Monday, May 31, 2010

From Autist to Artist

I have, on occasion, sat in the park chatting with a stranger and felt compelled to reveal: “my son is Autistic” and had them mishear me. “Oh, my son / brother / nephew is very artistic, too, isn’t that wonderful?” and I don’t know what to say.  I hate to pop their happy bubble, am glad they have 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 pre-school 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 mis-matched 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.

But back to the CDC playdate gone bad.  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 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 and I thought “what the hell”, told Jacob to pick a horse.  Our driver wore a worn thin “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 (which I recently wrote about in this post for the NYC Moms blog).  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.

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, it’s influence carrying on thorough 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? 

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 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.



Photo Credit: Jim Steinhardt  "Girl with Balloon at Central Park Zoo" 1963
(yes, that's me)

59 comments:

  1. Thank you for writing what I could never put my finger on- this is exactly what makes Emilia and Charlie brother and sister! She is the 'artist', he is the 'autist'- more alike than different.

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  2. What a wonderful post. Thank you for helping me understanding autism. It seems that there are a million ways to see autism, and I sure like yours ;)

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  3. Thanks for a lovely post! Your son sure sounds like he takes after your father. More and more I feel unhappy with the negative ways we have of describing autistic traits. Rigidity? It seems we feel uncomfortable with it as much because it's different from how the NTs see the world as because it's inherently problematic. Also, educators seem to spend a lot of time teaching autistic kids not to make weird noises or movements. Sometimes they're just singsongs and little dance routines. Again, it they were artists not autists, would we care?

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  4. We should all be able to find the extraordinary beauty in ordinary things.
    What a lovely tribute to your son.

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  5. I LOVE this post! I think you are spot on with this. It reminds me of a speaker I saw recently, Jonathan Mooney, who is a neurodiversity rights activist. One of the things he talked about was how "normal" and deficits are all about context. What is seen as aberrant and a deficit in one context, say a school classroom, is normal and an advantage in a different context, say an art studio.

    Really well said. Thank you!

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  6. Varda - one of the most interesting, thoughtful posts I've read. Austic or Artist. The similarities are amazing. And the fact your son is sharing his world with you is so, so wonderful. Love the idea of seeing life through a filter vs. being SEEN through a filter. Definitely food for thought! Thanks so much for sharing!!

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  7. what a beautiful mind you have - showing us how closely aligned and yet how divergent two descriptors can be. I love love love the chance to spot the areas in life that place us all on a continuum: there is no normal/abnormal dialectic, just the beautiful continuum.

    communicative intent - such a challenge for the strongest of us. It sounds like so much fun to share that with your guy.

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  8. This is such a thoughtful post -- so many ideas to ponder. Your writing is beautiful --

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  9. Your son, the artist :) Thanks for a wonderful post.

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  10. This is a beautiful post. Thanks for writing it.

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  11. BEAU.TEE.FULL. POST! I loved it.

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  12. I loved this; so eloquently put and I had never looked at the parallels between the two. How true, how artists duplicate the same thing again and again. Warhol's love of multiples, Mondrian and his boxes...so many examples.

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  13. What a terrific post. You said it would be hopeful... yes indeed that hits the nail on the head. Artist arising. I love it. (Visiting from WOW)

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  14. Actually I am visiting from SITS... hard to keep track! BTW You should join WOW -- you are a great writer!

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  15. Lovely, thanks for sharing, I also have ADD. I don't always feel it is a bad thing. It has given me some interestingly good qualities.
    I am impressed by your insightful awareness.

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  16. Beautiful, and so well written.

    Thank you.

    Hopped over from SITS, did not expect to find this loveliness.

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  17. This was beautifully written. I love love love your point of view. I am grateful you stopped by and introduced yourself and that I had the chance to read this. Thank you for sharing it.

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  18. You are an amazing mom, Jacob is lucky to have someone in his life that embraces him, just as you are lucky to have him, Great Job Mom!! I tip my hat to you!

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  19. That was truly a lovely post. I got here via The Bloggess (You've made it now, honey!) and it was late last night when I clicked on here, so I saved it till this morning and I am glad I did. You've just opened my eyes to another world. I am happy for you and your Jacob, and I wish you both the best. Lovely photos from your dad, as well.

