We don’t often enough ascribe positive attributes like accomplished, protege, or genius to people on the autism spectrum, yet, there are plenty of people with ASD that have displayed amazing talents and abilities in many areas of life including the visual arts.
Throughout history there’s been highly acclaimed artists who were suspected of having ASD and many are eager to link them to it. Of course we can’t prove this to be true given the fact that it was an unknown disorder until the 1940s, but still some of the signs were there and it’s fun to muse on the possibility.
For instance, it’s rumored that Michelangelo may have had autism, and he’s one of the most influential artists of the Renaissance period, responsible for works of absolute genius, including the fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a project that took four years to complete. Was it the fixation and obsession often associated with autism that allowed him to work for so many years on one project? We can’t be certain, but modern medical experts have determined it’s a real possibility.
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But what about today? Are there other artists that have actually been diagnosed with autism that display such talents? There may never be another Michelangelo, but there are certainly those artists with ASD who have extraordinary gifts. Below are five such artists, each diagnosed with autism and every one of them amazing in their own right.
Born in the UK, Stephen was diagnosed with autism in the late 1970s — a time when medical experts were still fleshing out the concept of ASD. Stephen’s parents enrolled him in a special school hoping that he might eventually learn to speak, read, and write.
Since birth, Stephen had never said a word, then one day in kindergarten he said, “paper” and then “pen.” His teacher handed them to him, and, as if by divine destiny, he began drawing scenes from a recent classroom field trip.
Since that day his ability to absorb vast complicated cityscapes and transfer them to paper grew to such renown that he earned the title of human camera. He is known for being able to take a twenty-minute helicopter flight over a large city and return to his studio to draw, completely from memory, intricate details of the city’s panorama in highly realistic style.
Born in London in 1958 and raised in Scotland, Peter completed his first work at the age of six when he painted a scene of the crucifixion of Christ. His artistic career began early, pursing painting right out of art school. His fame increased when the BBC did a documentary on his life based on his extraordinary work in juxtaposition to his autism. He was also chosen as the official British war artist in the 1993 Bosnian Civil War, and designed a postage stamp in 1998.
In recent years, after being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, Peter became a strong public advocate for raising awareness for autism throughout Scotland and the UK. In a video interview he stated that, “People understand disability — physical disability — but autism is something that has really taken a long long time for the public to understand.”
Nadia was born in England in 1967. From the beginning, her parents knew something was wrong. She was a very passive baby who demonstrated developmental delays. She was unresponsive and withdrawn and was eventually diagnosed with autism.
At the age of three, something unusual began to happen. During a time when she couldn’t feed or dress herself, she started drawing on the walls at home. Not that a child drawing on walls was unusual, but the work itself was exceptional.
It wasn’t the typical scribbles and circle heads with giant eyes and stick arms coming out the sides, but rather precise, proportional, and on-point perspective drawings of carousels and horses — images inspired by her picture books.
Between the ages of three and nine, Nadia drew on hundreds of pieces of paper, including grocery receipts, scraps of paper and notebook pages. The Bethlehem Museum of the Mind holds over 200 of her works.
Her talent, coupled with her lack of physical development and low intellectual abilities, caught the attention of Walter Cronkite, a world-renowned newscaster at the time. He travelled to England to make a film on Nadia. She was also the subject of several articles and books including psychiatrist Oliver Sacks’ book, Classic Cases in Neuropsychology, Volume 2.
After nine, her ability to draw regressed and she mysteriously lost it. Her case has been the subject of much study and referenced in modern psychology books. Nadia lived a quiet life in a residential facility until her death in 2015.
Henriett Seth F.
Henriett was born in 1980’s Hungary when the country was on the cusp of great political change. It was difficult for any child during this time when everyday life meant searching for (or waiting in long lines for) daily essentials like food and water, but for the child with special needs it was particularly difficult. Few people could afford cars so walking or public transportation was the norm. Medical care was severely limited so intervention for a child with ASD was unlikely. Yet out of this broken society arose an autistic savant artist who wrote award winning poetry and created notable works of fine art.
She has been referred to as Rain Girl due to some notable similarities to the character in the movie Rain Man. Despite her communication problems and inability to make eye contact, Henriett has an IQ of 140, officially making her a savant with autism. She was refused entry to primary school due to her disabilities. Many children in her situation at that time became institutionalized.
She eventually overcame the educational stumbling block and went on to attend college for a time. She specialized in painting and has created prize-winning work featured in numerous galleries. Along with her ability to create visual art, she’s an accomplished poet, musician and writer. She is probably best known for her book, Closed Into Myself, a personal story of her life with autism.
Gilles was born in France in 1972 and is autistic. At the age of five, when other children drew stick people made with crooked lines, Gilles was drawing realistic three dimensional works. Growing up he had delayed speech, was echolalic, and didn’t play with other children. He was also extremely sensitive to loud sounds such as thunder during rain storms, balloons popping, or even the sound of a cracking whip terrified him. He had a particular obsession with phone numbers, mountains, buildings, and airplanes (his first spoken word was airplane).
His mother said, “From 15 months, I knew he was different. But both Paul [Gilles’ father] and I, even before Gilles’ birth, liked people with different minds. So we always tried to see Gilles’ good points, and help him make the most of them.”
It may have been this parental encouragement that helped Gilles develop such an exceptional ability to imagine and draw what he refers to as Urville, an imaginary city on an island off the Côte d’Azur. It all started when he began building a city with his Legos to support his lego airport, but soon realized the physical limitations using Legos so he took to drawing instead. And he has been drawing for ten hours a day for over twenty years ever since.
Gilles work is realistic and drawn in proper perspective. His drawings have been compared to Stephen Wiltshire’s with one exception: all of Gilles buildings come from his imagination. From his mind he has created the largest city in Europe including chronicling a detailed history about the city that goes back to the French Revolution. His city is now the subject of a book, Urville, written by Gilles with hundreds of his illustrations.
National Geographic stated that, “The truest measure of genius is whether a person’s work resonates through the ages.” While Michelangelo has been called a genius and his work still speaks to us today, these five artists with autism may or may not stand the test of time, but their talents are certainly extraordinary and would amaze anyone who had the chance to view their work.