Artistic Talent Autism


Spoken communication and language limitations are common in autism, so it may not be surprising that individuals with ASDs often find visual communication more effective than written or spoken language. In her book, “Thinking in Pictures” Templin Grandin, the animal scientist who also has autism wrote: “I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head”. Dr. Grandin’s description of her use of visualization is consistent with the fact that many people with autism rely more on visual and auditory cues for communication. It is no accident that visual activity schedules and Picture Exchange System communication strategies are highly effective among people with ASDs who otherwise have great difficult navigating through daily routines. Visual information makes up, at least in part, for limited ability to process auditory language information.


It has been recognized for a very long time that among people with autistic traits, such as the Swiss artist, Gottfried Mind (1768-1811) were capable of producing works of art that seemed inconceivably inconsistent with their cognitive ability. In his day, Gottfried Mind was called the Cat-Raphael because of his uncanny ability to portray cats. excellence with which he painted that animal. Richard Wawro (1952-2006) was a remarkable Scottish artist with autism who earned widespread acclaim for his detailed drawings created with the unusual medium of wax oil crayons. With these he produced exceedingly detailed, dramatic images of intense depth and color. (see


In the 1970s, an English psychologist, Lorna Selfe produced a book titled “Nadia: A case of extraordinary drawing ability in an autistic child”. The book reports Selfe’s discovery that a 5 year old girl who appeared to have a severe intellectual disability and autism, was capable of producing crayon drawings of animals that were similar to those of Pablo Piccasso as a teenager. Most remarkably, when the girl was 8 or 9 and began learning to talk, her visual artistic ability regressed to that of a typical 3 or 4 year old.


The neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote about a young man with autism who had extraordinary artistic talent in a chapter title "Prodigies" in his book in his book “An Anthropologist on Mars”. Steven produced stunningly detailed pencil or pen and ink drawings of buildings, major architectural landmarks in London. As a child, Stephen had been non-verbal and did not relate to other human beings. By three years of age he was diagnosed with autism. He had no language and exhibited uncontrolled tantrums. At the age of five, Stephen was enrolled in Queensmill School in London, a school for children with special needs, where it was noticed that the only pastime he enjoyed was drawing. It soon became apparent he communicated with the world through the language of drawing; first animals, then London buses, and finally buildings. These drawings revealed a masterful perspective, a whimsical line and reveal a natural innate artistry. Stephen became obs
essed with cars and illustrations of cars at this time (his knowledge of them is encyclopaedic) and he drew most of the major London landmarks. At the age of ten, Stephen drew a series of pictures he called a “London Alphabet”, a sequence of drawings of London landmarks, one for each letter. When Wiltshire was part of a BBC program “The Foolish Wise Ones” in 1987, viewers phoned in, expressing interest to buy his work. A collection of his works was published that year. Stephen’s work has since been the subject of many TV documentaries. His books include Drawings (1987), Cities (1989), Floating Cities (1991), and Stephen Wiltshire’s American Dream (1993). His third book - Floating Cities (Michael Joseph, 1991) was number one on the Sunday Times bestseller list. In 2006, Stephen Wiltshire was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his services to art. (


Among highly talented American artists with autism are Laura Craig McNellis, Jonathan Lerman and Grace Walker Goad. I had the good fortune of “discovering” Laura in Nashville TN and immediately recognized her unique talent. She works primarily in tempera on paper, producing paintings in bold primary colors of her perception of everyday life. In a series of paintings of her mother’s vanity table that featured a comb, hairbrush, hand mirror, one of her paintings included a screw driver, which she had apparently seen her mother use. Several years ago she produced a series of paintings of her parents’ home, in which each painting combined views of rooms as seen from different vantage points, a technique Picasso used in
“Femme devant mirroir” and his “Three Muscicans” paintings. Laura has very little spoken language but communicates through her art. Laura works at Studio XI in Morganton NC and is represented by the Ricco Meresca Gallery in NYC. ( Jonathan Lerman is a 19 year old young man living in New York City who exclusively draws faces with pen and ink, in a style that has been described as similar to the work of George Grosz and Francis Bacon. Jonathan is represented by the KS Gallery in NYC. ( ) Grace Goad is a 12 year old artist living in Nashville TN where she produces acrylic paintings and collages. Autism affects Grace's ability to verbally communicate, interact socially and fully comprehend the world around her.  Although the ability to engage in typical conversation eludes her, and she lacks mastery of simply writing her name, Grace is able to powerfully express herself through the medium of intense color and composition. Grace’s work has been shown in several exhibits and galleries throughout the mid-south. (


Brain scientists are puzzled about the unique ability of individuals with autism to produce remarkable art work that seems utterly out of sync with their cognitive abilities. Nadia’s loss of ability to represent what she saw visually when she developed spoken language, and began categorizing things in her world my hold a clue. Some researchers believe it is precisely the dysunction in some brain areas related to language that may promote exceptional artistic visual expression. It is clear, that whatever the basis for this unique ability associated with autism there is far more involved than is entailed in the popular notion of “right” versus “left” brain.

• Bondy A and Frost, L (2001) A Picture's Worth: PECS and Other Visual Communication Strategies in Autism. Woodbine House
• Buck, L. A. (1985). Artistic talent in “autistic” adolescents and young adults. Empirical Studies of the Arts, 3(1), 81-104
• Evans, K. & Dubowski, J. (2001). Art therapy with children on the autistic spectrum: Beyond words. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London
• Flowers, T. (1996) Reaching the Child With Autism Through Art: Practical, "Fun" Activities to Enhance Motor Skills and Improve Tactile and Concept Awareness. Future Horizons.
• Grandin, T (1996) Thinking In Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life with Autism. Vintage Books
• McClannahan, LE and Krantz, PJ (1999) Activity schedules for children with autism. Woodbine House.
• Mind Gottrried ( (Sept 6, 2006)
• New York Academy of Sciences (2006) From mirror neurons to the Mona Lisa: Visual art and the brain.
• Ramachandran, V.S. & Hirstein, W. (1999) “The Science of Art: A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience.” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6 (1999): 15-51.
• Rexer, L. (2002) Jonathan Lerman: The Drawings of a Boy with Autism. George Braziler Publisher.
• Sachs, O. (1996) An Anthropologist on Mars. Vintage Books.
• Selfe, L. (1979) Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability. Harvest/Hbj Books
• Zeki, S. (1999) Inner Vision: An Exploration of Art and the Brain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bact to Frequent Issues