Analysis of an artistic instance of autism


Image via Wikipedia

When you write posts in WordPress, it automatically generates free-use pictures that you can choose from, to accompany your post. If my post happens to mention the word “autism” you can almost guarantee that the picture you now see to the right, will be one of the ones presented. If I can’t find another picture more closely related to the content of my post, I invariably fall back to this. I used to have it as my “About” page picture too (prior to Clara doing a personalised picture of my family, which now holds pride of place there instead).

I used it yet again the other day, and my husband made some off-hand comment about how often I use it. In the process of explaining to him why I find it so attractive, I realised that it really does carry a lot of meaning for me, and sums up (to my mind) many complexities and issues in viewing autism. So in a rather self-indulgent post, I’ve decided to share with you why this is currently my favourite photo for representing autism.

I tried to find information about the original photographer and whether he’d attached or explained any further meaning than the fact that it represents “autistic play”. Best I could find out is that his name is Kevin Fruet, and his own son has autism. No doubt he had his own thoughts about how he took the photo and what it meant to him, and I can hope that he wouldn’t mind me reading my own meanings into it too.

So here is what I see in that photo, and what it means to me:

The puzzle represents a normal challenge, that normal children can meet. The autistic child who has attempted this puzzle, has seemingly failed. That failure is defined by the expectations of the puzzle and the puzzle-maker. The objectivity of their failure, is – as such – contextual, and in a sense, an artifact. If we choose to view and assess the child’s creation in a different way, we don’t have to see and focus on the failure. We can see instead their determination to get all the shapes on the highest (most accommodating) spike. We can see that they succeeded in what they set out to do – here are all these shapes, standing where they’re not meant to stand, but doing a great job of what they’re not meant to do, all the same. So whether we view the child’s work as failure or success, depends on our frame of reference. At the very least, we must be conscious of, and acknowledge, our frame of reference.

A related layer of meaning is the lacks and the excesses of autism. The empty pegs represent the seemingly missing abilities of the autistic child – such as verbal language and the social interaction. But in the same way that we note the lacks or the short-falls, we mustn’t forget the loaded fifth peg – the excess talents that frequently accompany autism (eg incredible eye for detail, astounding memory, impressive intensive focus, hyper sensory awareness). Unfortunately that fifth peg isn’t just loaded, it is over-loaded, in turn the excess talents of many autistic people often overload them, in such a way that we might re-label the excess as just another “problem” instead of viewing it as potential for something extraordinary.

Another interesting thing about this photo that appeals to me so much, is that our eyes are drawn to the evidenced play in the centre; it is the focus and in focus. We see the problem first (the incorrectly completed puzzle), in the same way that we see the negative symptoms (behaviour, social and communication limitations) of autism first. But there is something in the background that is out of focus and should be in the foreground always of our thoughts: The child. The human being. The individual. In this photo the child is obscured by the evidence of their challenges.

There are various other aspects of the photo that hold special meaning for me (such as that my son used to play with a similar puzzle at his ABA playgroup, and that he has commented to me before about details he sees in the picture that I had failed to notice), but what I have shared above sums up the more abstract appeal of the picture for me.

I’ve become increasingly aware lately of the artistic talents and insights of autistic people. If you know of any such artists who have captured your imagination, or just have a picture like the one above that captures the beauty or complexity of autism for you, I would be grateful if you’d share those with me too.

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