By Kimberly Stephens
Ping Lian Yeak’s artwork has been exhibited dozens of times. His boisterous watercolors and detailed ink drawings command thousands of dollars.
But the 22-year-old artist reached another career milestone this summer when his work was featured at New York’s Agora Gallery.
Ping Lian is autistic. His work has often been included in exhibitions of “outsider” or savant artwork. But the Agora exhibit, “Out From Down Under & Beyond: Fine Art From Australia & New Zealand,” had nothing to do with autism. Ping Lian’s work was chosen solely for its artistic merit.
His family and supporters believe that the shift from “autistic artist” to “artist” is a significant one. “The Agora exhibition marks a new phase of Ping Lian’s artistic journey,” his mother, Sarah Lee, said.
It’s a journey that no one saw coming. As a child, Ping Lian was hyperactive, avoided physical contact, and had limited communication. At five years old, he couldn’t yet hold a pencil.
Ping Lian received speech and language intervention, occupational therapy, and some behavioral therapy. Sarah worked tirelessly to help him learn to hold a pencil and trace letters, numbers, and shapes.
Ping Lian eventually learned to trace on his own. At age eight, he shocked Sarah when his abilities took a leap forward. She discovered him not just tracing, but drawing. It quickly became his favorite activity. Ping Lian drew on everything from books to his schedule. Sarah hired art teachers for Ping Lian, and his abilities developed rapidly.
His work was exhibited for the first time at age 10 at Malaysia’s National Art Gallery as part of a group exhibition, “Different Strokes—Diversity Through Art.” His work was first shown in the United States two years later when two educators, Laurence Becker and Rosa C. Martinez, collaborated on a New York exhibition, “Don’t ‘dis’ the Ability.” Martinez, who Sarah describes as a “special partner” in Ping Lian’s journey, helped orchestrate Ping Lian’s inclusion in the Agora exhibition.
Martinez believes that having Ping Lian recognized simply as an artist rather than an autistic artist is especially important since Ping Lian’s abilities are “prodigious.” “If Ping Lian did not have autism, he would be considered a prodigy and a genius based solely on his artistic talents,” Martinez said.
As Martinez points out, the line between prodigy and savant is strikingly thin. Tufts psychologist David Henry Feldman had defined "prodigy" as a child who performs at a professional level in a demanding field by adolescence. A savant is an individual with what the savant expert Darold Treffert has described as an “island of genius”—an ability spike coupled with an impairment or underlying condition of some type. It’s the presence of such an impairment or condition that distinguishes savants from prodigies. For most savants, the underlying condition is autism, as is the case with Ping Lian.
The quest to be seen simply as an artist is one that often resonates with child prodigies as well. As prodigies grow from child wonders to adults, they often seek to make the transition from “child musician” or “prodigy artist” to being simply a musician or an artist.
As the psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and I describe in our book, The Prodigy’s Cousin: The Family Link Between Autism and Extraordinary Talent, this is one of many parallels between prodigy and autism, and particularly between prodigies and savants. Prodigies and autists share a number of cognitive traits, like excellent attention to detail and extreme memory. Child prodigies frequently have close autistic relatives. There’s even preliminary evidence that prodigies and their autistic relatives share a genetic mutation.
For prodigies and savants, the quest to be recognized based solely on merit isn’t about erasing the past or ignoring the autism. Ping Lian’s family is always willing to tell his story; his mother has even written a book about raising Ping Lian. But to them, seeing Ping Lian appreciated simply as an artist, without reference to his autism, feels like another breakthrough in a journey that continues to defy expectations.
Ping Lian’s artwork will be exhibited at Agora Gallery again in March 2017. Sarah Lee and Ping Lian plan to travel to New York for the exhibition.