Sunday, February 16, 2003

The Culture of Autism

First appeared in the Boston Globe.

Inward-looking autistics often display remarkable artistic gifts: What do their talents tell us about their minds--and the history of Western Art?

WHAT IF THE Rain Man drew or painted? What if an autistic savant, like the Dustin Hoffman character in the movie of that title, was a talented artist, rather than a human computer who could multiply 4,343 by 1,234 almost as fast you can blink?

In fact, there have been autistic artists of that caliber--and their work holds intriguing lessons about art and autism alike. The best known is Nadia, the English girl whose work was brought to light in the mid-1970s by the psychologist Lorna Selfe. At the age of four-and-a-half, Nadia had a working vocabulary of only 10 words and often expressed herself by means of tantrums. But from the time she began drawing horses, she displayed a remarkable ability to portray not the generic idea of a horse--as most children's drawings do--but something much closer to the individual animal she had in mind. In Selfe's estimation, Nadia drew more accurately, and with less "care and labor," than Picasso did as a teenager.

Nadia's precocity as an artist may be unique, but verbal backwardness nd a remarkable facility with images often occur together in people with autism. Is there a reason for this? According to the neurologist Oliver Sacks, who has written widely on the topic, autistics typically suffer impairments in their ability to interact with others, communicate, and use their imaginations. For many autistics, the impairment of the imagination takes the form of an extreme literalness, a difficulty grouping particular objects together by means of concepts.

For Temple Grandin--a high-functioning autistic writer and animal scientist who is discussed in Sacks's 1995 book "An Anthropologist on Mars"--this literalness is not so much an impairment as another form of mental processing altogether, one she characterizes as "visual thinking." As Grandin describes it, visual thinkers process images rather than ideas. "If you say the word, 'boat,' to me," she has explained, "I see pictures of specific boats; I don't have a boat concept." Nadia, clearly, was a visual thinker par excellence, stunted with regard to ideas and their verbal expressions but overflowing with distinct, highly individualized images.

If Nadia is an artistic rain man, so, too, is Stephen Wiltshire, the subject of another chapter in Sacks's book. Wiltshire, who began exhibiting precocious talent at age seven, specializes in graceful, exquisitely detailed renderings of bridges, palaces, and cathedrals. Jessy Park, who lives in Williamstown, Mass., is another autistic artist attracted to architectural structure, but also to "radio dials, speedometers and mileage gauges, clocks, heaters, and electric blanket controls," as her mother, Clara Claiborne Park, attests in her 2001 memoir "Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter's Life with Autism."

One thing that Nadia, Stephen Wiltshire, and Jessy Park have in common, however, besides impressive skill, is a strong disinclination to draw human beings, and a seemingly absolute lack of interest the human face. This isn't surprising: Faces, typically, are terra incognita to autistics. You might sum up their difficulties with socializing by saying that for them, faces just don't add up. (When Nadia, in her teens, was urged by her caretakers to draw people in the hope that doing so would help socialize her, she did so only reluctantly and without her usual aplomb. The pressure to draw people, in fact, may have contributed to her giving up on drawing altogether.)

The art of Jonathan Lerman, an autistic teenager from the town of Vestal, New York, is therefore all the more extraordinary. In January 2002, Lerman was the hit at New York City's popular Outsider Art Fair, an annual event that, as sponsors put it, opens its doors to an international cohort of "self-taught, visionary and intuitive artists." At last year's fair, Lerman's youth--he was 14--was much remarked by both American and European media, as was his skill, and, of course, his autism. In August, Teen People Magazine named him "Teen of the Month," quoting Kerry Schuss--whose New York City art gallery, K.S. Art, represents Lerman--as saying that Lerman's drawings combine "the sophistication of an adult" with "a kid's vision." But what has failed to get anything like the attention it deserved from the media was the fact that Lerman defies all our expectations of autistic artists.

Lerman, alone among recognized autistic artists, is fixated on faces. As the recently published book "Jonathan Lerman: Drawings by an Artist with Autism" (George Braziller) shows, the faces he draws are full of emotion, whether his own or the emotion he imputes to his subjects. Lerman's faces are typically highly asymmetrical, but are otherwise highly distinct from each other: They can be puckered and withdrawn, bug-eyed and challenging, coldly sensual, or indelibly startled. Looking at these faces, you can see why autistics, as a rule, regard making eye contact as disquieting--or, at best, a learned behavior to be mastered with great effort. (Grandin, for example, resolutely looking away from me during an interview I conducted with her, said: "I don't pick up information from faces. All this eye business...") Lerman's portraits give the impression of daring, the sense that he is looking into a storm.

Interestingly enough, in Lerman's drawings, face parts--mouths, eyes, teeth, ears and nostrils--came before faces. In fact, there may be some neurological significance in this. While autism remains unexplained, research has come a long way since Bruno Bettelheim and others blamed autism in children on cold behavior by their parents. Today, one of the more promising approaches to the syndrome attributes it to a deficit in neural processing speed. In this view, the autistic infant's brain isn't quick enough to put a parent's mobile mouth, shifting eyes, wrinkling forehead and flaring nostrils together into anything as reassuring as a smile. If even a parent's face is fragmented and disconcerting, social life will offer nothing secure to build upon.

