Autistic Vision

My blog yesterday featured Jonah Lehrer’s analysis of Cézanne’s struggle to represent the world as he saw it, likening it to the very process of vision. Today I would like to look into the process of seeing by autistic individuals. Many autistic individuals are creative and express themselves in the arts. [1] In this short post I just look at two different autistic individuals: Temple Grandin and Donna Williams in light of their creativity.

Temple Grandin 

Temple Grandin describes her thinking process as being driven by images. She is able to visualize complex machinery and manipulate it in her mind. She considers communicating in words as a ‘second language’ for her. She has solved many mechanical problems through use of this method. “… in my work, before I attempt any construction, I test-run the equipment in my imagination. I visualize my designs being used in every possible situation, with different sizes and breeds of cattle and in different weather conditions. Doing this enables me to correct mistakes prior to construction.” [2]

Brain mechanism for visual manipulation?

Shepard and Metzler were the first to study mental rotation in a cognitive setting. [3] They asked subjects to match two representations of three-dimensional object in different orientations. They found a linear relationship between the time it takes a subject to answer and the degree of rotation between the two figures. This suggests a mechanism in the brain that performs a mental rotation. [4]  According to the entry in Wikipedia, ” Mental rotation is somewhat localized to the right cerebral hemisphere. It is thought to take place largely in the same areas as perception. It is associated with the rate of spatial processing and intelligence (Johnson 1990, [5] Jones 1982, [6] Hertzog 1991 [7] )”

Donna Williams 

I first encountered the work of Donna Williams when her first book, Nobody Nowhere [8] came out. It was an electrifying experience for me, since autism was so mysterious. At the time, aside from Temple Grandin, no other person spoke from behind the curtain of autism. My own brother is autistic, at the lowest end of the spectrum. He was and is an unknowable mystery to me.

Williams’s art is an expression of her unique mind, bringing insight to those of us who do not see the world in the way she does. “The figures in my works commonly reflect my experiences of faceblindness, [9] the isolation of my first 9-11 years of severe meaning deafness [10] and not having functional speech until 9-11 yrs old and how this shaped my personality and solitude.  The backgrounds commonly reflect the context blindness of my first 30 years of meaning blindness [11] . Other works have themes associated with dissociation, [12] compartmentalisation, thinking in systems and movement, the importance of texture to a physical thinker, thinking in pattern, theme and feel and relying on sensing. [13]

Diversity of mind

Connections between people depends on a common language of communication. Many autistic individuals struggle with this on different levels. Those who are not on the low end of the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) scale, can sometimes find a way to share their experiences, through supreme personal effort alone, or with assistance from the appropriate therapy. The fruits of their labors are wonderful gifts – windows into different types of minds. The language of art allows communication at the level of the senses: sight – visual arts; sound – music; touch – sculptural and texture arts. Sometimes words get in the way and the message comes across through another route in the mind/body continuum.

Autistic traits are not just for autistic artists

I end with a quote from Hans Asperger: “It seems that for success in science or art a dash of autism is essential. For success the necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world, from the simple practical, an ability to rethink a subject with originality so as to create in new untrodden ways, with all abilities canalized into the one speciality.” [14]


[4] Shepard, R.N. & Metzler, J. Mental Rotation of Three-Dimensional Objects. Science, New Series, Vol. 171, No. 3972 (Feb. 19, 1971), pp. 701-703

[5] Johnson A.M. (1990). Speed of mental rotation as a function of problem solving strategies. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71, 803-806. from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_rotation

[6] Jones B., and Anuza T. (1982). Effects of sex, handeness, stimulus and visual field on “mental rotation”. Cortex, 18, 501-514. from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_rotation

[7] Hertzog C., and Rypma B. (1991). Age differences in components of mental rotation task performance. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 29(3), 209-212. from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_rotation

[14] Asperger, H. Formen des Autismus bei Kindern, Deutsches Arttzeblatt 14, 4, 1974.

3 thoughts on “Autistic Vision

  1. Pingback: Point Loma | Daniel Swearingen

  2. I’m so interested in this theme of autism and visual art. Thank you for this post, Jack. And I just love that Asperger quote you end with – what a gem! Thank you. Liz

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