A year ago, painting watercolors was just another way to give a Bucks County boy with autism periods of peace during a long, difficult hospitalization.

Now, Emmett Tolis’ paintings, which depict such ordinary things as a slice of pizza, the Flyers logo, or a sausage on a fork, are attracting a wider audience, with some decorating cards that sell to customers as far away as Tennessee and Missouri, and more than 50 of them on display at the entrance of a Doylestown arts shop. Sales of the cards online and at local markets have brought in about $10,000 over the last year.

For George and Elizabeth Tolis, of Jamison, the paintings offer a unique view into the mind of a 13-year-old son whose verbal expression is limited.

“This is literally like seeing into Emmett’s soul right here,” Elizabeth Tolis said.

Some customers buy the cards without knowing anything about Emmett’s autism, attracted by their innocence and bright, primary colors, said Robert Dorfman, a family friend who produces and sells the cards at his Warrington advertising and print shop, Peregrine Associates. Others are moved to buy after learning Emmett’s story.

“It’s letting other people know Emmett’s out there,” Dorfman said, “and you’re not alone in the world when you have someone with that type of autism.”

Art as health care

Emmett started painting last year, while living at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia from July to November 2021. There were few other options for him while his parents struggled to find specialized care for his severe form of autism. Emmett experienced outbursts if his routine were disrupted, and his parents’ bodies bore scratches from their efforts to subdue him. At the hospital, Emmett regularly had to be restrained.

Painting had never been part of Emmett’s routine, his mother said, but she quickly learned that it offered a distraction and an outlet during the long months spent in a hospital room.

“It was cheap, it was time consuming, and he was calm when he would do it,” his mother said.

The paintings are either free form or start with sketches his mother makes of subjects that Emmett requests. In addition to everyday objects, Emmett enjoys painting other things that interest him, such as international flags.

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At CHOP, Emmett’s paintings wallpapered his otherwise bland hospital room.

Painting continued to be one of Emmett’s favorite pastimes after he returned home. He often wears headphones while he works, his love of repetition satiated by listening on repeat to Kari Jobe’s “The Blessing,” a Christian song.

Last year, his mother printed 150 Christmas cards for family and friends decorated with Emmett’s holiday-themed art. They were so popular, she said, that she created a website with Dorfman to show and sell the art, and started offering cards at local farmers markets.

A plumbing business adopted Emmett’s paintings of a toilet (he is fascinated by bathrooms) for thank-you notes given to customers.

Emmett paints only subjects that interest him, Tolis said. A surgical center tried to commission thank-you cards featuring a heart for $1,000, but Emmett refused to paint it.

“He’s a temperamental artist,” she joked.

Emmett’s paintings, including some he did during his extended hospital stay, were on display at the Mercantile at Doylestown through the middle of October.

The work was a good fit, said Brooke Henningsen, who founded the Mercantile during the pandemic to showcase and sell local artists’ work. She felt it was important for parents of autistic children who may struggle to express themselves to see Emmett’s creativity.

“They do absorb and see, and it’s just in their own way,” she said.

Limited resources for autism

The family wound up at CHOP for months last year because there aren’t enough resources for children with behavioral and emotional disabilities, including a shortage of skilled workers who were qualified to care for Emmett.

A year later, it’s still the norm for families to wait months for services. The pandemic exacerbated a scarcity of providers even as it worsened autistic children’s struggles.

“This could be a very critical moment in people’s lives, and then they have to wait months and months,” said Mark Davis, president of Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability.

Pennsylvania has 483 residential hospital beds for children with intellectual disabilities or autism, the state Department of Human Services reported, but they can’t fill them all because there aren’t enough staff to care for that many children. Others are reserved for children with specific disabilities. The state plans to launch next year a program to train more staff to work with children who have a dual diagnosis of an intellectual disability, autism and a mental illness.

Elizabeth and George Tolis were wary of bringing their son home from CHOP last year. The stay there, though, led to outpatient care from a hospital psychiatrist. Emmett was weaned off all the medications he had been prescribed, then introduced to a new drug regimen focused on preventing seizures and stabilizing his mood. His parents rearranged their schedules so one is always with Emmett.

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The family has donated some money from the card sales, including to a local playground adapted for children with sensory difficulties. They hope to create a charity to support organizations that provide aid for families in crisis.

At this time last year, Emmett’s parents were contemplating the possibility that they would not be able to keep Emmett at home. Today, they and Emmett’s two older brothers are still in many ways shaped by the boy’s needs, but he has become more flexible and his reactions to frustration less sudden.

“A year ago,” George Tolis said. “the family was completely apart, and now we’re not.”