ARCHIVED The ‘Creatively Impaired’ Autism Fallacy – How a picture can paint a thousand words for us too!

ARCHIVED: Please note, whilst every effort has been made to update blog posts, this blog post has been archived and may present outdated and incorrect information and terminology. 

My childhood artwork was never displayed proudly around the house (queue my mum feeling guilty when she reads this). I never thought anything of it until I started visiting friend’s houses, which seemed to be littered with clashing coloured finger paint drawings and wobbly pieces of pottery. I trotted home and asked my mum why mine just got hidden in unlabelled boxes in the attic, which my Dad would sporadically throw away declaring “don’t worry, none of the stuff in here is yours, that’s still safe in the attic”. My mother’s blunt reply was simply that it was crap. She had a point, but out of principle I rebelled and insisted she put my half finished phallic shaped totem pole on the windowsill of our lounge for all to see, and there it stood for almost a whole year until it met its unfortunate ‘accidental’ end. The problem I often had with art was not that I wasn’t creative or didn’t possess any artistic ability, it was that I could never get things looking exactly how I saw them in my head, and no slight alteration to my initial design could be tolerated. So my totem pole was the result of weeks worth of effort trying to create a sharp pointed top, which I couldn’t get exactly right so had chipped away at it until it resembled a phallic object. I then had no time left to paint it so only the top was coloured in, the rest left plaster white. I found this to be a recurrent theme with all my art and design work at school, woodwork sanded within an inch of its life brought home unfinished, pottery which had been so smoothed out it was caving in on itself, and paintings half painted and holey from excessive erasing. The point was it was not that I wasn’t creative, it was just that I needed the time and to find the right medium to express that creativity exactly how I saw it. I think this is why those with autism are often labelled as having no creativity. In fact, when someone with Autism turns to creative pursuits that creativity can be even more intense than a ‘neurotypical’ of the same disposition. So where has this myth come from?

I think the difficulty that may be faced by autistic people, who find it hard to express their creativity, is that it is not their ‘specialist’ subject, and they therefore have to think outside of the box and apply a different sort of abstract thinking to process those creative thoughts. As I grew older and more academic pursuits became my central interest, being creative seemed pointless, why did I need to waste time drawing the image in my head just so others could see it also? I applied my creativity instead to research projects, essay writing, and reading. I am passionate about music so I turned this into a psychology project on music and emotions. I love photography and computer art so I became a freelance designer, earning money to supplement my student lifestyle. However, in my last year of university I was thrown into art therapy and expected to draw and visualise my emotions on a weekly basis, nightmare! I started off just drawing things I’d seen and planned the night before and making up some elaborate emotional link; the planets and space after watching a documentary, which somehow mirrored my sense of loneliness , the anatomy of the brain during my dissertation finals, which somehow reflected my rigid thoughts. You would have been forgiven for thinking that my creativity was somewhat lacking, I just couldn’t connect the two, and until I could the therapy would have no benefit to me whatsoever. Eventually I managed to just let it all go and let that creativity flow. It was the most useful experience of my life thus far, it made me realise that not everything has to have a point to it, that just in the act of creating something disorganised and irrelevant it would untie a lot of the knots in my head, and that in itself gave it a purpose.

Impairments with creativity, however, are still being recognised as a tell tale symptom of autism, which no one seems to be questioning. When I often tell people I have Asperger’s they are surprised by my job as a designer; the myth has become an ingrained stereotype of the condition. It isn’t a stereotype without evidence though. In 1999 Craig and Baron-Cohen tested impoverished creativity in Autism and Asperger Syndrome and found that the ASD children did show impairments on creativity tests. Furthermore, although such children could create possible novel changes in an object, which required creativity, they made far fewer than the control children, and these tended to be reality based. For example the novel changes were all situations they had previously experienced or knew about, not elaborate imaginative fantasy situations. Finally they found that children with ASD did not seem to have imaginative fluency, in that they generated fewer suggestions involving attribution of animacy to foam shapes. They suggested that this was due to poor executive dysfunction, which refers to a set of mental processes that help us connect past experience with present action, thus aiding the production of creative novel experiences. This evidence added further to a debate started a decade before in 1988 when Shallice found that patients with damaged frontal lobes had a deficit in executive dysfunction, creativity, and were poor at generating novel responses; the three seemed to go together. This all sounds like a disaster for our future prospects as artists, and I’ve not even had time to mention all that Theory of Mind (ToM) we are lacking!

Fortunately the debate hasn’t been completely one sided. Professor Michael Fitzgerald of Dublin Trinity College believes that some of the most brilliant minds have been autistic. He compared the behaviour of his patients with that described in the biographies of the famous. Both Lewis Carroll and Yeats showed signs of Autism Disorder, two of the most creative minds in literary history. Professor Fitzgerald suggest that Asperger’s syndrome actually provides a benefit and makes people more creative, they are typically hyper focused and their attention to detail lends itself well to creative pursuits. Could it simply be the case that autistic people are very tricky to test in a laboratory setting as it isn’t realistic to real life? Or just that like the ‘neurotypical’ population some of us are incredibly talented with our creativity, some of us absolutely useless, and the rest lying somewhere in the middle?

What I think is important is that autistic people are helped to express the innate creativity they have. What can be better for the jumbled disconnected autistic brain than organising disorganised elements? Clashing colours turned into beautiful drawings, random noise turned into soothing music, muddled ideas turned into comprehensive plans. Being creative involves expressing emotions, so therefore those with emotional problems and/or communication problems can benefit from creative recreational pursuits and therapy, we just need a bit of patience and some help sometimes to make the link!

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