Mia McNary Makes It Better Via Art—and Advocacy

Mia McNary is a Fourth-of-July sparkler—“zizzling” positivity in every direction—
with one exception: She never burns out. No matter how strong a wind blows her way.

Autism is the cyclone that blasted the McNarys in 2001, when her then 2-year-old son Colin was first diagnosed. Although he had exhibited suspect behaviors, McNary and husband Tim were devastated.

Seeking hope, the McNarys were instead stunned by their inescapable reality: Colin’s severity required 24/7 care.

“Sending him to a therapeutic residential school was so hard, but then I realized his being here was really harder for him,” she says.

The McNarys ultimately resolved to place their 8-year-old son at Heartspring Residential Therapeutic School in Wichita, KS, in February 2008.

Stages of grief jockeyed in McNary’s heart and head until she eventually surrendered 
to acceptance—once she discovered the gift inside the suffering.

“Art! All of a sudden, it just clicked,” says McNary, an artist since youth, said of her inspiration. McNary opened Masters In Art (M.I.A.) Studio, creating the medium to unite her passion with purpose.

Healing on Canvas Abstract Therapeutic Painting brought a group of 10 to 12 aching mothers of children with autism into a safe, accepting environment—her intimate Glenview studio—that fostered conversation as much as creativity. Brushes in hand, the sharing and feelings flowed as freely as the paint.

“Mothers with children who are autistic often feel completely helpless. That there’s nothing they can do,” McNary says.

She believes otherwise. Expressing grief through painting is a creative outlet—a temporary escape from the permanent challenge these women face.

McNary feels fortunate. She has found meaning along the way—using her talent and passion for art to bring peace of mind to other families facing her same struggle.

Autism Advocate
Not unlike making funeral arrangements while in the throes of grief, determining 
a child’s future (and that of the family) upon receiving the verdict autistic, leaves 
parents in a state of shock and confusion, desperate for direction.

Enter another McNary inspiration: Chasing Hope. Comprised of parent-consultants 
who are living with the unique challenges they and their children with autism confront, Chasing Hope combines the wisdom of their experience, an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)-specific network and family specific resources based on the individual 
child’s needs.

Glenview resident Tamara Daley, mother of two, whose daughter has Asperger’s Syndrome says: “Mia saved my life—literally. As soon as I heard the word ‘autism,’ something in me shut down. I was numb. I didn’t know what to do. Mia guided 
me through the blur, both logistically and emotionally. I wouldn’t have survived 
without her.”

Defining Needs
McNary’s vision, coupled with hard-earned hands-on experience, has given her unexpected insight. Uncovering the need that’s not yet been met—this, she believes, 
is what she does best.

Seeing beyond the box is evidenced by the McNarys founding Glenview’s Camp Hug 
the Bear in 2003—an Autism Specialized Camp (the first of its kind in the area)—in response to the lack of camps available for Colin.

The concept for the camp was initially met with a discouraging: “Oh, that’s not possible” 
and “you’ll need $5,000 … sorry.” One fundraiser and its resultant $28,000 check later, Camp Hug the Bear was born.

“Oh, it’s possible,” McNary says.

The McNarys, along with the Glenview Park District, are being recognized in 2009 by the Illinois Attorney General with the Best Practices Award for providing recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.

Ongoing Vision
McNary’s spark is contagious; her mission: to ignite hope. While she didn’t ask for Colin’s illness, she believes autism has been put into her family’s life for a reason. McNary sees a farm in their future—a residential farm in the Midwest for adults who have autism and their families.

Who will donate the land? Where will the funds come from? She doesn’t know. She only knows it’s possible. Oh, it’s possible.

McNary’s recommended resources
If you, or someone you know, has been impacted by autism and is in need of guidance, contact:

Mia McNary at 847-922-8789  or Christine Walker at 847-338-1505, the founding partners of Chasing Hope.

Websites:

www.autismspeaks.org

www.spectrumpublications.com (Spectrum Magazine)

Books:

Overcoming Autism: Finding the Answers, Strategies, and Hope That Can Transform a Child’s Life , Claire LaZebnik, Lynn Kern Koegel

Art as an Early Intervention Tool for Children With Autism , Nicole Martin

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Children with Special Needs: Stories of Love and Understanding for Those Who Care for Children with Disabilities , 
Mark Victor Hansen, Heather McNamara, Karen Simmons, Jack L. Canfield

It’s All About Attitude: Loving and Living Well with Autism , 
Kathy Almeida, Gayle Nobel

Unraveling the Mystery of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorder: A Mother’s Story of Research & Recovery , Karyn Seroussi

Let Me Hear Your Voice: A Family’s Triumph over Autism , Catherine Maurice

The Worn Out Woman: When Life is Full and Your Spirit is Empty , 
Steve Stephens, Alice Gray