Art book shows creative side of autism

Across the Spectrum
By JIM BAUMER  |  April 10, 2014


DRAWING AUTISM Edited by Jill Mullin; forward
by Temple Grandin | Akashic Books | 160 pages | $22.95

April is Autism Awareness Month. Presently, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed in 1 in 68 children, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report released last month. That’s more than two million people in the United States and 10 million worldwide. In Maine, there has been a 253 percent spike in childhood diagnoses over the past 10 years, says Cathy Dionne, director of the Autism Society of Maine. Awareness and understanding lags behind, but an art book may help shed new light on the intersection of ASD and creativity.

Drawing Autism, edited by New York City-based behavior analyst Jill Mullin, highlights the artwork of more than 40 artists diagnosed with ASD. Heavy on art and less so on narrative, the collection’s foreword is from noted best-selling author Temple Grandin, a prominent proponent of the rights of autistic people and animal welfare.

Mullins writes in her introduction that the rise in diagnoses of autism has resulted in “increased media attention” to ASD. While some focus has been paid to how individuals with autism possess great talents in areas such as science and math, Mullins wanted Drawing Autism to highlight ASD’s creative side and promote the importance of fostering it. Her clinical background in Applied Behavior Analysis, combined with more than a decade helping individuals with ASD, serve her well as the book’s curator. The book is divided into seven chapters, with each chapter guiding readers across the autism spectrum visually. For instance, in Chapter One, “Interaction, Individual & Societal,” many of the pieces depict isolation and capture the difficulties and frustrations the artists experience interacting with the world.

The artists selected for Drawing Autism were asked to fill out questionnaires in which they answer questions about when they started creating art (and why), what inspired each particular work, and why they chose their subject. For those who were able to complete the questionnaires, their answers accompany their artwork, demonstrating an incredible depth of understanding and awareness — as in Esther J. Brokaw’s “Winter Trees.” Brokaw displays an impressionistic orientation in her use of oils. This painting captures the starkness of a winter landscape, with trees and their shadows, while the backdrop of the sky and its late-day colors offer a wonderful contrast. Brokaw articulated that in her work, she strove to create a painting that could be “appreciated up close, as well as from a distance.”

As is the case with individuals with ASD, each person has varying levels of verbal and articulation skills; some required assistance from caretakers and family members in completing the questionnaire. A few were completely nonverbal and unable to share with readers what was behind the development of their particular piece(s). Still, in almost every instance, the work is able to speak for itself.

Readers of Drawing Autism will be drawn to particular artists and styles. One of my favorites was Emily Williams. Her “A Portrait Of The Artist” kicks off Chapter One with an intriguing mixed media piece, which seeks to “represent my autism.” In it, Williams uses a multitude of images —gargoyles, leaves, hands, numbers, and cows, among others — in an attempt to show, in part, how her brain works and how she observes with the world. She also chose to vary the media she worked in, ranging from ink to scratchboard.

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