Paper Clouds Apparel logo
I absolutely love coming in contact with organizations that are doing good! Paper Clouds Apparel (PCA) is an amazing organization that raises funds for special needs schools while showcasing the amazing artistic abilities and creative minds of those with special needs. Something the world could use a little more of, in my opinion! I was lucky enough to link up with Robert Thornton, founder of Paper Clouds Apparel,  as well as the mother of Eli, one of PCA’s young special needs artists!


About Paper Clouds Apparel
Robert-ThorntonThe idea for Paper Clouds Apparel came to Robert after a visit to Northern California and seeing a drawing his mother had hanging on the refrigerator, which came from a special needs girl that his mother drove to school on her route as a bus driver. Robert was mesmerized by the drawing and woke up thinking about how great it would look on a t-shirt. Robert had been searching for something he could contribute to and give back. Paper Clouds Apparel ended up being “that thing” and he spent the next 3 years earning the money to launch.


VALLEYLIFE was the first organization PCA teamed up with – it is Arizona’s oldest habilitation center, currently helping over 450 individuals with special needs in Phoenix. VALLEYLIFE’s funding had been cut by 15% over the past three years. If it wasn’t for the money Paper Clouds Apparel had raised for them, they would have no art program at all. Robert’s goal is to prevent this from happening and ensure that special needs schools have all the tools and supplies needed to give these amazing individuals all they need to be successful.


The Paper Clouds Apparel Process
PCA takes a piece of artwork an individual with special needs has created and then transfers that art to a high quality shirt, print or greeting card. Those items are then sold through the PCA website at www.papercloudsapparel.com50% of the profit from the sale of these products is given to the special needs school or organization the art came from. Every two weeks, PCA teams up with a different special needs school or organization. The line for the next two weeks was created by a sweet eight year old boy named Eli. Eli is autistic and 50% of the sales made from Eli’s line of t-shirts is going to A Total Approach, a therapy center in Pennsylvania that has helped Eli and his family.

Paper Clouds Apparel
Becky, Eli’s mother, was kind enough to answer some of our questions and give some insight into the world of autism. She also gave us some great info about Eli, his art and his Paper Clouds Apparel line!


Meet Eli
Eli is 8 1/2 years old and full of life!  He has always moved to the beat of his own drum and while that was hard for us to get used to at first, allowing him to be who he is has made our lives so much richer!  He loves computer games, super heroes, playing games with his brother and sister, playing piano, hanging out with our 2 dogs, and drawing. Drawing is his form of release and self-soothing.


What challenges come with raising an autistic child?

EliThe biggest challenge for us was really understanding his needs.  Eli was diagnosed with autism, but also struggles with sensory issues, auditory processing, and speech/language issues.  He learned to speak pretty well and so we spent a large part of his younger years assuming he could understand and communicate because he could speak so well.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.  His receptive language (understanding of language) either did not develop properly, or stopped developing at some point and so he never fully understood us, or understood the mechanics of communication, despite being able to talk and carry on a conversation. His auditory issues also took some adjustment.  He would fight us about going to church every single week – it turns out it was too loud for him, but he wasn’t able to express that to us due to an issues with identifying a problem, figuring out how to express it, and then actually expressing it.  Speech is easy for him, provided it’s something of which he’s knowledgeable.  Additionally, he seems to have a very one-track mind and when he’s hyper-focused on something, it can be difficult to distract him and get him back on track – whether it’s for schoolwork, piano practice, a conversation or a game.  This hyper-focus on issues contributes to many misunderstandings about communication.  People will say to us, “But he spoke so well, and so long, about his favorite toy.”  Well, yes, but if you ask him to talk about something of interest to you, he will struggle.  He can talk about things that are of interest to him; he struggles talking about things of which he doesn’t have a solid understanding.


Do you think that people have a hard time accepting autism? If so, why is that?

