The Connection Between Being Autistic and Being Artistic

Evidence has shown that not only are many children with autism spectrum (ASD) highly intelligent, demonstrating creative and cognitive abilities that far exceed those of their non-ASD peers, but autistic children are also better able to process details than other children. In many tests, autistic children outperform their peers on local processing tasks, or tasks that require identification of parts of a whole. This is especially true when there are clear delineations between the individual segments of a global picture. When there is less distinction, the ASD children tend to perform equal to that of their non-ASD peers. Some researchers believe that this local processing skill is a trait of ASD and accounts for the high levels of artistic talent among children with ASD. But Jennifer E. Drake of the Department of Psychology at Boston College hypothesized that perhaps this local processing strength is a trait of artistic talent and not exclusive to individuals with autism.

To test her theory, Drake enlisted 30 children, half of whom had ASD, for a drawing and visuospatial test. She used the Block Design Task and the Group Embedded Figures Test to determine local processing, and also had the children create still life drawings. She found that the children with more drawing talent had higher levels of local processing abilities, regardless of whether they had ASD or not. Drake also noticed that the tests she administered were more predictive of drawing talent than they were of ASD. In other words, tests that are sometimes used to identify ASD traits in children may actually be indicating artistic abilities and not autistic tendencies.

Drake believes that her findings have significant clinical implications. Many children are assessed for autism at a very young age. It is at this time that strengths first appear as well, including artistic strengths. She believes it is possible that many young children with strong local processing abilities may actually be exhibiting artistic strengths when they take these types of tests. In the absence of global deficits, these children may not be demonstrating true characteristics of autism. “Thus, the superior local processing seen in ASD may be due to the drawing talent so often present in those with ASD,” Drake said. But Drake cautions that any deficits or strengths that are outside of the normal range should not be ignored in young children, especially if the children exhibit other reasons for concern.

Reference:
Drake, J. E. (2012). Is superior local processing in the visuospatial domain a function of drawing talent rather than autism spectrum disorder?  Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030636

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  • Yvette

    Yvette

    December 19th, 2012 at 2:50 AM

    I knew that autistic children had a few special abilities,but yes the opposite inference would be wrong.that anybody with special abilities such as artistic qualities has autism.I hope this helps all those children that were misdiagnosed for autism.and maybe this is the reason why autism numbers are only growing.maybe we do not know but it is actually a good thing and many of those children may not have autism at all!

  • Justin

    Justin

    December 19th, 2012 at 3:54 AM

    I believe that there is definitely something to this. I think that if you look at many of the great artists, they may not have exhibited autistic traits, but there are many who exhibit other traits of mental illness, but they have chosen art as their creative outlet. Maybe it is because this is the conversation and the message that they have for others, and this is the only outlet that they have to get that message out. It must feel so tragic really to live this kind of life, knowing that you have this talent but feeling it tainted with all of this that they so often feel that they have to keep bottled internally. At least they have art as this outlet; however we have to be careful to recognize them for so much more than this, as I think that once they feel they are no good in this medium then this causes more depression than they may have exhibited before.

  • RW

    RW

    December 19th, 2012 at 5:16 PM

    If there are kids with special abilities out there, then labeling them with a disorder is the worst thing we can do to them. And yet we do in increasing numbers!

    And by the findings f this study, some of them may not have the disorder at all! What I dont understand is this – Why is it that special abilities and performance better-than-normal was not considered as something positive and a sign of autism in the first place?!

  • Kashif

    Kashif

    June 20th, 2017 at 5:53 AM

    indeed autistic and artistic are very similar words. art is a very hands-on field and artists are highly sensitive people who send out feelers into their immediate environment and discern patterns that other people miss. they find a great outlet for their passions and energies in the activity and process of art whether it is painting, drawing, sculpture or the performing arts such as dance or music. art is a soft approach to life and it goes much further than the hard approach that is signified by science and technology. but you have to really pursue your dreams and convert them into reality by hard work in order for your art to be monumental in its vision. the mental illness part has to be enough to spur you on to greater creative tasks but not so irritating as to get in the way of artistic production. there is a mean level of stimulation that artists need. below this the work will peter out and beyond this there lies burnout.

  • Natasha

    Natasha

    June 4th, 2018 at 5:29 PM

    You know, people, the whole thing could really just be a joke, because the words autistic and artistic are basically twins, with one letter different, and referring to certain abilities or disabilities.

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