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  20. I just had a few happy flashbacks of 3 year-old Jakey. It brings joy to my eyes that he has come so far. I'm picturing him burping at other little kids and sharing attention. I'm so happy for both of you!

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  21. Here via The Bloggess.

    My son has Down syndrome and he just turned 5. We had his first IEP meeting last week, and I broken-heartedly signed the paper to allow him to be sent to the self-contained life skills kindergarten class instead of the regular neighborhood school's kindergarten.

    I'm going to bookmark this post and come back when I need to be restrengthened. Thanks for helping me remember that I need to help his teachers see that it's their perception of "typical" that is lacking, not my son.

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  22. Varda, this is a beautiful post. Lately am feeling a little of both, if you know what I mean . . . . I want Gillian to read this. I know she feels the same way about Jack. The photo on top is scrumptious. See you at 2nd grade celebration. xoxo

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  23. PS: Just read the comment above from Kyouell about sending her son to the self-contained kindergarten class. So heart breaking. I heard a mom walking down the street this morning talking into the phone. She said: Six years old is too young for summer school! Forget it!

    I agree. Why do we have to be so afraid all the time? I have a son who goes to a school for the gifted, and I obsess in the same way. It makes me miss the seventies when I went to school with downs-syndrome kids, hyper-active kids, add kids. We just called them kids.

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  24. Exceptionally lovely and insightful.

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  25. Life is a journey not a race. Society may sometimes only see the race, not the journey, this is sad. Sometimes we value ourselves as parents and our kids against the markers. However who says the markers are right. Great leaps forward in many areas have been achieved through creative, focussed, unique thinkers. We should cherish these people and value what they will provide us with. Sciences as well as arts have benefited. Good Luck to you and your child. xxx

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  26. What a beautiful and thought inspiring post. So well written. It seems the artist in your son comes, at least in part, from his mom. Stopping by from the red dress club. Looking very much forward to reading more.

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  27. This is a beautifully written post (the photo is AMAZING too!) thank you for writing this and sharing with us :)

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  28. Such a beautiful post. Pudding is an artist, and now that we have "Look, Mummy" she is bringing me into her world- what a beautiful place to be.

    Thanks for writing this.

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  29. This is an elegant and informative piece - so glad that you suggested we read this one!

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  30. Quote by Hans Asperger - "It seems that for success in science and art," he wrote, "a dash of autism is essential." I work with PhD scientists and see lots of dashes.

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  31. Wonderful post. I have seen some amazing work by autistic artists :) Thanks for joining in the Special Needs Blog Hop.

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  32. Every time I read this I get something new out of it:) Jen

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  33. Thank you for taking me to the park with you guys and providing me another view on some of my son's odd behaviors.

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  34. This, too, is beautiful. I love that you came to this awareness; it makes a lot of sense.

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  35. Found you on the blog hop and since you said to read this if I were reading only one post, you had me at only one post so I did. Lovely perspective. I'm sending it along to my daughter who teaches third grade and is working very hard right now with a mom of one boy who is clearly on the spectrum but mom just can't handle the truth and therefore is balking at the help the school wants to provide. (She doesn't want him in "special ed" but she doesn't realize what truly is best for him as what's happening to him now is just sad.) I'm hoping that maybe she'll read your view and understand that what makes her son "special" doesn't have to be all bad. Even though I'm one of the moms of "easy" girls, I can relate to what you write about b/c you are a gifted storyteller. Thanks.

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  36. This piece is so beautiful and poignant! I love this perspective.

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  37. Well done! I'm glad you did this year in review and that I was introduced to your blog.

    Happy New Year!

    =)

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  38. What strongly focused and compelling writing.

    This was an amazing piece.

    I am so happy to see you blog linked to Alphabe-Thursday. I would have never found it to read otherwise.

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  39. hi I found your blog via Jen's Air your Archives. I enjoyed reading this very interesting & fascinating post. I have a friend who has young boys with autism. I will pass this on to her to read.

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  40. Varda,
    What a cool blog, and really moving piece. Glad I found you through Saturday Sampling.

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  41. What an amazing connection you have made. And some artists are on the spectrum. I am glad your child is doing well. You write beautifully.

