Nov 28, 2011 0 Share

Expanding Expression: Art and Autism

Artist holding painting.
Photo courtesy of Art Enables

Hans Asperger, the physician from whom Asperger’s Syndrome derives its name, wrote, “For success in science or art, a dash of autism is essential.” Today, doctors, support coordinators, parents and adults with autism alike are finding that the inverse may also be true: Leading a life of self-determined success in autism may require a dash—or more—of art. 

The pursuit of fine arts is, in many ways, particularly suited for adults with autism. In fact, there are speculations that artists such as Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh, and Andy Warhol may well have been on the autism spectrum. The production of fine art requires visual thinking, a high degree of focused attention, a detail-oriented mindset, and an ability to work in silence and solitude. All of these attributes are characteristic of many adults with autism. In art, therefore, many find a productive outlet for fixations, and a welcome challenge for their energies.  

As Asperger himself noted, “The essential element [of artistic success] may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world ...” Parents, teachers and caregivers are tasked with helping adults with autism turn their attention toward the everyday world, and their assistance in daily-life tasks is often invaluable. Yet adults with autism also need time to turn inward, to rest from their efforts of engagement. Daily socialization can be exhausting for introverted personalities and persons with autism alike. Both groups need solitary time to create, and art affords them the opportunity. 

The Benefits of Art for Adults with Autism 

Art can do more for adults with autism than simply offer sanctuary; it can be, in and of itself, a catalyst for transformation. If an adult with autism is particularly interested in one branch of the arts—if he has a love of drawing, or she a love of painting—these natural affinities can help them to grow in ways that other therapies cannot. Therapists, teachers and parents know that when adults with autism are working in a medium they enjoy, they are more receptive to instruction, more open to interaction with others who share their interest.

Social life on the autism spectrum often begins with a shared passion, and for many, art certainly qualifies. (That said, artistic endeavors will benefit each artist with autism differently, depending on their specific areas of growth.) For example, artists working as part of a community-based day support program have increased opportunities for community integration and interaction. During work hours, exhibitions and shows, artists with autism have the chance to practice socialization skills in an environment in which their contributions are honored. Thus, the creation of art and the community of artists help them to forge a stronger sense of identity as individuals.  

In addition, artists with autism may appreciate the creative experience as a path to earning income. Being able to sell one's own work is extremely empowering for adults with autism, and they relish the sense of personal achievement it brings. But is this experience happening consistently? Are artists with autism finding markets for their work? 

Art-Based Day Support Programs 

One way in which artists with autism are earning income from their creations is through art-based day programs, many of which are funded by Medicaid Waivers. As such, artists with autism have more outlets to express their creativity than ever before, thanks to the dedicated efforts of parents, friends, advocates and educators. One such person is Joyce Muis-Lowry, founder of Art Enables, a day support program and art studio for adults with intellectual disabilities in Washington, DC. The tagline? “Outsider Art Inside The Beltway." The program boasts a high staff to artist ratio, exhibit space, and frequent shows. Some Art Enables artists receive hundreds of dollars in commissions for their works. Additionally, Art Enables publishes a yearly calendar, greeting cards and other products, all in an effort to share the art of adults with disabilities with the world.

In a similar fashion, the supported employment program Woodmont Weavers, located in nearby Arlington, Virginia, supports artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities in their daily production of weavings, glass works, and more. The program features a group of 13 weavers who work in a highly visible location—the Ballston Mall in Arlington. Woodmont Weavers was begun by two master weavers, Sally Lloyd and Lill Mason, who decided to teach weaving to a small group of adults with disabilities in 1987. Since that time, the program has grown to include additional participants, looms and staff members.

Art-based programs like Woodmont Weavers and Art Enables serve dual functions. They are both Medicaid Waiver providers for day habilitation, day support, prevocational training and supported employment for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and bona-fide retail businesses. The nature of such programs is to provide opportunity for adults with autism to engage in the arts, while simultaneously allowing service providers to receive much-needed funding streams.

How much money do the artists themselves take home? At Art Enables, artists keep 60% of revenues from the sale of their work. The other 40% goes toward framing and other presentational costs. (No monies from art sales go toward program operations.) At Woodmont Weavers, the model is different. Each artist’s bi-weekly pay is based on production, not commission, as inches woven are entered into a formula to calculate total wages. Though they differ in their approach to artist compensation, both Art Enables and Woodmont Weavers make a concerted effort to market the work of their artists, and this degree of extra effort can mean the difference between art as a hobby and art as a way to earn money for an adult with autism. Professional teaching, access to equipment and materials, presentation, matting, framing, networking and pricing are a few of the additional supports that both day programs offer.

These practical benefits aside, the Art Enables and Woodmont Weavers programs themselves have been transformative experiences for individuals with developmental disabilities. The programs empower adults with autism and other disabilities to explore their interests and expand their areas of expertise. As Art Enables participant Michael Schaff says, “I draw pictures of the Presidents and First Ladies. What I'm reading about, that's what I like to draw.”

Staff members assist Michael in his portraiture work, suggesting various tools and asking questions about each compositional element. In turn, Michael tells staff and studio visitors stories about his work, and he enjoys sharing biographical information about each subject. Michael's interest in history, combined with Art Enables staff assistance, has resulted in enigmatic, unique portraits. Visitors to the studio search to see famous faces in his colorful, abstract works of art.

