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A Dinosaur Says Moo

"A Dinosaur Says Moo" is a playful, interactive artwork any toddler can enjoy. Installed at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, it's also specifically created to meet the needs of the UC artist's son, who has autism, and as a means for father and son to bridge a deep divide.

by M.B. Reilly
November ’13
(513) 556-1824

Art is Ryan Mulligan’s bridge to reach his 3-year-old son, Hobbs.  

Hobbs has profound autism.

“His brain is wired differently,” explains his father. 

So, like many with the neurodevelopmental disorder, Hobbs is severely impaired in terms of communication and social interactions. For instance, Hobbs is uninterested and unable to hold a crayon or a piece of paper, or even to speak.

Says Mulligan, “As a father and an artist, I’ve had to give up the notion that he and I would draw together, but I’m terrified of not finding ways of harnessing his energy and interest to have our moments together.”

That’s why Mulligan, an assistant professor of fine arts at the University of Cincinnati’s top-ranked College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), created a new interactive installation for children at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

The installation of 20 square feet is engagingly titled “A Dinosaur Says Moo,” a reference to a time before Hobbs lost his ability to speak.

Determined to connect with his son, Mulligan turned to what he knows best. The exhibit, while an appropriate play space for any toddler, is Mulligan’s artful outreach to his son, a space and a time for them to be together on Hobbs’ terms.

According to Mulligan, “Hobbs has changed my work. He’s changed  how I teach. How I strive for clarity, how I deliver information. This is just one more facet of that. I designed and built this work for him. And, maybe, a little bit, for people to enter our confusing, our grey world. Or maybe because if I don’t make art and don’t connect with my son, I’ll lose my mind.”

Explaining the name: A Dinosaur Says Moo

When Hobbs Mulligan was seven months old, he had about a 20-word vocabulary, and his parents, Ryan Mulligan and Kathryn Castle, would read with him a favorite bedtime story, “Dinosaur vs. Bed Time.” And when they would ask him what the dinosaur said to bedtime, Hobbs would answer – with his southern lilt – “ro-ar.”

Recalls UC's Ryan Mulligan, “One day at about 11 months of age, I asked what a dinosaur says, and Hobbs didn’t say ‘ro-ar.’ He said, ‘Moo.’ It was the beginning of Hobbs’ loss of speech.  As the symptoms of his autism became more pronounced, he lost all the sounds he had learned for animals. And eventually, all the words vanished.”

An installation for all children, inviting for those with autism

 The installation features about 10 random, small holes – think of the holes of a putt-putt course. “Only I call it a foot-putt course,” explains Mulligan. He adds that the holes are placed randomly, without a discernible pattern in order to serve as a metaphor as to how Mulligan can see “no discernible play routine in Hobbs’ activities. So, our world’s rules for patterns are out. We are entering what I believe is his world.”

  • Blue balls can be foot-putted into the holes, foot-putted because Hobbs has difficulty holding anything like a toy putter.  In addition, the foot-putting allows for greater accessibility for toddlers of varying physical abilities.
  • The balls, when collected together, rest in a three-foot-long, two-foot-wide pool that Hobbs can sit or lie in – enjoying the pressure of the balls pressing in on either side. Such pressure often serves as a kinetic energy release for those with autism.
  • That is also the function of a “squeeze tunnel ramp” at the center of “A Dinosaur Says Moo.” Beneath a standard, carpeted ramp that any child might play on are rollers that Hobbs (or any other child) could squeeze through. States Mulligan, “Like many people with autism, Hobbs needs to feel physical pressure. He likes the control inherent in pressure. If I can give him deep pressure for a solid hour, he’s all smiles, gives high fives and sleeps well.”
  • Another feature, a small “trampoline ramp” allows small children to jump off, since jumping off an object (like a chair) is often, again, a release of kinetic energy for those with autism. According to Mulligan, “Hobbs jumps off of chairs right on to his knees. It’s a release, as our knees and our jaws contain large amounts of our nervous, anxious energy. Hobbs seems to jump to regulate and diminish his nervous energy, and I guess I can relate. I chew straws whenever I’m anxious.”
  • Overall, the space is designed to echo. Making loud vocalizations and hearing the echoes tends to be something children with autism enjoy: “Hobbs knows he’s controlling the sound when he makes a loud noise that echoes.”

“A Dinosaur Says Moo” is bordered by brightly painted panels that, in an abstract fashion, recall Hobbs’ favorite movies, including “Mary Poppins,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and even the Elvis Presley film, “Girl Happy.”

“I like to say that Hobbs is inside all of my paintings now. In this case, while children will enjoy the bright colors, I also see it as a way of making visible the overload Hobbs experiences,” says Mulligan, who adds that while he’s made art to provide his son physical release, that art is also Mulligan’s release as an artist: “My making this art is selfish. It’s my therapy too, my catharsis, my release of energy. In making art and play for him and his release, I’ve made it for myself.”

In other words, the playful art is their act of conversation even when speaking profoundly different  languages.

“A Dinosaur Says Moo” opened Oct. 26. It will be at Cincinnati’s Zaha Hadid-designed Contemporary Arts Center for a year. In the future, Mulligan hopes the exhibit will travel since “not too many museums are inclusive for kids like Hobbs.”


Parting shots

Click any image to enlarge or enter photo gallery

photos by Lisa Ventre