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  42. So true...what of Monet's obsession with colours and light on haystacks!

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  43. I've come here from The Rewind Blog Hop. Wow - what a fantastic post. As the mother of Boy 1, Aspie, I love the way you have put into words the unique way our children see the world.

    Will be following from now on.

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  44. Fascinating post. I'd never thought about it like this.

    Thanks for Rewinding at the Fibro!

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  45. You post game me food for thought. I sit on the educators' side of the table. Yesterday, we sat in a meeting with the teacher of a student who is most likely on the spectrum. I worked with him last year and the description of his growth in one year is amazing. Thanks to his parents who see his gifts and bring us back to those talents regardless of the "rigidity" you described.

    As I read, I thought it's that push of curriculum and the weight of high-stakes tests that cause educators to forget the artist and focus on the autist as someone higher has set the agenda for them.

    I will keep the picture you painted of your son in my head; an artist absorbed with the brick in the park on a beautiful day with his mom when I come to the table again to discuss the next child that doesn't fit the mold.

    Thanks for you words, a gift,

    Jane

    http://theholeintheceiling.blogspot.com/

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  46. Beautiful post in honour of the incredible steps your son has taken. From Autist to Artist indeed! In fact, it is amazing how many of our kids have artistic talent. I believe my son has some small artistic talent....My "Artist at Work" post details one kinda funny incident!Their ability to pay such attention to detail plays no small part in that. No doubt many Artists were also Autists!!

    xx Jazzy

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  47. Thank you for also helping me to understand autism. I am so proud of you and your son. You have come so far and he's lucky to have such a supportive, loving mom.

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  48. This is a super piece of writing and a really good explaination of what a slice of autism is, thank you for posting.
    Helen x
    http://acraftykindoftruffle.blogspot.com

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  49. i utterly loved that post. as an artist myself and a mummy of a beautiful girl with smith magenis syndrome it spoke to me on every single level. you are an artist yourself, you painted a beautiful picture and i will never ever look at a house brick in the same light ever again! x

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  50. Oh my, I'm teary. My son is the artist, obsessing on an idea or process of some art form for hours and hours in different places and venues, until he feels he has accomplished whatever objective he was looking to achieve, or until he is forced to move on to something else (not pretty). There is a stopping point but the obsessions are something else. I do hope that he finds that beauty and balance in creating the communicative intent for himself.
    I pray your son does in his own way as well. Have you had him try his eye with a camera yet?!

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  51. interesting, this has given me a new perspective on which to view my son's autism,

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  52. This is beautiful! Some day I wish I could see the world through the lens my son uses. (some days I wish I could get him to see through mine!) But, this is such a beautiful comparison. LOVE!

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  53. My 4-yr-old son X is on the spectrum, and he has similar visual inclinations. I wonder what he's seeing....

    We joke (or fantasize) he'll be a cinematographer some day. Have you seen Tarkovsky's films? Take a look at "Nostalgia" and watch how the camera lingers over the water in the stream, how the narrative slows and the film expands laterally, into visual association and dream.

    I'm an artist, and this associative reverie is essential to my work, or my working process, or to me being who I am and being an artist. It's a different place I go to. How does this place relate to X's place?

    Sure, when the artwork's done it's hugely about communicative intent. But that kernel of inspiration comes from somewhere else, and the work at various stages along the way has very little to do with intent.

    (Often, the more "professional" you are, the more that intent shades into marketing... what does that do to the deeply personal in art, or even the spiritual? And how does this self-marketing relate to parenting – and how we look at our children, “marketing” them to the best schools, etc.?)

    A teacher of mine once told me: When you go into the studio, it’s crowded with all the great artists you admire. As you do the work, little by little they leave the room. When the work’s going really well, YOU leave the room. How does this relate to X, what he’s seeing/doing, and what we need to do for him to help him have a good life? Man, that’s it’s own blog!

    Maybe X and I should collaborate; I can help him with his communicative intent, he can help me with my vision, and we can help each other with our love….

    Arkay

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  54. What a beautiful post -- straight from the heart! Thank you for sharing it. I will pass it along to a dear friend who is heartbroken whenever she can't understand her autistic child. It's tough for a mother not to fully know how her child feels. xoxo

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