Asperger's Diary

Life through the lens of Asperger's Syndrome.

Art and Neurodiversity: When Is Art Just Art?

Should art be credited to autism, or the artist?
Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D.
This post is a response to The Art of Neurodiversity by Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT

Fellow PT blogger Cathy Malchiodi recently adressed the subject of neurodiversity in her post The Art of Neurodiversity. In it, Ms. Malchiodi discusses the work of Stephen Wiltshire, an artist with autism known for his remarkable talent for duplicating scenes with photographic accuracy.

Inspired by Peter D. Kramer's recent post on the possible connections between mental illness and creativity (Mental Illness and Creativity: Does Treatment Hurt or Help?), Ms. Malchiodi asks the very real question — should any type of diagnosis, psychological or neurological, come into play when looking at art, or is art just art?

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I think it's a very valid question. Good art is good art, no matter what the reason for the artist's talent. However, any time there is any outlier, extreme ability, or extreme disability in any area, it's natural for the scientifically curious to wonder what caused the difference.

For those of us on the autistic spectrum, that scientific curiousity can also meld with the desire to understand our own situation. Why were we made the way we were? What if there's a flip side to our disabilities? What's the upside? Neurodiversity is a controversial topic — some might argue that it's merely another "PC" trend, but I think at its root is a very common, understandable need. To be accepted.

I have touched on subject of neurodiversity before in this blog, in my post Neurological Disorder or Natural Diversity?. Based on what I wrote there, you might believe that I am squarely on the neurodiversity side...but as with everything, I think it's more complicated than that.

I do sympathize with the idea of neurodiversity. Not only for my own personal reasons, but for the simply scientific question: If the genes for autism/Asperger's are wholly negative, why do they remain in the gene pool?

On the other hand, even if one argues that human ability is a continuum, and that autism and Asperger's are at the far end of that continuum, it's still the far end. It's still an outlier. Whether you want to classify them as "disorders" or not, the reality is they are not common ("normal"), and therefore are "abnormal".

What is important about neurodiversity is the spotlight it places on the need for tolerance. We don't fit the mainstream mold, but we have real value to add to the world. We may not be what the world would call "normal," but that in itself can be an advantage. Unfortunately, this advantage is lost when people are blinded to this by focusing on what they judge we "should be" versus what we are.

Difference is not taken well in mainstream society, which is why bullying is such a problem for kids with autism and Asperger's. Adults may hide their distaste for the different behind masks of civility — kids don't. Because of that, kids with autism and Asperger's often become targets of brutal bullying, made worse because of their innate naiveté and lack of understanding of social mores.

In the adult world, intolerance may be more subtle, but sometimes even less so. It's no question that autism and Asperger's can be very debilitating - but the fact is that many of us out there live very productive lives. It can be very frustrating to have your efforts in life discounted because you're viewed as being "sick" or having a "disorder."

Then, there is the law of unintended consequences. If there is a connection between autism/Asperger's, or any other condition, and special talents, what would it do to the gene pool if you were to eliminate these conditions altogether? Would we also be eliminating the genetics that predispose the person to their special talents, be it in art, mathematics, engineering, or any other?

If any treatment can make a person's life easier, and minimize the negative symptoms of autism/Asperger's, I'm all for it. The more you can minimize your challenges, the more productive you can be. And, to Ms. Malchiodi's point, if a person with autism or Asperger's produces great art, it should be so recognized — not as great autistic art, but as great art. Period.

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Lynne Soraya is the nom de plume for a writer with Asperger's Syndrome.

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