When Brisbane woman Judy Sharp learnt that her three-year-old child Tim had autism, a specialist told her to “put him away”. She was also told “he will never speak, he will never go to school, he will never learn anything, he feels absolutely nothing for you, and the best thing you can do is get on with your own life and pretend you never had him.”
Devastated by the so-called advice, Mrs Sharp duly ignored it and set about pouring her energy into helping Tim learn and grow.
As a result, her son is now a 26-year-old, world-renowned artist.
Tim Sharp is the creator of Laser Beak Man, a superhero character who features in Tim’s whimsical and vibrant art works, and has taken the art world by storm.
Mrs Sharp speaks with a depth of love about her son, even in her recollections of the very early days when he was a baby, crying all the time.
“He was always awake,” she said. “I couldn’t put him on the floor and leave him there or he’d just cry, so I had to carry him all the time.
“Once I put a woollen jumpsuit on him and he screamed ‘as if a pin had been stuck deep inside of him’.”
Minor irritations distressed young Tim deeply. He had to have the television on all the time as the background noise comforted him. It had to be on Channel 7. And he only ate three foods: Chicken, chocolate and bread.
“At times I was in the depths of despair, I was so exhausted,” Mrs Sharp said. “But even though I was so worn out, there was this incredible joy in my heart, that I had this little fellow and that I loved him so much.”
How Tim Was Diagnosed With Autism
While Tim’s strange behaviour was a daily event, all the doctors dismissed it, until one day when he was two.
“We were in a doctors surgery and I had a baby bag and I put it down on the floor, Tim hated that.
“His shoelaces had come undone, and mine had come undone. And at that stage he couldn’t stand shoelaces being undone.
“The door had been closed – another thing he hated.
“I had to put his baby brother on the bed for the doctor to examine. He couldn’t stand that either because he also thought it meant we were leaving the baby behind.
“He went nuts. He’s grabbing at the door, pulling at the shoelaces, pushing at me to get the baby, he’s trying to lift up the bag, running around screaming and crying, and he was in terror. You could see the absolute fear in his eyes.
“You had to see these outbursts to understand it. It was peculiar, it was strange, it was frightening.”
The doctor referred the Sharps immediately to a specialist who diagnosed autism.
And while the specialists’ advice was cold and uncaring, it prompted Mrs Sharp into action.
“I didn’t focus on the autism, my focus was my son. I saw a person first. I could see him in there. I saw that personality. I saw that intelligence, what a sweet, beautiful boy he was, and that’s who I was looking for, trying to find.
“At the time there wasn’t a lot of information out there at all. All the books were saying dreadful things, that he had no future. I couldn’t read any of that, I had to stay focussed on what I wanted for my son.”
How Art Brought Tim Out Of His Shell
Image: Laser Beak Man – Sweet Dreams
“We started with some speech therapy and that worked very well. He went from a couple of words that weren’t clear to anyone, to 100 words in 3 months.”
There was more progress when Mrs Sharp had to leave her troubled, abusive marriage and moved herself and her two sons to a new house. Tim changed dramatically.
“Within a couple of days he was happier, he was more settled. So obviously the stress in the house, my constant state of fear and terror, was affecting him.”
“For all of us it was the best thing to do.”
The next big step was sending him to a mainstream school where committed teachers helped him progress.
And then, the big breakthrough: Mrs Sharp discovered drawing.
“I was inspired by the Helen Keller story. I thought, ‘my words don’t work with him, what if I try drawing’. I have no artistic talent whatsoever, so I drew stick figures and used them to explain things to him, and he actually looked at what I was doing. That was a major breakthrough in itself.
“When I finished drawing I put the pencil down and Tim pushed my hand back to grab the pencil again. That was our first major interaction, where I could get him to engage with me. And he just fell in love with it.”
Tim had Mrs Sharp drawing day and night, and within a year, tried his hand at drawing himself, sketching a picture of a “very cute elephant”. It was the moment when his intelligence and imagination began to emerge.
“From that very first drawing it was very clear that he had something great going on there,” Mrs Sharp said.
“There was this humour and this way that he saw the world that was all coming out through the art. It was just an insight into the different and interesting way that Tim sees the world.”
The Birth Of Laser Beak Man
Tim loved super heroes and one day at the age of 11 he invented his own – ‘Laser Beak Man’.
From that day the character has been depicted in all kinds of humorous adventures: visting an Andy Warhol exjhibition, flying through a starry night sky showering candy down on homes, having a ‘wild night out’ with zoo animals, and gleefully torturing members of the Wiggles.
Tim loves to depict word-play with his art. His gallery features a picture of a boy with a literal ‘chip on his shoulder’, and a drawing of a “sunburnt country, a land of sweeping planes” – featuring Laser Beak Man on top of an aircraft with a broom.
Mrs Sharp says people are drawn to the vibrancy of Tim’s art, and that specialists are inspired by it, as it shows that autism is by no means an emotionless condition.
Tim and his art have featured in the world’s largest art festival for people with disabilities in Washington DC, in a film at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and at an exhibition at the Australian National Museum.
He was the inspiration for a music festival in Nashville, and has given his own TEDX talk at the Opera House in Sydney.
And he is the first person with autism to have his creation turned into a TV series that screened on the ABC and Cartoon Network.
But his mum said the most inspiring moments are with children.
“Sometimes we go into a school with kids with autism and the teachers say, ‘They’re not going to be interested in this, their needs are very high.’
“But Tim sits on a chair, shows them his art, says a few things, draws for them, and they’re sitting on his knee, they’re coming up and holding his hand.
“I just bawl my eyes out to see that interaction. And I think as far as I’m concerned he never has to do another thing. It’s mind blowing.”
Autism Is Not All Bad News
Mrs Sharp encouraged parents of autistic children by saying “it always gets better”.
“What I’ve found in this whole journey is just how good people are. We’ve done nothing on our own. There’s always other people in our life helping us.”
She is concerned about the future when she will no longer be able to look after Tim, and is developing a ‘Circle of Friends’ program to ensure he is supported for the rest of his life.
Looking back on her life she says Tim has been a great gift.
“I have learnt so much more about how to communicate with people, how to find the pleasure in the most simplest of moments, how to stretch myself a bit further, not to think the whole world has to revolve around the way I think.
“And that is a gift that too many people go through life without receiving. I am truly blessed.”
– Learn more about Autism from Austism Spectrum Australia