Sam Irving has been painting since before he could talk, so it is fitting that his artistic ability has become a powerful voice.
For Irving, a Gilbert man who has autism, canvas serves as much more than a means of expression. Paintings have become his primary vehicle to raise awareness of the developmental disorder that, according to the most recent government statistics, is prevalent in one in every 110 births in the U.S.
"He knows he has autism, and he knows that makes some things harder for him," Irving's mother, Renata, said. "But it helps him to be creative and communicate, too."
Sam Irving, 21, is the artist of the month at Maricopa County's Southeast Regional Library, 775 N. Greenfield Road in Gilbert. His paintings are on display in the lobby.
Irving's work has been featured at local galleries, and he is a regular Saturday vendor at the Farmers Market in Gilbert. This weekend, Irving has a table at the Fiddles and Flapjacks benefit breakfast at Mesquite High School, his alma mater.
"It makes me feel proud," Sam Irving said. "I feel interesting when I paint."
Landscapes are Sam Irving's favorite paintings. His portfolio includes watercolors, metallics and etches.
Tempe artist Oliverio Balcells offers regular classes at his gallery; in June, Sam Irving was a student.
"You could tell he was advanced, right down to the way he holds the brush in his hand," Balcells said. "He's going to go far in painting. He's talented, and he's young."
Autism affects information processing in the brain, which can impair verbal communication and social development, among other symptoms. Sam Irving did not speak until he was 5, a year after taking up painting.
He sells postcard-size prints of his paintings at functions, with proceeds going to the advocacy organization Autism Speaks. The interaction with customers serves as a vital component of the speech and occupational therapy autistic people undergo, Renata Irving said.
"When you communicate, you share ideas," she said. "It's an expression that makes you feel comfortable. And that is certainly the case for him. It inspires conversation. He greets people, introduces me, and he'll tell others about his work and ask questions.
"He has to take each (print), place it in a sleeve and fold it for the customer, and that's good occupational work for him. We get a table, and we don't sit down because we're always talking to someone."
One of Sam Irving's biggest admirers is Josh Reynolds, a Gilbert firefighter. He hopes to involve the Gilbert Fire Department in an autism fundraiser next year.
"It's impressive. I always have a lot of respect for people with gifts and talents that I don't have," Reynolds said. "When you see what Sam has been able to do with the things he has had to overcome, that makes it even more impressive. He's done a lot with less."
Many autistic people have few, but intense, interests. Sam Irving said that he can paint "for hours." Another of his pursuits is rock and roll trivia.
"He can go on forever about it," Reynolds said, laughing. "Don't get him started on Jim Morrison - birthdate, hit records. He knows all about him."
Sam Irving wants to own his own gallery, a goal that Balcells said is well within his reach.
"Gilbert has embraced us," Renata Irving said. "He's made so many new friends. It's unbelievable."