If art expresses the cognition, perception, social emotional, communication and personality states of the artist, what are we learning from artists with autism? Are we learning about autism at all through their art, and if so, which facets of their autism? Are we in fact learning more about the diversity of autism through the array of works by people with autism and how does this stir up fiercely defended old and new stereotypes?
Probably the world’s most well known artist with autism is Stephen Wiltshire. He’s known as the ‘human camera’ and can look at a building, street or aerial view just once, then replicate it in fine and accurate detail. He loves to replicate stunningly complex structures, skylines, streets. So what does this tell us about autism? Well in fact it may tell us nothing about autism at all. For although Stephen is autistic, his work is actually capturing eidetic memory but in fact most people with autism do not have eidetic memory. To quote Wikipedia:
Eidetic memory, photographic memory, or total recall is the ability to recall images, sounds, or objects in memory with extreme accuracy and in abundant volume. The word eidetic (pronounced /аɪˈdɛtɪk/) means related to extraordinarily detailed and vivid recall of visual images, and comes from the Greek word είδος (eidos), which means “form”. Eidetic memory as observed in children is typified by the ability of an individual to study an image for approximately 30 seconds, and maintain a nearly perfect photographic memory of that image for a short time once it has been removed—indeed such eidetikers claim to “see” the image on the blank canvas as vividly and in as perfect detail as if it were still there.
Some individuals with autism display extraordinary memory, including those with related conditions such as Asperger’s syndrome. However, most individuals with a diagnosis of autism do not possess eidetic memory.
Among the more well known autistic artists is also Jessy Park. Her work, like Stephen’s, is largely architectural. She likes to paint pictures of houses. She has a great passion for color and her work is highly stylised, controlled, contained. This could tell us she has an architect’s eye for structures, that she prefers a high level of control in her work, and that she is unafraid of the expressive use of color. We could say Jessy either lacks interest in painting people, animals or nature or that she’s simply far less interested in them because they are animate and constantly changeable and not as easy to replicate as buildings.
The work of autistic artist, Jonathan Lerman shows an individual fixated on faces, facial expression and the individuality of personhood expressed through the face. This would at least mean Jonathan likely does not have Social Emotional Agnosia nor Faceblindness.
The joyous works of Mark Rimland include figurative works of cats and people in activities and in interaction and is emotionally expressive, open and flowing.
Christophe Pillault does deeply soulful figurative works showing people interacting, dancing. Like my own work, his are also faceless and the emphasis on on movement. This could mean, as in my case, that he is deeply kineasthetic and tuned into movement. It could also mean he’s face blind, which could heighten perception of movement as a means of identifying people, but in Christophe’s case, he has such limited fine motor skills it may mean he doesn’t have the fine motor skills to paint faces, but my own view is that his works are beautiful because they don’t have faces.