Young woman with autism expresses herself through art

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In Julia Pozsgai's bedroom is a large purple chair. Though she made it herself out of heavy cardboard, its tall back, exaggerated zig-zag design on the back and feet, and royal purple hue make it look more like a whimsical throne than a large piece of cardboard. Pozsgai sits in it to demonstrate its sturdiness, like a proud queen.

What makes this queen even more impressive is, at 18 months old, Pozsgai was diagnosed as being at risk for autism.

"We got her in a program right away," said Karen Short, Pozsgai's mother. "We lived in San Francisco and I had a friend who worked for a program that worked with young kids. They started working with her on everything — language and the whole range of potential problems, all the things that could happen."

As Pozsgai got older, the San Francisco Unified School District recommended that the family move to Marin County so she could attend Marindale School in San Rafael, which had a teacher that worked with special needs children, for preschool. When Pozsgai moved on to kindergarten, teachers advocated for her that she remain in the regular classroom and not be segregated from her peers. From kindergarten to high school, Pozsgai was included with regular students until she graduated from Casa Grande High School.

"She was very fortunate with the school system," said Short. "We had our differences, but they were supportive. We worked with them."

Short also credits Pozsgai being integrated with regular kids while in school as a factor in her success thus far.

"The community has been great. I think a lot of the kids she went to high school with know her, and some of them definitely tried to include her as much as they were able," she added.

It was at Casa Grande that Pozsgai took a sculpture class, where she first learned how to make cardboard chairs.

"I liked that class," she said.

Today, Pozsgai, now 22, still makes cardboard chairs — an interesting process that, Short says, Pozsgai has refined.

After Pozsgai graduated high school, Short felt there was a lack of programs for adults with autism in the area. After a casual conversation with an employee from Cypress School in Petaluma, Short looked into Autistry Studios in San Rafael.

"I was pretty impressed with the program, pretty much because it was a group that was being challenged," she explained.

That constant challenge is the goal to help autistic adults, whose communication and social skills are not strong, succeed, according to executive director Janet Lawson.

"We've found that autistic individuals of all ages continue to grow when appropriately challenged," Laweson explained in an e-mail interview. "We believe it is important to have high expectations and then provide the tools, support and resources needed to be productive."

In her experience with Pozsgai, Short knows firsthand that autism can be isolating for young adults.

"When you have autism, you're literally trained to be socially appropriate," she said. "You don't learn from your peers in the same way; it has to be pointed out — &‘This is what's OK, this is what's not OK,' because you just don't pick it up."

According to Lawson, she first met Julia in March at a fund-raising event. She felt that, while Pozsgai was very excited and had a great time, it was difficult to tell if she would be a good candidate for Autistry.

"My first impression of Julia was that she had great enthusiasm and incredible drive," she said. "My concern was whether or not she wanted to develop her skills or if she wanted to stay in her comfort zone."

Pozsgai starting attending workshops at Autistry Studios in June. Lawson noticed she was already good at making chairs out of heavy cardboard, but she had not worked with wood.

"We wanted to challenge her to increase her ability and expand her skills," said Lawson. "We asked if she would like to work in wood and learn how to use power tools. She was hesitant at first, but agreed to give it a try. She has never looked back."

Now, with the help of Autistry Studios, Pozsgai has moved on to working with wood and building wood furniture.

Currently, Pozsgai has started working on a custom ordered dog house — her third woodworking piece. It will have two windows — one on each side— and four walls, where the front wall has a doorway so the dog can get in and out. It also has a deck, so the dog can lay on the deck.

Despite Pozsgai's autism, Short wants people to remember that there is a person in there — a person who, as Lawson describes, is optimistic and tenacious.

"It takes courage to change and Julia is courageous. We have challenged her to rise to a higher level of production, take her work to higher standard and she has met that challenge and more," she said. "We all believe in her ability and she has shown us that she is very capable."

Short is nothing short of proud at her daughter's success and accomplishments.

"Autistry just pushes her and challenges Julia, and she's thrilled with learning about all the tools," she said with a smile. "I, of course, don't know these tools, but she does."

(Contact Becca Pilkington at

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