The Art of Neurodiversity

Art IS neurodiverse.

Posted Apr 30, 2008

Artist with autism Stephen Wiltshire has an uncanny gift for capturing any scene on paper with photographic accuracy. But is it the result of a mental aberration, the mind of a savant, or the work of an outsider artist? Or perhaps it’s neurodiversity.

Autism is a widely discussed topic, here on the PT blog, in the news, and throughout web media. Discussions range from controversies about autism as “pathology” to acceptance as simply a difference in the wiring of the brain from one person to the next. I am not here to say what autism is or is not, but to consider how we might reframe the definition of how and why people with autism –and anyone for that matter-- make the art they produce in the first place.

Stephen Wiltshire’s artistry [as seen on YouTube movie] has been explained as possibly that of a savant. But his work is not simply a photocopy of reality; it has a distinct personality, in addition to the eidetic memory involved. Oliver Sacks once referenced Wiltshire’s work as involving vastly complicated neural processes that go into making any visual image such as a drawing or painting. Wiltshire is one of a number of celebrated individuals whose artwork intrigues and inspires further exploration. Others include the famous Nadia, the English girl whose artwork was discovered in the 1970s by the psychologist Lorna Selfe. At 4 ½ years,

Nadia had a vocabulary of 10 words, but she displayed a remarkable ability to portray in realistic detail animals and other elements of the world in a way that children of her age do not. In Nadia’s case, her drawing skills disappeared as her language abilities improved later in childhood and early adolescence.

Neurodiversity is an idea that proposes that atypical neurological development is a normal human difference and that this difference should be respected just like any other difference we humans might have. The idea of neurodiversity has long been supported by some people with autism and others with mental disorders, viewing their conditions as part of their identity and preferring it to labels such as "abnormal" and "disabled.”

Fellow PT blogger Peter Kramer recently brought to light some of the possible links between mental illness and creativity that have been debated for a number of years. It brings to mind a perennial question—should the art of anyone with mental illness be considered different from other art? And should we even be talking about a psychiatric diagnosis in relation to an artwork or body of creative expression by one individual? These questions have been debated in the fields of art therapy, art, psychology, and psychiatry, without much resolution.

Much of the art created by people with autism or with any other diagnosis is hardly different from that of any other artist you will find in a SoHo gallery. Is neurodiversity part of the picture [no pun intended]? Possibly. Is it reasonable to add yet another term that must be used to describe diversity to our ever-growing list of politically correct language? That’s up for debate. But art, no matter who creates it or what complex neural processes collude to make it possible, comes from a passion, not just a talent. And it’s all art if we enjoy looking at it and that’s the bottom line.

©2008 Cathy Malchiodi 

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