In a big three-drawer file cabinet, I have two heavily bulging hanging folders full of my brother's drawings. At least four of my sisters have similar collections. He used to send drawings along with his letters, and the envelopes came stuffed to bursting. We all knew that his unique perspective was reflected in his artwork.
The objects in my brother's drawings are often transparent, and often seen from above, and they generally treat the same subjects, especially tree-trimming trucks. Being a tree-trimmer is his idea of a dream job. But that dream will be hard for him to achieve, because my brother has a unique set of developmental issues that fall into a category called Autistic Spectrum Disorder [ASD].
When I heard about Jill Mullin's book, Drawing Autism, I was pleased that someone was recognizing the creativity of people who often struggle with more ordinary modes of expressing themselves. Yet I was also a little doubtful, fearing that she might paint with too broad a brush, generalizing about people who often have more differences than similarities, because autism touches individuals of every class and color, every religion, every ability. And it presents itself in ways unique to the person. I needn't have worried.
Mullin chose artworks of quite diverse styles, varied levels of sophistication, and many techniques, trying to give a sense of that individuality. Landscapes, portraits, invention plans, busy urban environments, and potent dreams are just some of the subjects. As she sorts the pieces into seven manageable chapters, such as "Bird's-Eye View" or "Getting from Here to There," Mullin demonstrates artistic features that are shared, and that reveal something of the disorder's impact on thinking and world view. She has put together a beautiful and stimulating exhibition-in-a-book.
In a fascinating foreword, the acclaimed (and autistic) author and professor, Dr. Temple Grandin, calls us to nurture all artistic ability, and to recognize the different kinds of thinking styles on the autistic spectrum, which offer different avenues of expression. Jill Mullin shows us a particular method of expression, drawing and painting, in a few of its wonderful possibilities. She accomplishes her mission: "to display another area where individuals with autism can have great abilities."
Adding to the power of this project are the artists' words. The editor asked each of them a brief set of questions about their art. The answers are informative and intriguing. Most compelling for me was Michael P. McManmon's eloquent response. "When I was young I started to draw trees and strictly used pen and ink and pencil. I did not have the courage to break out of this and was afraid to make mistakes or try new things that I many not have been successful at. When I was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome [an ASD] in my fifties, it changed my life. I realized that I did not have to try to be perfect anymore. With my art, I began to experiment with color and then painting. I decided that it did not matter if every work was perfect or complete. The same relates to my life—I decided to be open to new ideas by default, instead of the opposite. I started to see things in a new perspective and I now see the beauty that I did not previously see. I decided that I can experience the world in any way that I want."
My brother, and many of those who live under the autism umbrella, may never make saleable paintings, but I believe they can find something of McManmon's liberation by following their own impulse to create. One in 88 children is now diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder. When my brother was diagnosed nearly fifty years ago, the condition was rare and help was almost nonexistent. As a hyperactive 6-year-old, he drew on everything, scratching stick figures on my mother's piano and coloring on her cabinets. Only my mother's ferocious determination and effort kept him out of an institution. Now he has a job, lives in his own apartment, and shovels snowy walks for his neighbors. He doesn't draw as often, and I haven't added a new picture to my folder in quite some time. I'm glad that he's doing well, yet when I open his letters, I still always hope for a drawing or two. This book reminded me of what I'm missing.
The editor of Drawing Autism, Jill Mullin, MA, MSEd, BCBA, is a behavior analyst who has been working with autistic individuals for nearly fifteen years. Based in New York City, she is the 2014 recipient of the Felix Award, which honors "people whose work has questioned, deepened, and broadened the general public's perception of disability." Learn more on the publisher's website & Jill's FaceBook page.
The Introduction was written by Temple Grandin, PhD, who is Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She is perhaps the most well-known American with ASD, and an accomplished and award-winning author and speaker. Working tirelessly to educate others about autism, her latest book is Different...Not Less. You can find out more on her website.
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