Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Beautiful Mind

by Drew Martin

A picture in a magazine caught my eye a couple months ago. It was of a boy lying on the grass with a vacuum cleaner hose arced over his head. He holds one end at his mouth and the other end at his ear. It is an intriguing picture because of his tranquility and the soft, echoing sounds it creates in your mind when you look at it, but it also a little unsettling.

This picture accompanied an article about autism and is part of a New York Times article with a slideshow that focuses on the boy's condition. The pictures were taken by the father, a professional commercial photographer, of his son. The father approached the project as a way to understand his son's quirks and the young boy contributed to the planning and executing of the shots.

The Aspergers and Autism community blog,, shares my thoughts on the Times' piece that it...

"... is a little more "autistic children are trapped in a cruel world of darkness" than I would like to see in this century..."

The inherent stillness and isolation of the photography has a lot to do with this and the formality of the shoot reinforces a clinical label. Unfortunately, most media representations of unique minds tend to either exaggerate, caricaturize or elevate them to a genius/savant level.

While it is true some autistic kids are cognitively years ahead of their peers and make brilliant musical and artistic connections, I would hesitate to join the camp that proposes autism is a sign of human evolution. I believe that people who display autistic tendencies have greatly contributed to the advancement of civilization and culture with their insights on humanity, arts, sciences and engineering but we are not witnessing the birth of a new species.

The idea of autism as a kind of mental superiority has been criticized as neurelitism, that is, the view that autistics are somehow superior to neurotypicals. This discussion focuses on the individual character blazing new neural paths. If there is progress with our species it is perhaps more about the social aspects that require more parenting and schooling and better parenting and schooling. An autistic child who is diagnosed early should receive much more attention and more of an education than the average kid. This would seem to be consistent with the progress our mammalian bonding and childcare. After all, we do not lay eggs in the sand and then scurry back into the sea. The emotional ties of our kind are forged through long gestation and rearing periods.

So what does autism creatively look like? While Stephen Wiltshire is well known for his detailed cityscapes, I think it should be emphasized that these sophisticated works are the final product of someone with a great visual memory but they do not shed much light on his thought process.

I find autistic sensibilities more accessible in the work of an artist such as Piet Mondrian. The artists most commonly assumed to have been autistic include Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh and Andy Warhol but I do not think it would be too far a stretch to say that every famous artist, as well as noted scientist, inventor, writer and musician is somewhere on the spectrum.

Autistic and artistic seem at times to be interchangeable.

If you listen to an autistic person explain the singularity and focus of the moment, it sounds familiar to not only how you feel when you are absorbed with the inner world of creation but also when you are immersed in someone else's work and your connection to real-time is severed.

The most common state of art is the finished product but we also can talk about art as a process, an experience, a concept and a performance. All of these are intentional. Even the per-chance dada-ists and their successive action painters were intentional. So are the l'Art Brut creators: they all set out to create.

To understand autism and art, it is important to consider the unintentional: associations made simply to establish relationships and order, which, to an observer may be received as a higher function.

In my long, narrow closet is a stretch of colorful banded carpet made by my aunt-in-law in the Tatra mountains of Poland. I came home the other day to find my three year old's cars lined up by color along the stripes. It was a subtle, beautiful gesture and yet it had nothing to do with an idea of art or decoration. It simply seemed like the right thing to do. I think this example is a nice play on being "on the spectrum" because it is indeed a colorful experience.