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Autistic and Artistic: Can My Son Be Both?

What 'cognitive differences' and creativity have in common

Writer: Varda Steinhardt

I have, on occasion, sat in the park chatting with a stranger and felt compelled to reveal: “My son is Autistic,” only to be misheard. “Oh, my son / brother / nephew is very artistic, too, isn’t that wonderful?” my new acquaintance will say, and I don’t know what to say. I hate to pop her happy bubble, am glad she thought my son typical enough to pass for just an oddball artist and not a totally weird special needs kid. Odd behavior is, after all, accepted from artists. And the greater the talent or fame (not necessarily the same thing) the more leeway is given, the more deflection from normalcy is tolerated.

And then sometimes, I think: “Can he be both?” and “What’s the difference anyway, and where is the path across that great divide?”

Quite a few years ago, when Jacob was just three and a half, I was looking for a good special ed preschool for him, and had brought him in to the Child Development Center (CDC) for his interview/playdate at their therapeutic nursery school. It had not gone well, and they rejected him for their program for not having enough “social interest” in the other kids.

Oh, if they could see him now: He won’t leave other children alone, pestering them to play with him, to answer his repetitious and often tangential questions. Jacob is a seething cauldron full of social desire currently mismatched with a thimbleful of social skills. When he wants to engage another child and can’t think of what to say, Jake will go up to him and purposefully belch in his face in and then laugh. It would completely delight him if somebody, someday, would just burp him back.

The playdate gone bad

But back to the CDC playdate. It was one of those rare early spring days winking a big hint of summery heat to come. I had not known how long we would be out, and had canceled the rest of Jacob’s appointments for the day. At the time his days were full of various therapies, all the time, all day long. Jake had a schedule that had to be kept on the computer, adjusted and printed up weekly, posted on the wall and distributed to all, so he could make every appointment. 40+ hours a week of ABA, Speech, OT, PT, Counseling, SEIT: Jacob had, and was, a full time job. But this day was cleared, free, a total rarity. A gift. And I decided to revel in it.

The CDC was on 57th Street, right by the southern edge of Central Park, so there we headed. Crossing 59th Street we encountered the many horse-drawn carriages that tourists engage to whirl through the park. I thought “What the hell?” and told Jacob to pick a horse. Our driver wore a threadbare “St. Paddy’s Day Pub Crawl” t-shirt instead of the fine coachman livery of some others, but he seemed pleasant to Jake so we climbed aboard. I knew money was tight, as ever, and I certainly could have found a “more appropriate” way to spend 35 dollars, but I wanted to indulge Jake for once in a regular kid special thing. This wasn’t therapy, it was fun, and he, we, needed it.

After a long slow pleasant clopping meander through the southern reaches of Central Park, we were left off on the East Side, and I decided to just wander together through the park vaguely west, since that was the direction home.

We are walking slowly, no agenda, no hurry, through the lower edge of the park, when we skirt by the Wollman Rink which is currently neither beast nor fowl, post skating season, but not yet transformed into the Victorian Gardens amusement park. Work is being done and there are some single bricks laying about, castoffs from some project or other nearby. Jacob sees one and picks it up. I don’t see the harm, so I let him.

A new point of view

It becomes his favorite toy, his new best friend. He carries it throughout the park, won’t let me take it back from him. And then he puts it down on the edge of the path, half on the pavement, half on the grass, and flings himself down to lie flat, gaze at the brick up close and view the world around him through the lens of: brick foreground, Central Park splendors behind. He picks the brick up, carries it a few feet to a new vista and repeats.

And I am struck by how engaged in this project he is. He is seeing the world through this unique filter and he is so enthralled by it. And it bowls me over, how intense is his love affair with this seeming ordinary workaday object: a brick. How basic, solid, utilitarian, we see them every day with nary a second glance, and yet to him it has become a thing of beauty, special and precious.

And then I think: Isn’t this what artists do? Take things we pass by, think nothing of and hold them up, say “look at the wonderfulness here, the splendor you didn’t notice”. It’s what my father did as a photographer, made you look at that man working on the street, that lovely junk on a junk man’s table, debris discarded on a city street, and see the extraordinary beauty there in the ordinary.

I think of the Dadaists, who specifically chose pedestrian objects and held them up claiming “it’s art if I say it is”; Duchamp’s urinal the most widely recognized example of this oft scorned and vilified movement—but we still remember and talk about it, its influence carrying on through the generations, giving birth to new art forms and bad music videos alike.

And I wonder: what is the wall, the membrane, the line in the sand that represents the magic threshold that Jake would have to step over to cross from Autist to Artist? Because if this intense attachment to everyday objects, having a unique vision of them, even carrying that over to obsession, if this all is a hallmark of the Autistic and the Artist alike, what separates them?

Obsessive interest

I think of many artists becoming obsessed with a particular image or object; story or subject and painting, sculpting, re-creating that over and over in different ways, repetition with variation but still, holding onto the thing until its meaning has been wrung out, exhausted, and still going back to that well again: Monet’s water lilies, Frida Kahlo’s self portraits, Rothko’s rectangles.

When an autistic kid re-creates the same thing over and over we call it rigidity and try to break him of it, but when a great artist paints the same thing over and over, we call that her signature subject and marvel at her ability to see things new again whilst stumping along a worn and familiar path.

It is interesting to note that the very first of Marcel Duchamp’s found object creations (which he called “Readymades”) was a bicycle wheel, which he mounted upside down onto a stool in his studio. He would spin it occasionally just to watch it, claiming “I enjoyed looking at it, just as I enjoy looking at the flames dancing in the fireplace.” Hmm, sound like anyone else we know?

And the answer is, of course, communicative intent. For an Artist, no mater how narcissistic, wrapped up in himself, withdrawn and solitary, the creative impulse is still connected to communication, the desire to share one’s uniquely warped vision of the world with the world, or at least one other individual in it. The Autist, on the other hand, is most usually happy to lose himself in the objects of his fascination, to commune rapturously alone with their beauty.

The desire to share

The interesting thing is that Jacob has changed so much in this, now. He is straddling that fence that separates the autist from the artist, he has bucketfuls of communicative intent. Were this to have happened today he would not want to be alone with his lovely brick but he would be taking me by the hand, dragging me down to belly up to the pavement with him, close one eye then the other to see how the brick relates to the background. “Look, Mommy!” he would say, as he does so often now, pointing out his world to me, wanting me to see and marvel with him at what has caught his fancy. That “with him” part is the big brass ring, and I am over the moon that Jacob now has it firmly in his grasp.

It’s called “shared attention”, and if your child is developing typically you don’t even notice it as it kicks in around 9 months, certainly by a year. You point to a bird and your baby cues in to your gaze, his eyes follow the direction of your finger and he looks where you’re looking, smiles when he finds the birdie. Your toddler picks up a pretty rock and brings it to you, proudly sharing her treasure.

Jacob did none of these things at that tender age. But he’s here now, sharing attention in spades, and I bow down to kiss the feet of the goddess of neuro-emotional development that has allowed Jacob to walk this path, step by step, from Autist toward Artist.

Another post by Varda Steinhardt we love is this one about humor and autism. As she says, “Anyone who says autistic kids have no sense of humor has clearly never met my son, Jacob.”

This article was last reviewed or updated on November 29, 2023.