Darold Treffert M.D. talks about myths about autism and savant artists

Dr. Darold Treffert
Dr. Darold Treffert

“The remarkable abilities of the artist with autism surface because of their autism, not in spite of it.” Darold Treffert, M.D.

It is unclear exactly when the first art by a person with autism appeared. Some say it dates back to earliest times. Whenever it first happened, the world ever since has been brightened by the work of these unique individuals who possess such remarkable talent. This book is vivid testimony to their extraordinary abilities. Their art is a gift to us.

There are some particular things to remember about these artists and their work.

First, art by persons with autism stands on its own. Many artists with autism demonstrate superior skills by any standard. Their art work is spectacular and pleasing not just because it was created by someone with a disability, but it is spectacular and pleasing in its own right. Its merits astound. Look at the drawings and paintings in this book. To term this “outsider art,” as the unenlightened may do, is elitist, demeaning and discriminatory. While certain of these artists lack formal training, they are most certainly capable of creating “insider art;” their lack of formal training may actually be part of what makes their work spectacular.

Amanda LaMunyon Sunflowers - painted at age 7

Second, in my view and in the opinion of many others as well, the remarkable abilities of the artist with autism surface because of their autism, not in spite of it. Many of their unique abilities co-exist alongside certain of their “dis-abilities.” In short, these skills are not merely compensatory, nor are they the product of continual reinforcement. Rather, they are integral to the “disorder,” consistent with the spectrum’s unusual sensitivity to various sensory stimuli, superior visual memory, precocious performance impulses and innate access to what has been called a “picture lexicon” or the “rules of art.”

Third, these skills are not accidental, extraneous or frivolous. They represent the language – sometimes the only language – by which these individuals are able to communicate. Their creations convey their impressions, thoughts and emotions, when typical language and expression is limited or, in some cases, all together absent. Just as important and critical, these abilities serve as what I call, a conduit toward growth, in which language acquisition, social comfort, and daily living skills, are all enhanced.

Wil Kerner "Party Boy" Wil mysteriously cuts holding the scissors in an odd way despite 3 years of O.T. to correct his grip

This artwork not only enhances our lives as its beneficiaries, but also enhances the lives of the artists themselves: training the talent helps ameliorate other limitations. For many years I have witnessed this marvelous transition in many of the artists with autism I have had the honor to follow. Know too that, with these overall gains in functioning, there is no dreaded trade-off of special abilities whatsoever. Rather, both the special skills, language, social, and daily living skills advance simultaneously. Rest assured, one need not fear the loss of special abilities as a result of paying attention to them, much less other developmental needs.

Fourth, another myth is that artists with autism, while demonstrating spectacular duplication and replication skills, lack creativity, is just that: a myth. Artists with autism can definitely be creative. Indeed, having had the opportunity to follow a number of these artists with autism over the years, I have observed a predictable and marvelous pathway to creativity in these special people. They begin their artistic careers with striking replicas of what they have seen and stored, usually requiring no model or constant reference piece. An initial glance is often sufficient, to foster creation of dazzling replications, replete with minute detail.

Esther Brokaw "Fall at Patchaug Pond" Esther was diagnosed in 2004 with Asperger syndrome with savant skills and pattern recognition

On occasion, some improvisation appears – a telephone pole deleted there, a new tree placed here – and the original replication begins to be transformed. Then, along the way, comes interpretation, free form style, or some other form of creativity expressed in fresh, original work.

Thus is the path from literal copying, to improvisation, to free form creation, traveled. Some artists prefer to stay with replication, but many go beyond copying, as stunning as that can be, to improvising and then creating something entirely new.

This amazing mural by Seth Chwast is created with over 100 paintings. Seth started painting at the age of 20.

I have seen musicians who are autistic follow the same path. First they play back exactly what they have heard, immediately committing it to memory. Then they begin improvising. Finally, after a time, entirely original compositions emerge. Research studies comparing childhood musicians who are autistic with a control group of non-autistic musicians with some musical training, show “musical inventiveness” to be higher in the group with autism. When compared to neuro-typical control groups – even groups with training – based on my observations, I expect the finding of increased inventiveness to surface among artistic children with autism.

Another myth that begs discreditation, is that the art of persons with autism lacks emotion. This myth suggests that, while the works of artists with autism may demonstrate incredible skills in replicating, even unusual color or technique, the artwork is emotionally flat. Not so. Look at the works in this book. Even artists with autism who may lack the ability to show emotion in any other way, brightly and forcefully share their emotions through their art. For some of these artists their art presents a way for them to venture out emotionally for the first time. For those of us who are attentive, their art provides a link to better understanding and communicating with these remarkable individuals.

Dr. Temple Grandin's ability to "think like a cow" has enabled her to design cattle slaughterhouses that are more humane

Finally, so importantly, behind each of these artists is a mom or dad, sister or brother, teacher, caretaker or other individual who has been integral to discovering, nurturing, encouraging and celebrating the abilities of these artists on the autism spectrum. Love is a good therapist too. Seeing a Dad celebrate—literally—his son’s work, witnessing the “that’s my girl” pride in a Mom’s conversation about her daughter’s work, is heartwarming and inspiring.

