November 1997 issue of the specialist journal
autism contained a paper entitled 'Native
savant talent and acquired skill, Τan attempt
to evaluate the effect of professional art
training on savant artistic ability'. This
article is my response to that paper.
is a lifelong disability, characterised by
a triad of impairments (see Note 1): impairments
of social interaction, impairments of language
and communication, and impairments of imagination
(this encompasses elaborate repetitive routines
and a lack of flexibility of behaviour, rather
than imagination in its commonest and widest
Anyone wishing to understand what it is like
to be a person with autism can refer to the
written accounts of the adults with autism
who have done the work of recording their
experiences of the non-autistic world. One
outstanding account is Donna Williams' Autism
- An Inside-Out Approach (see Note 2).
Rather than autism being like a jigsaw with
one piece missing, Donna Williams tells us
that, for her, it is more like 'one bucket
with several different jigsaws in it, all
jumbled together and all missing a few pieces
each but with a few extra pieces that didn't
belong to any of these jigsaws'.
Most people with autism also have some degree
of cognitive impairment, or learning disability,
but not all. It is worth quoting Lorna Wing
at some length here ~
one in 10 individuals with autistic spectrum
disorders have certain specific skills in
which they excel, even in comparison with
the normal population. Sometimes the people
concerned are of more or less average ability
in other areas but there are some individuals
who have severe learning difficulties apart
from their isolated skills.
special abilities that have been reported
include playing a musical instrument or even
composing music; performing lengthy numerical
calculations such as extract ing square roots
from huge numbers; identifying the days of
the week on which any date fell or will fall
in a wide span of years; reading fluently
at a very young age though comprehension of
the text is poor; memorizing huge quantities
of facts about favourite subjects; assembling
constructional toys or mechanical or electrical
appa ratus; working with computers. Some,
like Stephen Wiltshire, have remarkable abili
ty with regard to drawing. The skills depend
upon visuo-spatial abilities and/or rote memory.
For example, those who draw well remember
and reproduce things they have seen. They
may, like Nadia when she was young, be able
to rotate mentally something they have seen
and draw it from another point of view. It
is remarkable that the gifted artists with
autistic disorders draw accurately in perspective
from a very young age, unlike other young
children who go through many stages before
grasping the rules of perspective. Sometimes
they will draw only in one medium. Nadia drew
with a blue ball-point pen, or on steam on
a window. With crayons, for example, her drawings
were childish. These skills tend to become
a focus for the repetitive routines. Thus
the drawings are of the same subjects, the
music is played repetitively, the calendar
calculators want to be fed dates all the time.
of those with special skills at some time
in childhood or adult life cease using them.
The reason for this is unknown, nor is it
clear whether the skills are lost or just
no longer used. They are rarely taken up again
despite any amount of encourage ment. Nadia
stopped her remarkable drawings when her speech
developed but there is no general evidence
that speech and visuo-spatial skills are incompatible.
Stephen Wiltshire is able to speak as well
as to draw (see Note 3).
Wiltshire, a very gifted intuitive artist,
was born in 1974. His first book, Drawings,
was published when he was just 13 years old.
In all his books, his special interest in
buildings and cars shines through. Although
it would appear that Stephen has a visual
memory phenomenal in its rapid absorption
and duration (he can draw a building he's
briefly glimpsed at many years later), his
drawings are not just photographic
reproductions of what he sees. The American
neurologist Oliver Sacks asked Stephen if
he would draw his house for him, and recorded
something of Stephen's method for us:
bestowed a brief, indifferent glance at my
house - there hardly seemed to be any act
of attention - glanced then at the rest of
the road, the sea, then asked to come in.....Stephen
started at one edge of the paper (I had a
feeling he might have started anywhere at
all), and steadily moved across it - as if
transcribing some tenacious inner image or
visualization. It was not quite like 'ordinary'
drawing, but as if he had a camera lucida
in his head which every so often he would
pause over and consult.....Stephen drew my
house very quickly.....the feel of the little
house is beauti fully got. It is very accurate
in some ways, but takes all sorts of liberties
in other ways - quite unlike a photograph.....Stephen
sees all the details (and sometimes invents
details) - but only puts in what serves the
process of Art; his prodigious pow ers of
perception and memory do not overwhelm him,
but provide, rather, the spring board from
which his creativity leaps (see Note 4).
then, is the gifted young artist who is the
subject of the autism article (see
Note 5). The authors, Linda Pring & Beate
Hermelin with Michael Buhler & Iain Walker,
refer to 'idiots savants' within the population
of 'people with a mental handicap', [this
term is still in common usage in the US] and
at the outset state, 'most savants are autistic,
a developmental disorder which is characterized
by interpersonal, language and cognitive impairments.
Clearly there is a need to explain the association
between autism and savant ability'.
authors acknowledge that Margaret Hewson,
Stephen's 'friend, guardian and agent .....has
played an important role in his mental and
artistic development' and also that she 'has
been decisive in providing him with the opportunity
to begin professional art training'.
opportunity to begin professional art training'
- this is the point at which I would like
to put the process of training gifted intuitive
artists in a wider context. Let's put this
training process in an ethical
context, in the context of issues of
communication and language, and in
the context of art history.
These three contexts are inseparable.
In an ethical context the question
would be, 'What would make it right - or wrong
- to send an intuitive artist to art college?'
Ethics, of course, would not look at whether
this is right or wrong, this being a matter
of opinion, but at what would make
it right, or what would make it wrong. Are
there any guiding principles that should be
applied in each case?
the informed consent(see Note 6) of
the artist would be a primary consideration.
