Artistry, autism and the joy of the journey

Diagnosed with severe autism as a toddler, Seth Chwast seemed trapped in his own insular universe.

His family endured anguish, sought countless therapies, and almost gave up hope.

Then, at age 20, Seth took a painting class, and everything changed. Miraculously, he revealed an innate ability to create amazing artworks that reflect his own unique perspective and gave him a voice he’d never had.

Seth’s mother, Debra, outlines this journey in new book An Unexpected Life, from which she is reading at 7pm on Thursday, 22 March at Books & Books.

“We have become informal ambassadors of hope,” she tells us.

“Sometimes reality is there and cannot be changed and you can have a great life anyway. We travel for book signings and openings. Everywhere we go, we meet people who hear our story and become energised and inspired about their own life.

“Like everyone else, I have hoped and wished for good health, more money, a better job, love, losing a little weight,” she says.

“All of that would be great. The universe had a different plan.

“I ended up taking care of my father, who came to live with us at age 85, for the last five years of his life and taking care of my son, who is autistic, for 28 years.

I found that when you take a person you love, who is in a tough place that cannot be changed, and you surprise and delight them every day, that is what makes life worth living. I could have written about my son or my dad. It’s the same story. It’s not about autism. It’s about love. It’s a universal story,” Debra says.

Worldwide artist

In 2004, she adds, the pair were ‘under the radar’ but Seth has now won a worldwide competition.

“On 2 April, his art will appear on a United Nations postal stamp. He will be honoured at a reception with the secretary general and a dinner at the Bangladesh Embassy. People are flying to New York from Ohio, Florida and Curaçao to join the celebration. It is quite amazing,” she says.

“On 3 April, we go back to the United Nations for the secretary general and another award. We will do a series of book signings in America,” explains Debra.

The hope, she says, for the book, is simply to get it out there.

“One woman said, ‘This is the greatest love story I ever read.’

A woman told me, “I’m 87. Nothing surprises me. This book made me cry with joy and hope. I was a teacher,” she says. “With this book we could change the world.”