And Michael isn't the only one. As Woodmont Weavers staff member Raquel Rosa observes, “I think of one woman who came to us without a lot of self-confidence. In her previous workshop, she lacked incentive to do a good job. Her work wasn't recognized. Here, she's learned a lot, and she has transformed because of it. Her family says that she is more sociable and self-confident. Shoppers affirm her work, and she smiles so much. Before, she had never experienced the feeling of, 'So many people like what I'm doing!'”

Muis-Lowry notes that Art Enables represents a powerful experience for staff members as well. “It helps staff use their creativity to make that happen each time in a different way with a different twist to a different end. Not a lot of jobs offer such free-ranging and energizing improvisation.” For both the program staff and the artists with autism, then, the process is rewarding. Nevertheless, the programs—and the artists themselves—face a myriad of challenges.

Challenges for Artists with Autism 

As statewide budget cuts and Medicaid freezes threaten the existence of art-based programs, adults with autism may receive fewer opportunities to engage in artistic pursuits. Dramatic cuts often translate to program closures, while smaller cuts mean low wages for program staff. When the day support programs themselves are threatened, so is the artistic life of the individual. Many adults with autism need constant support in artistic technique, making connections, setting up events and sharing their art with the world, and this degree of support is not currently available for all individuals. Programs like Art Enables and Woodmont Weavers allow some artists with autism to earn money and receive needed supports at the same time. Yet other individuals may find their desired art-based day support programs are full. In such scenarios, earning income from their artwork can remain a dream rather than becoming a reality.

That said, with the advent of Internet-based business, adults with autism are finding new markets for their creations. One such artist is Stephen Wiltshire, a UK-based artist with autism famous for his intricate, detailed cityscapes. Thanks in part to the worldwide sharing afforded by the Internet,  Wiltshire has built an impressive professional career. He has published several books, traveled the world and received high-profile commissions. In addition, he has his own popular art gallery, The Stephen Wiltshire Gallery Ltd, in London. He lives with his mother, but a trust fund established by an early agent has allowed him to support himself. Profits from gallery sales of Stephen's art are portioned between his personal trust and charitable giving. In this way, his exceptional talent and strong mentorship have allowed him to flourish professionally and contribute to children's therapy programs and art-based educational programs as well. Stephen's story is certainly unusual, but it is also a hopeful testament to what is possible for artists with autism.

Few artists with autism will receive the high degree of media attention and support that Wiltshire receives. The question then becomes: How can artists with autism and other developmental disabilities receive supports and profit from their work at the same time? Likewise, how can we as a society provide them with the degree of support they need to learn techniques, grow their artistic and interpersonal skills, and market their pieces?

The solution must lie in combined effort of individuals and organizations. Day support programs like Art Enables and Woodmont Weavers require Medicaid and state and local funding to continue operations. However, replicating their success would mean major changes for most other Medicaid-based day support programs. For example, day support programs for artists need to position themselves carefully in order to promote their works and offer a higher degree of visibility. Gone are the days of isolated, sheltered workshops; in order to flourish, support programs need to integrate into community life. As Muis-Lowry says, “The [Art Enables] studio benefits from being a storefront with lots of walk-in traffic, in addition to the buyers and fans who come to the studio openings of shows.” (Art Enables' website also allows for online purchasing.) When asked about how Woodmont Weavers' success could be replicated, Rosa adds, “There needs to be that advocacy, and it has to start within the [day support] organization itself. It's not just about day support and job training, it's [also about] in-house vocational, how to make things, how to interact with the community. Sales tasks, networking, making [the community] that much more tangible and accessible.”

Manifesting Inner Worlds and Interior Landscapes

Finally, the need for greater involvement in the arts is founded upon the premise that artistic creation is a powerful communication tool for adults with autism. For many young adults with autism, the creation of art is a vehicle for expressing the inexpressible. With appropriate teaching and support, art can become a way for these adults with autism to make manifest their inner worlds.

In this sense, supporting artists with autism is not only beneficial for the artists themselves, but for the rest of society as a whole. As Rosa of Woodmont Weavers states, “It works well for the weavers to have people come in and see their work, see them being productive, and it also helps the public to see this population in a different way. Seeing that [people with intellectual disabilities] are intelligent, creative, and outgoing...the public is learning something new. It's a huge benefit for everybody involved.”

Likewise, when we help adults with autism to develop themselves as artists, we receive rare, fascinating glimpses into their minds and hearts. The art of adults with autism and other intellectual disabilities becomes all the more compelling when seen as an invitation to view their unexplored, interior landscapes. Whether those worlds are peaceful or turbulent, richly detailed or mysteriously abstract, the art itself will say.

As Muis-Lowry says of Art Enables, “All of the artists are identified as persons with disabilities not as a way of earmarking them for special consideration ... but as a way of highlighting their work as that which grows out of an experience the rest of us do not have.” For parents, teachers, siblings and friends of individuals with autism, this insight into the life of a loved one is well worth the time, money, and effort it takes to facilitate.