The theory of slow neural processing is supported by testimony from the many autistics who report that their perceptions get stuck in "freeze frames." But it fails to account for why Lerman quickly began assembling his face parts into coherent, expressive wholes. Looking at his art, we are thrown back on the mystery of savantism.

Events like the Outsider Art Fair expand the art world's purview to include self-taught artists like Lerman, with all credit accruing to the art world for its outreach. But perhaps something more intriguing is going on. Could it be that the autistic sensibility is finally claiming its rightful place in a world where, unrecognized or disguised, it has been influential from the beginning?

The English philosopher Nicholas Humphrey's 1998 paper "Cave Art, Autism, and the Evolution of the Human Mind" reexamined the bison, lions, and mammoths painted on cave walls at Chauvet and Cosquer in southern France 30,000 years ago in the light of art by Nadia and other savants. In it, he suggested that the "visual thinking" of the autistic has marked European art from the very beginning.

Humphrey's article challenged some art-historical orthodoxies. Writing in 1996 about the newly discovered Chauvet and Cosquer paintings (which are some 13,000 years older than the famous paintings at Lascaux), the celebrated art historian E.H. Gombrich (author of "The Story of Art"), had maintained that the mastery displayed by the cave painters had to be based on a long-standing artistic tradition. But Humphrey argued that, on the contrary, like Nadia's drawings, early cave art seems to have emerged full-blown from people with no recourse to any art education or tradition. And where art historians have tended to see the animals depicted in cave art as symbols of the species represented, Humphrey argued that the paintings, in fact, appeared to be renderings of individual animals. Much like Nadia's horses, the animals were "'snapped' as it were in active motion--prancing, say, or bellowing." (Human beings, when they intrude on the attention of these cave painters, do so as stick figures; they lack the intensity and detail, say, of the bison.)

Humphrey's view of cave art was tied to his ideas about the late origins of human language. For commentators who saw cave paintings as symbolic forms, the paintings were yet more proof that human beings already had sophisticated conceptual and linguistic skills at that point in prehistory. Humphrey, again with reference to Nadia, saw the astonishing "graphic fluency" of cave art as indicating just the opposite, namely that the development of language lay in the future. Humphrey did not mean to imply that prehistoric artists were autistic, but rather that, along with the rest of the human race at the time, they were visual thinkers.

Needless to say, Humphrey's views have aroused controversy among students of cave art, with the debate ranging from questions of chronology to technical issues pertaining to the quality of line employed by cave artists. Humphrey has fared somewhat better among philosophers, with Tufts professor Daniel C. Dennett, with whom he had collaborated on studies of cognition, lending support.

Meanwhile, an intriguing conjecture has been made relating autism to recent art history. In her book "Elijah's Cup: A Family's Journey Into the Community and Culture of High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's Syndrome," Valerie Paradiz offers a wide-ranging meditation on the autism of her son Elijah. (Asperger's syndrome, a term that has come into vogue recently, is regarded as a form of, and may even be identical to, high-functioning autism). Paradiz makes the suggestive argument--though one that can be no more definitively proven than Humphrey's hypothesis--that none other than Andy Warhol, the arch-insider of postmodern art, was, in fact, a high-functioning autistic outsider.

Paradiz's discussion of Warhol may be speculative, but it is also refreshingly down-to-earth. If Warhol's art indicates an obsession with Campbell Soup, Paradiz argues, that is because he truly was obsessed with it. Sameness and repetitiveness, especially with regard to food, were as crucial for him as for most autistics. As she puts it, "Andy moved in the realm of the literal, a common autistic trait. Abstractions, theories, and concepts are not as graspable as objects and images, which Andy rolled out in different colors. He lined them up in assorted rows and sizes.210 Coca-Cola Bottles, 80 Two-Dollar Bills, 16 Jackies, 20 Jackies, and168 repetitions of the lips of Marilyn Monroe."

If Warhol was aloof in social situations, it may have been due, at the outset anyway, to a painful ignorance of social norms-attested to by a lonely childhood when a "shy, serious, withdrawn" Warhol retreated from others and "drew, and drew, and drew." Paradiz sees signs of autism in other well-known cultural figures, including the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, but her argument is most rewarding in relation to Warhol. She takes Warhol's famous blank stare and emotionless demeanor literally, as signs that (just he often said) he really didn't have a clue how to relate to people. Finally, when Warhol became an art-world icon, the "repetition and serial imagery" that were his trademarks became trademarks of contemporary art as well.

Paradiz does not contend that Warhol considered himself autistic, or that associates thought of him that way. But she believes that the constellation of impairments Warhol displayed from childhood on fully justify her hailing him as "an unwitting pioneer of autistic emergence," and a suitable icon for the "culture of autism" that she refers to in her book's subtitle.

Anyone who thinks that the very idea of a culture of autism is absurd would likely revise their view if they Google the subject, and follow one of the numerous links to discussion groups hosted by and for autistics themselves. The Internet is a prosthesis for many high-functioning autistics; it allows them to lend each other support and to coordinate their efforts to understand and articulate their divergences from the neurological norm.

As the work of artists like Nadia, Jonathan Lerman, and Andy Warhol suggests, there may be a "high culture" of autism. Far more than insiders would care to admit, the art world might merely be one of its outposts.

Harvey Blume is a freelance writer whose work on art and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The American Prospect, Wired, and elsewhere.

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