A man with dark hair and a woman with long blond hair stand behind a young autistic boy, Woody, who has brown hair, a green shirt and an orange beanie. Behind them are framed linocut prints on a white brick wall.
24 Aug

Q & A with Sonny Adorjan, dad & co-creator of Woodism

This month, we caught up with Sonny Adorjan, autism dad and creator of Woodism, an artistic collaboration between himself and his autistic son Woody. We spoke about his experience parenting autistic children, the evolution of Woodism and how he hopes to spend Father’s Day in a few weeks’ time.

Your son Woody was diagnosed with autism at the age of three. What was your understanding of autism like before his diagnosis and how has it changed since?

We really didn’t have much knowledge of autism before Woody’s diagnosis. I guess we can thank Dustin Hoffman’s character in 'Rainman' for clouding a lot of people’s views, including ourselves.

Being our first child, we weren’t even sure what was ‘typical’ development and what wasn’t. He was the kind of child who everyone fell in love with when they met him, he was very open and non judgemental, we just thought all kids would chat to complete strangers for hours on end, or struggled with anxiety and transitions. And we were just exhausted trying to get him to put his shoes on for two hours because we were rubbish parents.  

Obviously now we know that some things are just more tricky for him and some things are easier. And we’re not rubbish parents. Phew.

We’ve learnt a huge amount lately as he’s struggled more as he’s got older. The more he accesses the world and grows in independence, the tougher he finds it. It’s why we’re so passionate about moving things forward and making the world more inclusive of differences. It’s all too ableist right now.  

Congratulations on your most recent exhibition at the Brunswick Street Gallery! For those who aren’t familiar with Woodism, tell us how it began and how it’s become so successful?

We used to write down some of the things that Woody said on our phones as a way to remember them. He had such a unique way of describing things or talking about the big feelings he was having, we didn’t want to lose them to fuzzy memories. The list became know as Woody’s Woodisms.

One day I wondered if it would be fun to turn them into Linocut prints, it would give me a chance to connect with Woody and could be a good way to share his wonderful words with friends and family.

I made one print initially, with Woody helping me decide on the design and colour – ‘I Love You For All The Minutes’ I think was our first.

I posted it on social media and it had a massive reaction with over 250 000 views. People loved it and wanted to buy it and so ‘Woodism’ was born. We’ve now created well over 20 prints featuring Woody’s touching phrases and we can’t quite believe how much joy it’s brought us and the connections we’ve made through Woodism.

What have been the most rewarding, surprising and challenging parts of Woodism?  

The best has been getting to hang out with my boy, sharing something special together and feeling a huge sense of pride that people are getting to see just how awesome he is.

We’ve also loved all the messages we’ve received from parents and families of autistic kids who have said how Woody’s words have resonated with them. Often people purchase a Woodism as a kind of positive symbol for when a loved one gets a diagnosis.

For me it feels pretty incredible to think that Woody’s words have now been accepted into the permanent collection of the V&A Museum in London. It means generations to come will get to feel the Woodism joy. Which blows my mind a bit.

The most challenging has been balancing all the extra load that Woodism brings, and not letting it take away from time with Woody. He doesn’t like anything taking away his parents attention. Ha.

Your daughter has recently been diagnosed with autism and you mentioned at our AUStism event in Melbourne that she and Woody couldn’t be more different. In what ways are they different and how do you acknowledge and accommodate these differences?

It’s been quite a wild ride discovering our daughter is also autistic. Although she says she ‘always knew’ and that she ‘wanted to be autistic, anyway’ so she could love her brother more.

Until recently, the characteristics describing autism were based on research done with boys, so girls often slipped through the net, being notoriously better at masking their differences to ‘fit in’ with the world. Yet this can lead to a hugely deregulated nervous system over time.

Our daughter struggles a lot with demands. Simple requests elevate her nervous system and we’ve had to radically change how we parent.

Having two kids with very different needs, each desperate for autonomy and exclusive parental attention has been very hard at times. We even had to separate the kids in different houses every evening for 6 months to survive.

But lately things have turned a bit of a corner. With the right support, therapies and medication, they are beginning to thrive again. And even spend time together without the world exploding.

How does your idea of fatherhood and parenting compare to what it was before having children, or knowing that your children are autistic?

I guess we all have ideas about what parenthood will be like, mainly based on our own experience of growing up. I’ve had to shift my expectations a lot. Although my new reality has had its challenges, the joy I get from the smallest things from the kids is unbelievable.

Many of their challenges are social and emotional, but I don’t think many kids tell their parents just how much they love them as many times a week as my wife and I hear it from the kids. They are so open with their love for us. We feel very lucky.    

Woodism as a concept is reaching new heights each and every day. How do you hope it will evolve in the months and years to come?

We only really have one rule when it comes to Woodism; the day it stops bringing us joy and starts to feel like hard work is the day we most likely give it up.

We’re mindful that Woody is getting older too and will likely wantless to do with Woodism, so we respect that and are taking his lead on how involved he wants to be. His sister, Essie (5) is coming out with lots of wonderful ‘Essisms’, so who knows…she may well get a section on our site too one day.  

Father’s Day is fast approaching in Australia. What are you wishing for this Father’s Day and for other autism dads out there?

One of the biggest challenges I’m sure a lot of parents of autistic kids feel, is getting time away to look after themselves and their relationships. Often kids like ours can’t simply be left with relatives or anyone who isn’t trained in how to meet their needs, so time away is scarce.

There’s a higher rate of mental health issues and relationship breakdowns in neurodivergent families, so looking after yourself is just as important as looking after the kids.

This year I hope I get to spend a (fun but chaotic) breakfast with the kids, followed by a lotto win that provides respite for all autism dads so we can have a week in the Maldives with our other halves while the kids are living their best lives with highly skilled carers that love them. Not too much to ask…

Visit the Woodism website and follow Woodism on Instagram to see their latest prints and exhibitions!

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