It would clearly be quite wrong to send an
intuitive artist to art college against his
will, and just as wrong, I would argue, without
his informed consent. And where learning disabilities
and/or autism are concerned, this always leads
us to the issue of communication. It
is now well established that people with learning
disabilities and/or autism often respond to
questions in ways they perceive as being pleasing
to the questioner (see Note 7). Much work
has been done recently (some of the best of
it in Scotland) (see Note 8) in the area of
presenting choices to people with learning
disabilities in ways that are non-directive.
I wonder how the option of professional art
training was presented to Stephen Wiltshire.
Was an independent communication specialist,
preferably one with expertise in the field
of autism consulted? Or, better yet, present
and participating in the presentation of the
Then there is the consideration of art
history, particularly knowledge of the
body of art work known variously as 'Outsider
Art', 'Art Brut', or, as here in Scotland,
'Art Extraordinary'. This knowledge should
be presented as part of the process of obtaining
informed consent (see Note 9). It may be argued
that it would be mistaken to take a gifted
intuitive artist away from the community and
history of artists to which he naturally belongs,
and encourage movement to another community
(here, mainstream) which is in all other respects
alien to him. Such a proposed move should
certainly be explicitly explained. Some people
would debate whether Stephen Wiltshire's art
fits the criteria of one or more of the above
categories, but whichever category his art
would end up in, in the wee hours of the morning,
it is certain that he belongs to a very long
tradition of untrained artists whose work,
untouched by notions of tone, conventional
perspective, shading, etc., is valued by society.
He had, after all, produced several books,
sold his work, and traveled extensively in
connection with his art before going to art
Wiltshire did go to art college, where 'his
teachers felt from the start that they could
help Stephen to refine his input analysis
of visual information and to provide him with
the formal and technical ability to realize
his artistic intentions'. The illustrations
of this refinement in the autism
article show how much Stephen moved away from
the unique, individualistic line drawings
to a style incorporating shading and traditional
perspective that can be produced by any art
In a society where outsider artists and their
work are respected and valued, the thought
of offering 'the opportunity to begin professional
art training' would not even be contemplated
for long. I feel that we are at risk of losing
much, if we impose conventional views of 'good
drawing', 'good painting', ' good sculpting'
onto the untrained work of clearly highly
gifted intuitive artists.
If an intuitive artist such as Stephen Wiltshire
could ask me, 'Would you like the opportunity
to see the world through my eyes, just for
one day?' I would leap at the chance. I like
to think that his art is communication,
and that this is the offer it presents. The
opportunities for learning lie with us.
I believe that, where outsider artists
are concerned, it is best to 'leave well enough
alone'. Their work should be valued for its
uniqueness, and for the very precious insights
into minds organised in ways different from
our own it affords. I look at the work of
these very gifted artists and not only marvel
at what is sometimes an island of ability
and motivation, but try to see that art as
offering an insight into how the artist perceives
the world; their work is communication, a
bridge between our two worlds. It is not for
us to say, 'build a better bridge!' ~ rather,
we should learn how to tread across the existing
bridges more lightly.
1. see Lorna Wing, The Autistic Spectrum
(London: Constable, 1996)
Donna Williams is herself a painter, sculptor
Lorna Wing, ibid, pp. 55-56 I like the way
in which Lorna Wing refers to 'gifted artists
with autistic disorders' with these people
described as gifted artists first, and as
people with autistic disorders second.
Oliver Sacks' Foreword, pp. 6-7, to Cities,
Stephen Wiltshire (London: J.M. Dent & Sons
autism, Vol. 1 Number 2 1997,
SAGE Publications in association with The
National Autistic Society, pp. 199-214
Grisso (1986) described three things needed
for informed consent: the person must be knowing,
i.e. understand the facts relevant to the
decision to be made. Secondly the person must
be intelligent, i.e. have the ability
to weigh the risks and benefits of the proposed
procedure and of any alternative procedure.
Also, the person's decision must be voluntary,
defined as free from coercion or other forms
of undue influence.
Darley and Fazio (1980) and Jussim (1986).
Jussim's work seems particularly applicable
here; interactions are coloured by beliefs
which are derived from stereotypes about a
group to which the other individual belongs.
The target person tends to react to the differential
treatment in ways that confirm the initial
for example, TALKING MATS A Low-tech Framework
to help People with Severe Communication Difficulties
Express their Views, developed by Joan
Murphy, University of Stirling.
and Further Reading
J.M. and Fazio, RH. (1980). 'Expectancy confirmation
process arising in the social interaction
sequence', American Psychologist, 35,
L. (1986). 'Self-fulfilling prophecies; a
theoretical and integrative review', Psychological
Review, 93, 429-445.
T. (1986). Evaluating competencies: Forensic
assessments and instruments. New York:
Niederbuhl and Mahr (1993). 'Determining the
Capability of Individuals With Mental Retardation
to Give Informed Consent', American Journal
on Mental Retardation, Vol. 98, No.2,
Joan, Talking Mats - A Low-tech Framework
to help People with Severe Communication Difficulties
Express their Views. To order copies of
the package and for more information, contact:
AAC Research Team, Department of Psychology,
University of Stirling, STIRLING FK9 4LA Scotland.
& Hermelin with Buhler & Walker (1997), (see
Note 1) 'Native savant talent and acquired
skill', autism, Vol. 1, No. 2, 199-214.
Donna, Autism - An Inside-Out Approach
(London: Jessica Kingsley, 1996).
Donna, Autism and Sensing (London:
Jessica Kingsley, 1998).
Stephen, Drawings (London: Dent, 1987).
Stephen, Cities (London: Dent, 1989).
Stephen, Floating Cities: Venice, Amsterdam,
Leningrad (London: Michael Joseph, 1991).
Wiltshire, Stephen, Stephen Wiltshire's
American Dream (London: Michael Joseph,
Lorna, The Autistic Spectrum (London: