Filed Under (Autism and Intelligence, Autism and Learning, Communication, Development) by Estee on 16-05-2010

The nice thing about art is that it is a language without words. It’s why I believe strongly that it is an important (not nice and trite, isn’t-the-Autie-a-genius) approach to appreciating not only how autistic people may see and develop, but of course of understanding humanity — a very broad statement, I know, but art is a way to bridge the barriers of looking at people with neurological differences as “abnormal,” “retarded” and the like.

It is also highly ironic that I write about art and that the art world seeks so many words to critique and analyze it. Yet, at the end of the day, we have a gut response to art before we have an intellectual one.

I was thinking about this as Adam has turned to art. This is not just peripheral observation…it goes deeper. Adam studies all the elements of things with ferocity and concentration. He will hold any object in his hand — even a part of an object, turn it around and study it, tap it and consider all of it’s physical properties. He may or may not label it, as he has done since he was eleven months of age (labeling, that is), but I consider that his sharing in this manner is simply his way of sharing with me because he has trouble with words. Yet, his understanding goes far beyond the label.

W.J.T. Mitchell, in his essay Visual Literacy or Literary Visualcy? (excerpted from Visual Literacy edited by James Elkins) asks how seeing is different from reading. “Even more interesting, what would happen if we reversed the positions of tenor and vehicle in the metaphor, and treated reading as ‘tenor’ — the thing to be explained — and vision as the vehicle that might help explain it? What would happen, in other words, if we thought of our task as one of research and teaching in reading, based in models drawn from seeing and the visual system?” (p.11).

It is in this vein that I believe we can begin to explain our words about autism and challenge our very basic assumptions. For instance, consider the two drawings below. Adam, at the age of 8 has fine motor planning difficulties. It is very hard for him to hold a pencil or crayon, but in the first drawing one can see it’s coming and that he is trying extremely hard to express himself.

The drawing beside it, also a Lion, was executed by a same-aged “typical” peer. By contrast, one can see the marks in this drawing made with strength and certainty whereby Adam’s drawing seems a little tentative and soft by virtue of his motor planning difficulty. Take another look. Adam took great care and time rendering that drawing. So much so, he even walked away, came back to reconsider it and lightly put the finishing touches carefully on the tail several minutes after it seemed finished. It was so lightly drawn that it was difficult to photograph. Look at the perspective and how he tries to implement it. It is not a flat drawing. He can see how the body has several dimensions. Compare it to the “same-aged typical peer” drawing — wonderful in its own rite but by contrast, there is, as of yet, no conception of perspective. In one drawing the earth is round, in the other, flat.

Adam's "Lion King"

A drawing of a lion from a same-aged "typical" peer

It is interesting to me to watch Adam’s “visualcy” manifest. It is interesting because he does not fit into any developmental mold. While his hand his light, he is ahead of the curve by way of his perception. One might mistake motor-planning difficulty with Adam’s “retardation,” as it was formerly labeled. Now how dangerous is this when we consider how to teach an autistic person? What assumptions about his intelligence are we making? When I think of schools I get extremely nervous about moving him too slow or too fast. One simply has to SEE.



James Eklins, Visual Literacy, New York: Routledge, 2008.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.