When Iris Grace Halmshaw's parents introduced her to painting, they were hoping the activity would be a fun diversion and a way to get their autistic child to express herself.
But as soon as Iris picked up a brush, her parents were blown away by how she approached the painting. She shied away from doing simple paintings of houses or smiling stick figures and, instead, created colorful abstract pieces that appeared to express deep emotion.
“It was on her first painting I noticed a difference in her painting compared with how you would normally expect a child to paint,” Iris’ mom, Arabella Carter-Johnson, wrote to ABC News in an email. "She filled the page with colour but with thought and consideration. ... We didn't think [too] much of it at the time, we were just so happy to have found an activity that brought her so much joy."
When her parents shared her artwork online, people started to contact them and ask to purchase prints. When the parents started to sell her work online, Iris' name and work grabbed headlines and high prices.
Last summer, several of Iris’ paintings were sold individually for as much as 1,500 pounds and the pint-size painter has nearly 90,000 likes on Facebook.
But as Iris’ work grabbed the spotlight, the family also focused on protecting her and keeping her day-to-day life stable.
“We are trying to keep our lives as normal as possible for Iris, so our same routine continues,” wrote Carter-Johnson. "I am educating her at home and this week we have been concentrating on animals, so nothing has changed in Iris's world."
While Iris’ parents say her autism likely helped her to create incredible artwork, it can also make her anxious around new people and she had trouble speaking until recently. While her art has been a way to express herself, her parents are careful not to overwhelm the 5-year-old.
“She has a fantastic concentration span but as her parent and educator I have to keep an eye on that and help her move onto other things,” said Carter-Johnson. “I can see nature in her paintings, water, trees, flowers, and also we can see Thula her cat in many of them.”
The family decided to sell Iris’ paintings both as a way to fund her private therapists and to raise awareness about her condition. According to the family, all the profits from Iris’ work will go to pay for her art materials and her ongoing private therapists. The money also goes to a savings account for Iris and to fund a club for autistic children run out of the Halmshaw home called the Little Explorers Activity Club.
After Iris was introduced to art, Carter-Johnson said, her daughter can now express herself in other ways besides speech or words. Iris’ mother said Iris can get lost in her work and spend as long as two hours painting her abstract pieces.
“She has an understanding of colours and how they interact with each other,” wrote Iris’ parents on a website dedicated to her work. “She beams with excitement and joy when I get out the paints, it lifts her mood everytime.”