I help him reach his full potential. He has always been creative and loved art and Legos. I enrolled him in art classes so he could learn to perfect his craft. In 2009, his painting Dusk at the Acropolis won the New England Congressional Art competition, and his painting was hung in the House of Representatives in Washington, DC for a whole year! His latest accomplishment is writing and illustrating his own children’s book. He even had a book signing at a local Barnes & Noble. The sky is the limit!