I have been interested in autism and special abilities as a doctor and a scientist. During my journey with these artists and their equally amazing families, teachers and friends, I have learned as much about “matters of the heart” and things of “human interest,” as I have about disorders, synapses or circuits, and other topics of “scientific interest.”

At the art exhibit in Wisconsin titled, “Windows of Genius: Artwork of the Prodigious Savant,” hundreds visited– townspeople from all walks of life, and students from kindergarten to graduate school. All marveled at the art, and were amazed at what each of the exhibit’s artists could do. In the process of getting to know the artists better, through their art and discussions about them, appreciation steadily grew for who each artist is as a person. Along the way a clearer understanding of autism also evolved. Everyone gained from that event.

Stephen Wilshire called "The Human Camera" can draw vistas of cities from memory

My hope for this book is the same. By seeing the art and learning about the artists, readers and society at large will focus less and less on autism and its “dis-abilities,”appreciating and celebrating more than ever, the unique abilities we all possess.

I don’t know when the first artwork by a person with autism appeared. I do know that marvelous capacity continues and I appreciate that we, along with these remarkable artists, can walk a path together as its fortunate beneficiaries.

From “The Art of Autism: Shifting Perceptions,” Debra Hosseini, page 30-31. Buy it here!

Darold A. Treffert, M.D. is the author of “Extraordinary People: Understanding Savant Syndrome” and “Islands of Genius”. His website is www.daroldtreffert.com.

4 Comments

  • Alyssa says:

    I’d believe it. I’ve been told both that my art is really cool and that it’s pretty clear an Autistic person made it. My work has been purely abstract, generally, but I have recently started making a couple things inspired by real life. (Autism Acceptance design and a couple clover designs, specifically.) And it doesn’t even require that I be a visual thinker (I’m not. At all. And no one believes it because I can compensate for it using patterns.)

  • Dear Dr. Treffert,
    I hope my letter to you of a few weeks ago has reached you. I think I sent it to your home address. I simply wanted to know whether there would be room at the Treffert Center for some of my journalism and school work–K through M.A.! I would hate to think of all my hard work just ending up on the trash heap some day after I’m gone. Besides, I think my work might show some interesting examples of what you call “special ability” as opposed to what some others might call a “sick mind.”
    For instance, I suppose the point is arguable, but the psychologist I saw for 10 years from about 2001 to 2011 here in Omaha had something critical to say about a play on words, that I thought was rather clever, that I made in an essay comparing William Butler Yeats’s only novel, called ‘John Sherman,” with “Daisy Miller,” by Henry James. With a pun in mind that I once saw in Time or Newsweek–some thing about the “status quo” of failing poverty programs, and how “that status hadn’t been much to ‘quo’ about lately [crow about lately], I devised what I thought was a pretty good, similar play on words in my essay comparing the Yeats and James novels. ‘John Sherman” was based on a love triangle (actually a love “quadrangle”–two ladies and two gentlemen). One of the men said he had seen something “mean and “small-minded” in the neatness of his rival’s handwriting. I commented, “Is this not really less graphology than ‘gripeology’?” My psychologist called this a “neologism,” a “new” word that only a schizophrenic would invent.
    I could go on and on, but I have to tell you how ironic the circumstances were in my first encounter with the word “autism.” It was in the late 60’s, I think, when I was in high school, and a dramatic series on TV had a young social worker explain “autism” to some parents.”Now, mind you,” the told them, “I didn’t say ‘artistic.” Now, isn’t is ironic that the two words meant two quite different things back then that people needed to be supposedly educated about, and that their significance has merged today?
    I probably never told you about my art projects all through school, Dr. Treffert. But I have kept an illustrated story of the Life of Dred Scott, now embarrassingly politically incorrect, that I did as a project for eighth grade American history class,: a short “book” in ninth grade on Rhodesia”s failed rebellion against England; also profusely illustrated; a paper-mosaic of the face and raised, clenched fist of Malcolm X, that I did in 12th grade for first-year art class; and also, for that same art class, several architectural drawings, and the face of Johann Gutenberg done in blocs of newsprint from newspapers and magazines. (Get that–a college-bound boy taking first-year art class his senior year of high school! There’s a bit of a long story to that, but I’ll tell you some other time.)
    I hope I may hear from you soon, Dr.Treffert! Yours truly, David

  • I forgot to mention, Dr. Treffert, something is wrong with my e-mail address. I think I need to have it replaced with a yahoo account. I’ll get that done soon, but in the meantime, please used my home address to reply. It is, just to remind you, New Cassel Retirement Center, 900 N. 90th Street, Apt. 121, Omaha, NE 58114

  • Oh, one more thing, Dr. Treffert. I think you are right on about Asperger’s patients certainly having empathy. I’ve got oodles!

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