Stephie Coveart is an original.
The 21-year-old has autism but is a social butterfly.
She can’t read, write, do math or tell time.
But the joy that bounces from her drawings of cats and dogs—each coloured in bright, bold markers, floating on white space and with quirky facial expressions—has attracted the attention of artists and animators.
“She’s pretty high-functioning socially, but her more profound disability is her developmental disability,” says Tracey Coveart, Stephie’s mother.
When Stephie graduated from high school last year, the thought of creating a meaningful life for her was daunting.
“At 21 the kids are put out into the world, whether they’re ready for it or not—and a lot are not,” Tracey says. “They lose their community, their friends, the structure and stimulating activities. When school stopped and that routine ended, Stephie would spend her whole day on the couch rocking unless we scheduled activities where she could go out with us.”
Stephie’s parents are artists who work from home. Tracey’s a writer and editor and Rob Greenway, her stepfather, is a musician and voice actor.
Stephie began an adult day program Mondays and Tuesdays but “it’s very
expensive,” Tracey says. “Sending her full-time was unaffordable for us. I don’t know what parents who work out of the house full-time do.”
On a typical day at home Stephie gets up while her parents sleep (they work into the wee hours of the morning), walks her dog Max to the end of the street and back, then heads to the family room to download cat photos, listen to music or play pet shop games.
Later Tracey may set up Stephie’s work station and papers so she can do a couple of hours of art. They have lunch together, run errands, take the dog for a run at the beach, do yoga or watch Stephie’s favourite Disney show: Kim Possible.
“We do as much as we can with her, but then she’s on her own while we get down to the business of making a living,” Tracey says. “I feel guilty when I leave her for hours watching her videos or downloading cats. But she’s happy to do that.”
Just before she graduated, Stephie framed some of her drawings and gave them to school staff. “Their response was overwhelming,” Tracey says. “The art teacher said ‘she has a gift,’ so we thought maybe we should throw up a website.”
Thanks to a number of serendipitous connections since then, Stephie’s work has been recognized in the art world and her parents recently registered a business—Stephimals—to sell her work.
But before this turn of events—“there was nothing for her to do,” Tracey says. “We would have happily let Stephie go to school for the rest of her life and that would have been a good situation for her. Even if she could have gone three days a week, something that could give her life shape and meaning and purpose in a way she could process.”
Volunteering didn’t work out because Stephie needed to be supervised, her mom says. She wanted to work at an animal shelter but was turned down because she couldn't work independently. A transition program that might have been promising was slashed.
“She became depressed for the first time, didn’t want to go outside and would cry uncontrollably that everyone had a dog and we didn’t,” Tracey says. “We did get her a dog and that eased her transition.”
Thinking about the day when they’re not here to care for Stephie is frightening.
“This is a real conundrum for parents and society,” stepdad Rob says. “Adults like Stephie can’t function in ‘normal’ society because they need constant supervision. What happens to Steph when she’s 50 and we’re not around? Without being able to read, write, prepare meals, find her way around, or use money, she’s unbelievably vulnerable. And what about her ability to feel she’s contributing to the world, and not end up being shut up in a room or in an institution of some sort?”
Stephie doesn’t have same-age friends, but she does connect with adults at the dog park, those who buy and appreciate her drawings, and with her parents’ friends, who include Stephie in their get-togethers.
“Our world is Steph,” Tracey says. “It’s definitely tiring mentally to always have to be on and responsive to her needs. She talks a lot and likes to engage you in repetitive dialogue about movies. There are things we miss out on as a couple. Rob does a lot of things on his own because we can’t leave Stephie alone. There are many things I don’t go to. We don’t have a caregiver for Steph and we won’t leave her alone at night. Yet in spite of the challenges and uncertainty of the future I can’t imagine having a more joyful presence in my life. Steph doesn’t see herself as different or deficient and she exists in this little happy place. She’s one of the most balanced and content people I know.”
A couple of times each year Stephie visits her grandfather for a few days.
The rest of the time Mom, Dad and Steph operate as a threesome.
“We tried a few weekends of respite care but she couldn’t handle it,” Tracey says. “There were too many loud people, too many people asking questions and too many people acting out. Steph got a migraine and had to come home.”
Stephie’s interest in drawing began as a child, with colouring books. But she only filled in animals, not people or any details. “And she would only colour the eyes, and then the book would go in the garbage,” Tracey says.
About 10 years ago she started drawing her unique cats and dogs on grocery receipts and restaurant napkins. Today she uses archival art markers on acid-free Bristol paper.
“None of the colours are the same, none of the expressions are the same, the number of legs vary, as do other characteristics,” Tracey says. “That’s why they’re all completely original. It’s a real style. She chooses the colours and comes up with names for each one.”
Giovanni, Off-kilter and Baby Coagulant are all part of the crew.
Stephie doesn’t draw backgrounds and her animals float in space. It’s a reflection of how she views the world, Rob says.
“There’ll be a crowd of 3,000 people and Steph will see a Yorkshire terrier the size of a small toaster. That’s all she sees.”
“She can’t really tell us, but we think she operates with tunnel vision,” Tracey says. “She’s largely unaware of her surroundings, of people or buildings. But she processes animals.”
Stephie can’t articulate her dreams for the future because she lives in the present, her parents say. “She can’t project or envision,” Tracey says. “We know she’d be happy working with animals, but she loves her adult day program and making Stephimals brings her tremendous joy. I think she imagines life will go on like this forever, living with Mom and Dad and her pets.
“The only times we’ve talked about supportive housing or a different housing arrangement that means not living with us, she refuses to talk about it. When pressed, she cries. She can’t bear that kind of thinking, so long-range planning is truncated for us.”
Rob notes that Stephie’s animals are “a perfect extension of who she is.”
“Bright and colourful and innocent and pure and uncluttered,” Tracey says.
Her emerging talent is miraculous, Tracey says, considering her early childhood. "Who would have thought it possible for a girl who used to be in her own world, non-verbal, crying inconsolably for 23.5 hours a day, unable to crawl or walk, intolerant of touch and suffering a seizure every 10 seconds? That's why I believe we are blessed."
Still, the future looms large.
“What do we do if Stephimals doesn’t pan out and this is all for nothing?” Rob asks. “It’s a scary situation and we’re pinning a lot of hope on this. We’re taking money from our retirement savings to invest in this.”
"I'm not a gambler and this is like putting everything we have in a slot machine and hoping it pays out," Tracey says. "We will never be able to retire!"
Visit Stephie at Stephimals.