The young man sits at his drafting table in the kitchen of the double-wide trailer his family calls home in a holler near Jackson. He puts pencil to paper and begins to draw. Once he starts, he does not stop and finishes a complete penciled page without erasing.
“It’s as if he is able to see the image in his mind and simply copy it to paper,” says Pikeville artist Christopher Epling, who has worked with the teen at the drafting table. “His understanding of composition, perspective and the applied line goes well beyond his years.”
Epling is referring to 19-year-old Ted Austin Hudson, an accomplished artist. In 2015, he published his first illustrated children’s book, Noah’s Ark. What sets Ted apart from other young artists is that he is autistic.
For years, no one knew what to do with the little boy in L.B.J. Elementary School. He was an anomaly to those charged with educating him, a child with his own agenda and way of processing the world around him. A small, rural district like Breathitt County did not have the resources or expertise for dealing with children like Ted, so educators labeled him as having emotional-behavioral disorder (EBD).
“He was extremely smart,” says his mother, Michelle Robertson, “but he was at a level where they couldn’t put him in special ed, and they couldn’t put him in a regular classroom, so they categorized him as EBD and put him in a class with kids of all ages.” It wasn’t until 2011 that he was officially diagnosed with having autism spectrum disorder.
For Ted, it has taken a village to bring his remarkable artistic genius to the world. His talent may have remained buried in the mountains of Appalachia had it not been for the many people who recognized that he had a special gift and helped him along the way. More importantly, he would have lacked basic social skills and been increasingly isolated from the rest of the world.
Raised by his mother and her husband, James, whom she married when Ted was 3, Ted also has been significantly influenced by his great-aunt and -uncle, Adna Mae and Doug Noble, who live in Flintville, about 10 miles from Jackson. Ted, along with sisters Montana and Alexis, have spent most weekends with Adna, whom he calls Nannie, and Doug, also known as Dougie. They instilled in him a strong sense of church and family, and indeed, Ted’s world consists mostly of church and his drawing. Therefore, the subject matter for Noah’s Ark and many of his drawings comes from Bible studies. Additional influences are Disney cartoons, folk music and old videos.
Ted’s art extends beyond drawing. When he was around 11, Doug Noble started teaching him to make wooden puppets. Ted drew joints for the puppets and insisted they be made exactly the way he designed them. “I used to saw for him,” Noble explains, “but now he does the sawing.”
Life started to change for Ted when he met Donna Combs, who was to become more than just his high school special education teacher. He told her that he had written a book. Combs, who had spent 19 years as an instructional assistant before earning her college degree and teaching special education students, was the catalyst Ted needed to realize his ambitions.
“She has gone above and beyond,” Robertson says of Combs. “And it’s not just with him; it’s with all of her students. She finds the special talent they have, and she just goes with it.”
The bond Combs forged with the young artist is like that of family. This was especially evident when she had to undergo heart surgery last fall. “He was a mess,” she says. “He had to talk to me every day.”
Combs set out to get Ted’s book published, and the journey proved frustrating and at times confusing. The first hurdle was Ted himself. “When I first started with him to get the book published, he absolutely refused,” she says. “He believed that God did not want him to get famous using His words. He was afraid he would get reprimanded by God.”
Gradually, as she gained his trust, Combs was able to understand his moods and how to work with him, and convinced him it was all right to publish the book. For Ted, trust is important. If he thinks someone has lied to him, he will never trust that person again. He also knows exactly what he wants. Robertson says that even as a little boy, “as long as he was doing what he wanted to do, everything was fine until you interrupted his schedule.”
What Ted wanted was a hardcover book, because he said a book could not be a classic unless it is hardcover. He did not have enough pages to make that possible. So he added pages to his original illustrations, created when he was in sixth grade, and remarkably, the colors and character illustrations exactly match the originals.
The Breathitt County school district made a commitment to assist in getting Ted’s book published, but then a wall was reached: No one knew how to make this happen. Through a grant Combs received from the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, she connected with Epling, the Pikeville artist who specializes in the sequential art format (think comic strip or graphic novel). He was interested when he heard Ted’s story.
“Hearing of a student who is utilizing their talent and interest in a way to create and share their ideas with others caused me to become very excited,” Epling says. “I agreed to go to the high school and meet Ted and see this for myself.”
When the artist began working with Ted, he had only words on a page and pictures. Because of Epling’s belief in the young man, he decided to do the layout work himself. Epling also secured the ISBN for the book, set up the copyright information with the Library of Congress, and obtained price quotes for printing the book. Fortunately, Epling had experience with the publishing industry and was able to successfully serve as publisher. Noah’s Ark, published by Epling Illustrations, can be purchased through Ted’s website, tedhudson.net, and at amazon.com.
The book project helped Ted build his confidence and changed his overall attitude toward life. He is more social and even modeled some characters in his book on his friends and sisters. Most of Ted’s classmates can tell when to talk to him and when to leave him alone. They also protect him.
The biggest challenge facing Ted’s family is how he will navigate the world since he graduated from Breathitt County High School earlier this year. “His socialization needs to be kept up,” Robertson says, “but being away on his own would not be possible.”
He has written and illustrated another book, Princess Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an original story based on the classic fairy tale, and self-published it. Combs learned Photoshop and how to prepare pages for publication in assisting Ted with his book, which was released in June and is available through lulu.com.
Robertson has reached out to Lexington’s Joseph-Beth Booksellers about carrying Ted’s books and would like to make connections with the Ark Encounter in Williamstown to have his Noah’s Ark offered in the park’s gift shop.
The future for Ted and his amazing art is in need of another angel. “If he was perfectly normal and had done what he’s done, the colleges would be offering him scholarships for art,” Noble says. “You don’t want him to have to settle for just anything; he’s got a lot more potential than that.”