ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Shekira Farrell never fully understood the power of her voice.
It wasn't until her 6-year-old son Jaiden was diagnosed with autism at age 2 that she realized its importance.
“We found out when he was younger there was a possibility he wouldn't speak,” Shekira, 27, of Asbury Park, said. "Now I have to use my voice for not only myself, but for him.”
Her son's diagnosis lit a spark in her. She wanted to raise autism awareness anyway she could, and for Shekira, that was through art.
More often that not, the single mother's face is covered in colors — reds, blues, yellows, and greens highlight her complexion. Her face acts as a canvas, as a platform to share her experiences raising an autistic child. Once finished, she'll post the final creation on Instagram. Since starting, she's garnered over 10,000 likes and more than 2,000 shares in 24 hours on one Instagram post.
She's received hundreds of messages from others, telling her she's an inspiration — that she's bringing about hope.
Before Jaiden, Shekira had no prior knowledge of autism.
When she first heard the news, she immediately went into panic mode. Therapists and pediatricians kept telling her he wouldn't be able to talk, to form relationships or build an imagination.
“When it’s your only child you want to do everything to make sure he’s OK,” Shekira said. “I just ran with it and went in the opposite direction.
“I gave him the opportunity to grow on his own terms. People have this timeline on when your child is supposed to be able to do something. I learned early on it’s whenever they’re ready.”
Jaiden is full of life — he’s an entertainer, constantly putting on a show whether it’s dancing, singing or talking about his favorite video game Super Mario Bros. There are still moments of struggle, however, when Jaiden becomes restless or overwhelmed.
But for the Farrells, Jaiden is everybody's light, his grandmother Rachel Farrell said.
“You can’t describe Jaiden in a word,” Rachel said. “He’s this energetic fireball from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed.”
From a young age, creativity was an essential part of Shekira's identity, her mother Rachel said.
“This little girl walked around with a dictionary,” Rachel said. “She was on the bus one day spelling words from the dictionary to the bus driver. She’s always been showing her creativity.”
Face painting was never an interest of Shekira’s. But one day she looked in the mirror, picked up a paintbrush, and let her imagination run wild.
“My first reaction when I saw (her face) was, ‘Who did that, and where they at?’ ” her mother said with a laugh.
Her face painting projects usually are autism-related. Other times, she will raise awareness for diseases or disabilities, like brain cancer, lupus, sickle cell anemia, depression, anxiety, diabetes.
In her most popular Instagram post, a zipper runs down the middle of her face, opening up to reveal puzzle pieces — the symbol for autism. The image is a bit jarring, but one that gets your attention.
“If you were to unzip my layers and look into my inner being, the core that was the most important to me would be my son,” Shekira said.
Every post Shekira shares comes with a little message — whether it’s a lesson she learned throughout the day or a message about an act of kindness a stranger offered her.
'It's not about a cure'
Many of the walls inside their Asbury Park home are dedicated to Jaiden.
Pictures of him surrounded by loved ones adorn the walls. His school artwork hangs on the fridge, where you'll spot a turtle made out of tissue and construction paper, and a drawing of a young boy smiling, his arms wide open — much like Jaiden.
“He’ll go in his room, take out his crayons and try to mimic her (face painting),” Rachel said.
Ask Jaiden about his mother’s artwork, and he’ll tell you "mommy always stays on task."
“It’s very beautiful and I like it," he added.
Shekira said she wouldn't want Jaiden any other way.
"I want people to know it’s not about a cure," Shekira said. "Autism is a part of who he is. It's not about trying to change them. It’s just about finding a way to connect with them and understand them. Even if there was a cure I wouldn't take it because I wouldn't know him any other way than who he is and how he is."
To see Shekira's work, visit instagram.com/shekiraf.