Autism and Art as a Window into the Mind

John Elder Robison Community Member
  • 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.

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    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.


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    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


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    For more of John's insights check out his blog Look Me in The Eye


Published On: April 28, 2011