Autism and Art as a window into the mind

This afternoon I had the privilege of speaking at the annual Autism Resources conference for Western Massachusetts. I saw “privilege” because I know how hard it is to organize nonprofit events in this depressed economy. Last years’s conference had two-hundred odd people and to my amazement today’s crowd topped five hundred.

Here’s a link to their site:

I spent some time walking around the exhibitor area before my turn to speak. There were many interesting exhibitors, but two art exhibits really caught my eye.

The first exhibitor was a mom with a kid on the spectrum. When I spoke to her at last year’s event I was struck by a certain “look” in her face, and that look and our conversation set me on the road to unraveling the “look of autism” that I’ll be discussing at some length in my next book.
I am sorry to say that I failed to take her picture, so you will just have to imagine for now.

The next person is an artist on the spectrum. She’s 19 years old. Meet Hannah Flavin of Longmeadow, MA, with her mother and her art therapist.

Here are some of her paintings:

Those of you who’ve looked at my photography know I like color, and she does too.

The interesting thing is this . . . Hannah’s speech is impaired, so I can’t ask her to explain the images in spoken words. When I look at the work of a person like Hannah, I can’t help but wonder . . . what ideas is she trying to express? My sense is these images are happy, and vibrant, and alive. But what’s the meaning of the people all tumbled about? What else may be locked away inside the other non verbal autistic people in the world? How can we know?

So much opportunity in American society is tied to your speech center. If you can’t talk, you can’t really score above retarded on most intelligence tests. Why? Because a person with impairment in his speech center – on the left side of the brain - may not hear words as language.
They may only hear them as rhythm and melody, as we hear music. “Hearing music” happens on the other side of the brain.

If a person cannot understand language, there is no way for them to comprehend and obey instructions on an IQ test. The result? A total failure. But does that mean such a person is devoid of brainpower? That’s what people thought 50 years ago, but today we see things a bit differently. A person without speech may still have a remarkable gift for art or music or some other form of understanding and expression that does not involve spoken communication.

Looking at Hannah’s art, it is obvious there is a lot going on inside her head. Yet you could not discover that by conversation. Without art, she’d still be a total mystery, at least to me. That is the magic of this – the way art is a window into the workings of a mind that would otherwise be totally inscrutable and invisible to the rest of us.

When you look at these images, what do you see? I see a world ruled by shades of color. The people, in contrast, are stick figures, insubstantial. It’s as if she perceives a world of shade, shape, and texture. In her pictures people are almost an afterthought.

Perhaps that’s what we are, to 99% of the world’s creatures. Does Hannah see the world in a fundamentally different way, one in which the colors of the world are paramount and humans are insignificant? I don’t know.

Do the colors represent feelings, sounds, smells? Are they the “colors of the world” or are they colors of her moods or even colors of the people in the backgrounds? I don’t know that either.
But perhaps I don’t need to know. Perhaps it’s enough to look and ponder and each make our own choice for what those things represent. That’s part of the magic art – it can mean different things to every viewer.

Any of you who have read Born On a Blue Day by Daniel Tammett may recognize his shapes and colors in Hannah’s art. I too was recently asked if I have synesthesia.

Is that what drives Hannah’s art? Read this description and ask yourself . . .

I have to agree, I have a touch of it, and I’ll bet many of us on the spectrum share that trait.
Temple Grandin has written extensively about thinking in pictures and shapes.

If you’d like to know more about Hannah’s art you can write her at

With that, it’s time for me to crawl under my rock. I have a long day tomorrow – I’m speaking at the student center at Worcester State College at 11:30, followed by a dinner for Umass basketball at 6. So I’ll talk to you all later.
And don't forget to check my new Robison Service Blog, at
Also stop by and say hi on Facebook at my regular page and my author page,


Catharine said…
I was at the conference today, and I saw the art work you were talking about. I've worked with Adults with Autism for years and one thing I have always seen is that there a desire to express themselves through some creative talent. In the case of one young man the drawings he made became his friends. I'm glad Hannah has a way to make use of that outlet. I'm sure it's very helpful.
Laura said…
Thanks for this great post! It really reminds me of a couple of the kids I work with. One of my little guys has tremendous skill with this little Flip camera. He is more verbal than we've ever seen and its a fascinating look into his view of the world.
Amanda said…
Argh! The frustration of the assumption that just because nothing comes out of her mouth, there's nothing going on in her head. The number of times I have to explain to people my daughter is autistic not stupid. Don't treat her like a baby, she chooses not to speak. That doesn't mean she doesn't understand you.
Amanda, you say: "Don't treat her like a baby, she chooses not to speak. That doesn't mean she doesn't understand you."

