A journey into pure imagination
Britain has a confused attitude towards creativity. On the one hand, we prize our international reputation as a hub of creative excellence in fields such as music, fashion, art and design; on the other, we struggle to champion the teaching of the subject.
In the education system, art is often seen as a second-rate subject and, at times, more of a hobby than a reputable course. Coupled with this is the fact that there is a severe lack of specialist art teachers in primary schools across the UK. Unless schools employ trained art professionals, pupils will not benefit from exposure to different forms of creativity, which are critical in a young person's lifelong development.
Young people are strongly influenced by their surroundings and experiences, yet without encouragement from teachers to explore their own creativity, they are in danger of limiting their abilities.
One distinction I believe it is crucial for teachers to grasp about their pupils' behaviour in artistic subjects is the difference between creative imagination and social imagination. The majority of teachers may be suitably skilled to pick up differences between the two, but may not have considered how they affect their perception of their pupils' work.
For most of my career, I have worked with young pupils who have been diagnosed with a condition on the autistic spectrum, and with these pupils the contrast between the two kinds of imagination is the most obvious. However, I think this is also important for teachers in mainstream schools to consider.
Some autistic pupils may have little social imagination, which means that they can have difficulty in understanding how society expects them to respond in certain situations or in reading particular kinds of inference. But these children may still have a powerful creative imagination. As an artist, you do not need to be social in order to be creative.
Ask a class to draw a teapot and most will produce a standard picture showing the whole pot, with its spout, handle and lid. However, the autistic child in the class may be captivated by the way light plays on the object's surface, or the pot's texture, and draw that instead.
Having trained as an art and design teacher, I continue to be blown away by autistic pupils' creative flair. This is a direct result of the unique perceptions they have of the world around them. Simply put, they see the world differently and react to the encounters they have. This is real imagination; pure and free from the instilled opinions of the society that we are programmed to partake in.
I am reminded of when I worked with a blind student. If he was asked to create a model of a car, he would produce something that reflected what was tangible to him - a seatbelt, a door handle. It would not be the standard depiction, but it would be a no less valid one.
To be truly artistic, you have to be exposed to enriched surroundings, through meaningful internal and external circumstances, and you need to have the freedom to form your own opinions and perceptions. Typically, people with an autistic spectrum condition have not formed preconceptions, leaving them free to develop a unique view of their world.
It is partly for this reason that my college has launched an international competition for art by autistic students (see panel, page 8). I have been humbled by the letters and responses we received last year from some of the parents of the young artists who entered, which really helped to consolidate my belief in the importance of art and creativity in transforming people's lives, empowering them to feel valued for their skills rather than their deficits.
I am deeply saddened that art and design is too often overlooked by schools as a core subject and it is my sincere hope that education services and teachers across the country will work together to provide better facilities and meaningful teaching of these subjects, and the freedom to be creative, regardless of whether this meets the school's or exam board's criteria for achieving academic success.
Let's get behind the next generation of artists by celebrating their achievements and encouraging them to unleash their creative spirit - in whatever form it takes.
Darren Jackson is principal of Ludlow Orbis Education, which includes the specialist residential Beechwood College in Wales
The Create! Art for Autism 2012 competition is open to young people aged 11-25 with an autistic spectrum condition.
The contest, organised by Beechwood College in Wales, is now in its second year and accepts entries in four categories: 2D art, 3D art, digital art and poetry.
Last year's competition attracted entries from across the UK, as well as from countries including India and Croatia. This year's judges include actress Jane Asher and TV presenter Gaby Roslin.
The deadline is 18 May. To enter, visit www.createartforautism.co.uk.