On Art and Autism, From a Parent of Two Lovely Children

"Power Puff Girls", crayon on white 8 1/2 x 11 paper, created by my son, age 6

"Power Puff Girls", crayon on white 8 1/2 x 11 paper, created by my son, age 6

I am an artist who loves art, who is also the parent of two artistic children on the autism spectrum. I squeeze all of this in the same sentence because that is where it belongs: art, parenting, and my children, this is how we communicate with each other, how we have communicated with each other since the time they could hold a crayon. My son, the creator of the image above, has a very limited vocabulary, using approximately 40-50 words, voluntarily, on a daily basis. My daughter, age 9, is fully verbal now, and mainstreamed, and a compulsive reader, but when she was my son's age her vocabulary was just as limited as his. When we first had her evaluated by a psychiatrist at age 4, part of the diagnosis involved having her draw a picture of herself. The details she put on the page - fingers on the hands, pupils in the eyes, a fully formed face with all its physical features - revealed a capacity years ahead of her peers in the area of visualization. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

Temple Grandin, a scientist who writes and lectures on her experience being on the autism spectrum, wrote in Thinking In Pictures, "When I invent things, I do not use language." She notes that when she grew up, she "learned to convert abstract ideas into pictures as a way to understand them," and that she didn't realize some people thought exclusively in words until she was an adult. I read her book shortly after my son's educational diagnosis of autism at 18 months, just as a way to understand how my children were viewing the world, and I was a little surprised to discover that it isn't so very different from how I process things, especially when writing or when understanding abstract concepts. I visualize, and I translate the visualizations into words: as a highly verbal child (I started reading books at the age of three), I was able to communicate well, test well, and therefore was labeled as "gifted". My children have a similar way of processing thoughts and ideas, but they cannot translate those thoughts into words as well as I could at their age, and therefore the societal expectations of their abilities are markedly different.

There is a real, a core, a beauty inside of each of us, and each of us expresses it in our own unique ways. The method of that expression should not equal a higher or lower perception of who we are as people: good art is honest art, sincerely felt, sincerely reflecting the mind and the spirit of the person who creates it. Communicating with my children through art, through pictures, has been entirely frustrating, but watching the joy they have in creating their art is irreplaceable. Creation is universal, and human, the least cynical act of expression when done well, and this is what I have learned from my children, how to create with joy, for itself, for no other reason than to create. They are my best teachers, and I am so grateful to have them: they have made me a better person, a better artist, while I have taught them how to talk, how to read, putting pointed fingers under words in picture books. They are kinetic potential realized, as are we all, wholly imperfect, communicating ourselves to each other, sometimes with words, mostly not, constantly defining our way to the universal.