How Autistic Artists See the World

Artworks created by autistic people reveal their fascinating visions.

Jun 29, 2010 4:07 PMNov 20, 2019 8:17 PM


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Photo Credits: Text by Eliza Strickland

You may not have noticed them all, but autistic artist Jessica Park reports that this painting uses seven shades of black, nine shades of green, and five shades of violet, among other colors; the shades are applied according to "a diagram that she holds in her mind from the beginning."

Park is one of many autistic people translating their particular views of the world into art pieces. The work can be a comfort and relief to people longing to express themselves, and can also help others understand the mental processes of autism. A new book of art compiled by Jill Mullin, Drawing Autism from Mark Batty Publisher, rounds up many remarkable examples of work by people from all across the autism spectrum. Click through the gallery for some of our favorite works.

Some of the artworks relate to the frustration the artists experience in trying to interact with others, as many people with autism have difficulty reading other people's facial and emotional cues.

Donna Williams, who created this painting called "The Outsider," says: "A lot of my work is faceless people, which I guess expresses my world as a face-blind person. They lack distinct backgrounds, more like, they have atmospheres not backgrounds, and that's probably because I'm context-blind."

Repetition and categorization: Those are the themes of Gregory Blackstock's work.

Blackstock started to draw at the age of 31, when he drew all of Disney's most famous villains. Two years later he did a series of "miscellaneous bug pests." Over the subsequent years, other categories have followed like tropical fruit, balls, poodles, and turnips.

Esther Brokaw describes herself as a savant--someone with an usual talent that contrasts with her overall limitations. Her masterful paintings make it obvious that she sees the world differently, as her landscapes seem to capture every leaf in the forest and every beam of light.

Says Brokaw: "My reasons for going public with my savant diagnosis is to increase awareness of the talent that exists in many on the autistic spectrum and to encourage the world to utilize these talents."

The book Drawing Autism was inspired by the drawings of Glen Russ, who has spent years drawing stylistic stick-figure drawings of many of his favorite bands.

The book's author and compiler, Jill Mullin, worked with Russ, and she proudly displayed his drawings in her kitchen where they grabbed visitors' attention with their emotive power. "Guests who passed through my home would remark on the distinctive images, asking about the artist and his inspirations," she writes. Their impact encouraged her to seek other autistic artists with singular visions.

The drawings of Shawn Belanger, done with ink and markers, are characterized by bright colors and attention to shape and detail.

Belanger barely talks, his mother says, but he has thrown himself into his artwork since he began to draw seriously in high school. His pictures often focus on outdoor scenes with trees or gardens.

At the age of 51 Kay Aitch was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder often characterized by normal cognitive development but impaired social skills.

This drawing, titled "Distraction From the Eyes," seems to capture the difficulty many people with Asperger's have with making eye contact, reading facial expressions, and understanding the emotions of others.

Another artist with Asperger's, Rachel Marks, was inspired to make this collage by the difficulty she has navigating daily life. Her literal understanding of language has often left her baffled by metaphors and figures of speech like "you're a square peg in a round hole."

Says Marks: "Figurative language enriches and supports the neurotypical experience. With autism, these purported props and supports to understanding become barriers and frustrations."

Not all the art in Drawing Autism can be linked to some characteristic of autism; some works are simply the result of an autistic artist feeling the joy of creation.

Noah Schneider painted this picture in homage to Fiddler on the Roof, one of his favorite musicals. His Web site also features his claymation and animated films.

Wil Kerner was diagnosed with autism at the age of two. Now 14 years old, he has blossomed into a dedicated artist who communicates via shapes and colors. Kerner's pair of scissors is his constant companion, his grandmother says, and he uses colors to describe people and emotions.

His bright paper cutouts are often inspired by his favorite videos and DVDs. This collage, titled "Pals," was based on the scene in Pinocchio in which the bad boys turn into donkeys. Purple-faced Pinocchio has already sprouted a donkey ear and his yellow-faced friend is looking on with horror, while the blue- and green-faced boys haven't yet realized what's happening.

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