I think people have a hard time accepting anything that’s different than what’s considered “typical”.  For example, when you go to church, you expect to be able to attend to the service without too many distractions.  It’s hard to attend when a child is hiding under your row, trying to block out the sound, and inadvertently bumps you over and over. It can also be difficult when a child is having a meltdown and has to be grabbed out of the middle of the row and taken out of the service. These are not typical behaviors for a child who appears to be “normal”.  So many of the issues that we deal with are “hidden disabilities”; you cannot see them with your eyes.  So if you can’t *see* them, it’s hard to understand that he has to deal with them.  It can be very hard to accept someone when you expect one type of behavior from them based on age and seeming-ability, but when their actual ability is so much less.  Taking time to get to know an individual with special needs will make you more aware of what their abilities are, so you can help meet them at their level, rather than just expecting them to act like any typically-developing person of their age.

Painting with Picasso

Eli's bumble beeWhen our guy started drawing all over the house (walls, cupboards, his bed, himself) we started referring to him as “Picasso” just because that was the first name that came to mind.  When I started the blog, my intent was (and still is) to not use his actual name, so as to protect him.  I have used his name a few times and will do so going forward for things like the Paper Clouds Apparel campaign.  But as we called him Picasso, the name “Painting with Picasso” just had  nice ring to it.  He often uses Sharpie more than paints, but he has “painted” his art all over our house.

What inspires Eli to make art? What is his favorite type of art to create?

I think life inspires Eli. The truly beautiful thing about him is that he is so full of amazing thoughts and ideas – we really never know what he will be saying next.  It’s like that with his art – we never know what is coming next.  He will be on a certain theme for a while (cars, trucks, super heroes) and then out of the blue he will make something completely different.  If there is a reason for why he chooses to draw what he does, he doesn’t often talk about it with us.  I think part of that is due to his communication issues – it’s hard for him to describe things that are “gray” like thoughts, feelings, emotions.  Talking about things that are concrete is much easier.  A car, for example, has 4 wheels and is a certain color and so it’s easier for him to describe.  But when he has to talk about things that are more subjective, it’s more difficult for him.


Sometimes he draws things he’s thinking about; sometimes he draws things from a book he’s read.  Lately he’s been drawing people or things that have super powers – I think some of that is his own desire to perceive himself in strength as he transitions through more difficult phases.  For a long time he drew all sorts of vehicles – this seemed to be based on his intense love of vehicles at that point.


His art always comes in the form of a release – you can almost see the wheels turning as he’s thinking, and then he runs for a piece of paper and out comes the design.  Several times he’s told me that he’s started with a different idea in mind.  How appropriate, then, that we’ve taken to calling him Picasso, as Pablo Picasso had this to say: “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.”

 Paper Clouds Apparel Eli

How did you link up with Paper Clouds Apparel?

Robert, from Paper Clouds Apparel, came across my blog or Facebook page and contacted me about using some of Eli’s artwork in this campaign.  I was excited to have an appropriate way to showcase some of Eli’s work. We talked with Eli, asking him if he would like to participate, and he was very agreeable. In working with Paper Clouds Apparel, we’ve been so impressed with their efforts to help people with special needs.  We also appreciate the opportunity to support the center (A Total Approach) where Eli goes for therapy.  They’ve been such a blessing in our life and it’s a joy to be able to give back in this way!


Explain the thought behind the bumble bee on Eli’s PCA shirts

The bee was drawn one day on the way to therapy.  It took 15 minutes and I believe it was just in his mind.  He has enjoyed watching “The Bee Movie” in the past, but we hadn’t seen it recently.  Sometimes, though, we’ll say the line from the movie where the bee is picking out some clothes: “Yellow, black. Yellow, black. Yellow, black. Yellow, black. Ooh, black and yellow! Let’s shake it up a little.”  We had talked about that quote some, but not on the day he did the drawing.  I think the bee is pretty cool – especially those sunglasses!


Art has been a big part of Eli’s life since he decided he wanted to start drawing.  (Like all things in his life, when he decides he’s good and ready to do something – like draw – he does it!)  We’re excited for this opportunity to pursue his interest in art and we’re looking forward to many other chances to showcase and fine-tune his talents and skills!


 A big “Thank you” to Becky for giving us some great insight into Eli’s world and talent, and to Paper Clouds Apparel for supporting great special needs artists and organizations! All Paper Clouds Apparel products can be purchased at – Eli’s specific line will continue until March 17th, so don’t wait too long! You can also follow Paper Clouds Apparel on facebook or twitter!