If my own life on the spectrum is any indication, that statement may not be fully accurate.

There have been many times when I have been in my own autistic world, and I have been totally oblivious anything around me. At such times, people may have spoken to me and I did not notice at all.

In my case, the assumption that I heard another person and chose not to respond is wrong. I may have looked like I heard them, and indeed the audio signal may have penetrated my brain, but it was not processed as speech and it was not acted upon. Saying I "chose not to speak" in those circumstances would not have been correct.

You might say, "How can you stand three feet away, look right at me, and not hear me?" I don't know . . . all I can say is, it has happened. Obviously, your voice reaced my ears, but it just went into never-never land in my head due to my deep concentration on something else at that moment.

Of course, I have no way to know if your daughter's experience is similar to what I wrote. But perhaps you could share this with her and see.
SavedAspie said…
HI... I originally scrolled down to comment about how I, too, had noticed a "look" to many with Autism and provide encouragement in documenting that look, but then I saw John Elder Robinson's post and would really like to echo what he wrote:

So many times I've gotten into "social trouble" when someone thought I heard them, but I was really of in my own world or, more often, paying attention to one stream of input. Not being able to concentrate on too many streams of input at a time, if I'm focused on one area, it makes me blind to others- even if they're right in front of me.

Good post, and good discussion.
Michelle O'Neil said…
Thanks for sharing this artist with us John. Normal Films has a new documentary out on this very subject.
Thomas Thomas said…
John is right. There are too many times I hear, but don't hear. Also if I hear too many things at once there is information overload. I have to decide which thing to remember, or I have no choice in the decision and don't remember or apparently hear any of it.

this is very isolating.
krex said…
Long time lurker, first time responder (lol) .

Art? is really important to me but I have to say that it has nothing to do with trying to communicate any particular "message" to anyone but myself . I do have a desire to share the pleasure I get from looking at certain things and would be as likely to want to share a cool rock I found as something I made (but learned pretty early, not many people care to see a beetle walking on some moss on a piece of drift wood , even if the sight filled me with awe .)

I have also considered that there is some form of synthasia going on but it isn't as I read described somewhere...smelling a sound, is just a feeling of goodness when seeing certain colors and textures as well as tactile pleasure related to fur .

You can see some of what I make on my blog...
I just wanted to make the point that not everything people do is based on a desire to "communicate" with others. For me it's selfish desire to have something I want to touch or look at .
Amanda said…
Well that's the difference between hearing and listening. I aim to always get her attention by using her name first but it evidently doesn't always work. She is 10 after all, and typical 10 year olds don't always want to listen. Her body language expresses a very good "I'm doing it anyway" Defiance doesn't need spoken language.

Yes, there are definitely times when we just don't reach her but I'm ecstatic to say these are becoming fewer, the words are coming more often. She really does choose not to speak. She can use whole sentences with several information carrying words but we don't hear them unless all other avenues have failed, or she is under extreme stress like having a blood sample taken.

An autistic adult I spoke to did say she was too much of a perfectionist and she couldn't say things because by the time she had it ready to say, perfectly, the moment had gone. She has managed to get passed that and I'm hopeful our Bear will too.

So I guess I should be saying don't treat her like a baby, give her a chance to process and respond. My usual analogy is it's like a motorway at 2am on the way in and a winding country lane in the height of rush hour on the way out.
Catharine said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Catharine said…
Information Overload. Does this apply to electonic communication as well.

Also when you don't know what to say or how to express what's inside is silence an option?
Hee hee! I just have to laugh about the whole "hearing-but-not-hearing" issue. My autistic kids are in their own worlds a lot, so they know what it's like to be yelled out of a reverie: "Answer me! What are you deaf or something? Stop ignoring me and pay attention!" The part that gets me is that they will accuse eachother of ignoring/not listening. I would think they'd be more sympathetic and patient.
Gillian said…
My son (who has AS)is a very verbal guy who loves to talk but we do run into the "I'm here but not hearing you" syndrome. Additionally, sometimes he will be in his own world, the room is silent, then someone starts a discussion and he responds with, "Why are you shouting?".
He also loves to draw and does amazingly complex pencil drawings of his own universe which is populated by mushroom men.
vintagesue said… that my son's twin sister??? thanks so much for stopping by my blog and commenting. that means soooo much to me and arek!!!! arek explains his art to me, but i still don't get it and that is okay. i showed him this post and he was amazed that hannah colored out of the lines and made the fingernails black. he said he would try that next.
these kids are really amazing.
thanks for such an inspiring post.

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