“This visual means of communication comes naturally to our artists; they are very good at what they do. The unique perspectives they bring to their work come through very clearly.” These are the words of Dana Ranke, the teaching artist for Autism Services arts education program. Dana works with budding artists as young as five years old and will oversee their work all the way into adult hood; which is when they graduate into the agency’s adult programs. As an artist and parent of a child with autism, Dana has seen both at home and in the classroom how the arts go hand in hand with the sensory needs of those on the Autism Spectrum.
Art, by its own virtue, is an engagement of the senses. Autism, by the same virtue, is a hyper-engagement of these senses in ways that we still do not fully understand. Physiologically their ability to receive or not receive sensory information results in an objective reality that is quite different than ours. To put the artists’ tools in the hands of someone on the Spectrum is to open the floodgates of sights, sounds, textures, tastes and smells.
“By their own nature, the artist with autism has few, if any, inhibitions in how materials are handled and applied.”
The resulting works, especially those based more on textures then objects, are a triumph in abstraction and sometimes even surrealism. Their very quality challenges the default habit of segregating “traditional” art from those works done by people with disabilities. As Dana remarks, “Instead of the differences, I actually see many similarities between our artists and those referred to as ‘great’ or ‘important’ artists. Among these, our artists have an ability to express subject matter and use materials in an original way; there is a clarity and directness in the work. It provides a way for the viewer to see and experience truth. Many of the negative influences that may encumber a typical artist are just not a factor for our artists.”
Most of the projects presented to the students by Dana are centered around sensory activities. The materials selected range from traditional paints to textile collages. Nearly all projects are experiments in how they’ll be used by the students or if they’ll be used at all. If a student eschews one medium, he or she is free to choose another. Such a trial and error ensures that surprises are sure to crop up. “I have several students, a few in the 10 to 12 year old age range, who have specific preferences as to media, technique, and content in the work they do. In one case, there are sophisticated film and media references, such as to the director, Federico Fellini. In another, there is a maturity in paint handling and color mixing.” Dana says.
By their own nature, the artist with autism has few, if any, inhibitions in how materials are handled and applied. Yet their fixation on a particular motion or idea provides clear evidence of intent by the artist. Repetition and patterns are characteristic of autism, and this shows in the consistency of themes, subjects or methods of how a painting is executed. If a certain object, shape or person is a favorite of the artist then you can expect to see it reappear frequently in his or her work. “Our artists have the desire to focus very intently on specific areas of exploration, which leads them to create bodies of work which evolve, develop and change over time.”
It’s difficult to resist speculating on whether the arts is a window into the mind of autism. While most artists make deliberate subjective skews of reality, the artist on the Spectrum may be doing the very opposite and simply giving an objective translation of what they are seeing, hearing, and feeling. Any perceptual shifts in their translations are probably driven by a brain that literally sees the world differently. As Dana says, “It is a reflection of the artists themselves. The distinctive point of view is what attracts people to the work.”
So what attracts the artists to their own work? We’ll probably never know for sure. But our best guess is that the process does more for their sensory-seeking needs then the product itself. Not just the comfort that comes from predictable actions, but also the catharsis of self-expression which should naturally be free of rules and restrictions. Dana reminds us that while “Art can be action-oriented, it is basically a contemplative pursuit.” The artists in Autism Services’ arts program exercise control over their materials and make decisions that they can stick with, and change when they are ready. “They get to have fun and feel comfortable experimenting with a minimum amount of rules.” Dana concludes, “We have many self-directed students who know exactly what they want to do and how. The more we can give interested students the time and attention they need, the more excited and motivated to participate they become.”
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE:
A guide to things you can find at home to stimulate a child with autism.
Art & Culture at Autism Services
Langston Gardner Evolves Through the Arts.
joins Cravens’ Collection
Art by an artist with autism catches the eye of noted collector.
ASI’s traveling exhibition has many homes in Western New York.