From Autist to Artist

This post has been condensed and edited from the original “From Autist to Artist” post which appeared on Varda’s blog The Squashed Bologna: a slice of life in the sandwich generation. To read this post in its entirety, click here.

I have, on occasion, sat in the park chatting with a stranger and felt compelled to reveal: “my son is Autistic” and had them mishear me. “Oh, my son / brother / nephew is very artistic, too, isn’t that wonderful.” and I don’t know what to say.  I hate to pop their happy bubble, am glad they have thought my son typical enough to pass for just an oddball artist and not a totally weird special needs kid. Odd behavior is, after all, accepted from artists.  And the greater the talent or fame (not necessarily the same thing) the more leeway is given, the more deflection from normalcy is tolerated.

And then sometimes, I think: “can he be both?” and “what’s the difference anyway, and where is the path across that great divide?” 

Quite a few years ago, when Jacob was just three and a half, we found ourselves pleasantly meandering through New York City’s Central Park on a warm spring day. At the time his days were full of various therapies, all the time, all day long. But this day was cleared, free, a total rarity. A gift.  And I decided to revel in it: 

We are walking slowly, no agenda, no hurry, through the lower edge of the park, when we chance upon some single bricks laying about, castoffs from some project or other nearby. Jacob sees one and picks it up.  I don’t see the harm, so I let him.  It becomes his favorite toy, his new best friend.  He carries it throughout the park, won’t let me take it back from him.  And then he puts it down on the edge of the path, half on the pavement, half on the grass, and flings himself down to lie flat, gaze at the brick up close and view the world around him through the lens of: brick foreground, Central Park splendors behind.  He picks the brick up, carries it a few feet to a new vista and repeats.

And I am struck by how engaged in this project he is.  He is seeing the world through this unique filter and he is so enthralled by it.  And it bowls me over, how intense is his love affair with this seeming ordinary workaday object: a brick.  How basic, solid, utilitarian, we see them every day with nary a second glance, and yet to him it has become a thing of beauty, special and precious.  And then I think: Isn’t this what artists do? Take things we pass by, think nothing of and hold them up, say “look at the wonderfulness here, the splendor you didn’t notice”.

It’s what my father did as a photographer, made you look at that man working on the street, that lovely junk on a junk man’s table, debris discarded on a city street, and see the extraordinary beauty there in the ordinary.  I think of the Dadaists, who specifically chose pedestrian objects and held them up claiming “it’s art if I say it is”; Duchamp’s urinal the most widely recognized example of this oft scorned and vilified movement — but we still remember and talk about it, it’s influence carrying on thorough the generations, giving birth to new art forms and bad music videos alike.   And I wonder: what is the wall, the membrane, the line in the sand that represents the magic threshold that Jake would have to step over to cross from Autist to Artist? Because if this intense attachment to everyday objects, having a unique vision of them, even carrying that over to obsession, if this all is a hallmark of the Autistic and the Artist alike, what separates them?

I think of many artists becoming obsessed with a particular image or object; story or subject and painting, sculpting, re-creating that over and over in different ways, repetition with variation but still, holding onto the thing until its meaning has been wrung out, exhausted, and still going back to that well again:  Monet’s water lilies, Frida Kahlo’s self portraits, Rothko’s rectangles.

When an autistic kid re-creates the same thing over and over we call it rigidity and try to break him of it, but when a great artist paints the same thing over and over, we call that her signature subject and marvel at her ability to see things new again whilst stumping along a worn and familiar path.

It is interesting to note that the very first of Marcel Duchamp’s found object creations (which he called “Readymades”) was a bicycle wheel, which he mounted upside down onto a stool in his studio. He would spin it occasionally just to watch it, claiming “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” Hmm, sound familiar?

And the answer is, of course, communicative intent.  For an Artist, no mater how narcissistic, wrapped up in himself, withdrawn and solitary, the creative impulse is still connected to communication, the desire to share one’s uniquely warped vision of the world with the world, or at least one other individual in it. The Autist, on the other hand, is most usually happy to lose himself in the objects of his fascination, to commune rapturously alone with their beauty.

The interesting thing is that Jacob has changed so much in this, now.  He is straddling that fence that separates the autist from the artist, he has bucketfuls of communicative intent. Were this to have happened today he would not want to be alone with his lovely brick but he would be taking me by the hand, dragging me down to belly up to the pavement with him, close one eye then the other to see how the brick relates to the background.  “Look, Mommy!” he would say, as he does so often now, pointing out his world to me, wanting me to see and marvel with him at what has caught his fancy.  That “with him” part is the big brass ring, and I am over the moon that Jacob now has it firmly in his grasp.

It’s called “shared attention”, and if your child is developing typically you don’t even notice it as it kicks in around 9 months, certainly by a year.  You point to a bird and your baby cues in to your gaze, his eyes follow the direction of your finger and he looks where you’re looking, smiles when he finds the birdie.  Your toddler picks up a pretty rock and brings it to you, proudly sharing her treasure. Jacob did none of these things at that tender age. But he’s here now, sharing attention in spades, and I bow down to kiss the feet of the goddess of neuro-emotional development that has allowed Jacob to walk this path, step by step, from Autist toward Artist.

Photo Credit: Jim Steinhardt  “Girl with Balloon at Central Park Zoo” 1963  (yes, that’s Varda)


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Irish Autism Action
Irish Autism Action is an umbrella organisation with 33 member groups and 3,500 individual members. Our members range from the 13 Special Schools for Children with Autism to local support groups and are located in practically every county in Ireland.
Irish Autism Action

Irish Autism Action

Irish Autism Action is an umbrella organisation with 33 member groups and 3,500 individual members. Our members range from the 13 Special Schools for Children with Autism to local support groups and are located in practically every county in Ireland.

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