Time to challenge the Rain Man stereotypes - the autistic mind can be spectacularly creative

27th May 2011 at 01:00

The link between autism and intellectual gifts has long intrigued scientists. The term "savant syndrome" was first documented in a 1871 paper on Jedediah Buxton, an uneducated farm worker from Derbyshire with an astounding ability to solve complex maths problems in his head.

Today, autistic spectrum disorders (ASDs) have a firm place in popular culture, thanks to films like Rain Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, and books such as Mark Haddon's award- winner The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Until recently, the focus has been on the link between autism and logical ability, such as enhanced mathematical skills. Creative ability, meanwhile, has been considered beyond the reach of those with autism. Researchers Jaime Craig and Simon Baron-Cohen coined the term "impoverished creativity" in a paper on autism in 1999.

But a raft of recent research contradicts this notion and goes some way to explaining why ASDs are commonly observed in creative people. An example is British artist Stephen Wiltshire, who was diagnosed with classic autism as a child. He began painting at the age of five and became famous for his stunningly detailed panorama of Tokyo, drawn from memory after a short helicopter ride.

It might be helpful to revisit some facts about autism. Diagnoses of the condition are much more common now than they were 40 years ago. It's diagnosed in at least one in 100 people today, compared to four in 10,000 four decades ago. This may be because we know more about it - although there is still much to learn. Autism is now the second most common developmental disability in the world, after intellectual disability.

All people with autism seem to share three main areas of social difficulty: problems with communication, interaction and imagination. The last of these recognises that some autistic people lack flexibility of thought and may struggle to play or interact imaginatively. Regrettably, this definition has been widely misinterpreted as meaning that autistic people are unable to be creative.

I should declare my interest here. As the principal of Beechwood College - Wales's only specialist, residential further education college for students over the age of 16 who have an ASD or Asperger's syndrome - I'm encouraged every time I see a new piece of research that sheds light on the condition. The more we understand, the better we can help pupils with autism - and their teachers.

An important study that bears out the link between creativity and autism was published in April by Montreal University. It found that the brains of autistic people were organised differently to others. In particular, the area at the back of the brain, known to process visual information, is over-developed, leaving less capacity in the areas that deal with decision-making and planning. The researchers say this explains why people with autism can be better than average at some types of visual tasks - drawing very accurate and detailed images from memory, for example.

Musical ability, too, seems to be connected to autism. Four years ago, researchers at Melbourne University gave questionnaires measuring the minor features of psychosis and autism to 31 professional artists (visual artists and musicians) and 28 professional scientists, all of whom were prize-winners. The findings supported the view that minor features of psychosis and autism were linked to artistic - rather than scientific - creativity.

Professor Michael Fitzgerald, from Trinity College Dublin, went a step further and said that aspects of high-functioning autism and Asperger's syndrome actually enhanced creativity. In his 2007 book Autism and Creativity he ventured that artist Andy Warhol had a form of autism, as did author Lewis Carroll, poet WB Yeats and evolutionist Charles Darwin.

Professor Fitzgerald's description of Warhol particularly interested me. While I am generally sceptical about posthumous diagnosis, Warhol's unusual behaviour, odd relationships and distinctive art suggest that he had the condition. He was also an obsessive collector of objects, but "didn't even take them out of the packaging", and he displayed the same characteristics at school.

Professor Fitzgerald's book divided opinion. But his views give me hope for all those whose lives are touched by autism.

At Beechwood College we are not expecting to produce a generation of Andy Warhols, but we are committed to encouraging creativity. We see daily how opportunities to be creative enhance the lives of those with ASDs and allow them to develop transferable life skills. Encouraging them to articulate themselves through music, 2D art, 3D art, digital media - even horticulture - has helped transform the lives of young people who previously struggled to make themselves heard. Learning to play music also has great value for social integration and personal development.

Taking part in stop-motion animation projects, in particular, has enabled many of our students to gain greater confidence and self-esteem which, in turn, has made them more willing to share their ideas with peers.

My experiences support the research. While there are limitations to our students' ability to solve problems, this does not equate to a lack of creativity. I look forward to reading more research that deepens our understanding of the autistic brain. Meanwhile, I hope other schools and colleges like ours will continue to encourage the creative impulse in those with ASDs and celebrate their achievements - of all scales.

Darren Jackson is principal of Beechwood College, a residential further education college in Wales for students with ASD or Asperger's syndrome.

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