Aspergers, drawing and art

Many kids with Aspergers do not enjoy drawing and colouring.  This could be due to the fact that many have less ‘handedness differentiation’ – neither hand has better developed control, so drawing (and eventually writing) is more difficult.  But there could be more to it than that.

Just as there seems to be a difficulty in translating thoughts into a written form, some Aspies experience a similar difficulty in translating visual images into a drawing.

This is strictly my own observation, and I am not aware of a connection between these two aspects in any professional literature, but I cannot but wonder if this is a different expression of one underlying problem.  Let me describe it a little bit.

My dad has never been diagnosed with Aspergers – nor has he ever sought an opinion on the topic.  However, I do see some similarities between the way he, my sons and I processes information – at least, in some instances.  When we were trying to figure out this whole ‘Aspergers’ thing, he shared with me something that happened to him, when he was about 10 years old.

Standards and teaching methods in school were a little differen in his days, and teachers were more authoritarian.  During an art class, a substitute teacher said they were to draw a picture of a pig and hand it in at the end of the class.   A simple assignment – right?  Except that nobody had ever taught him how to go about drawing a picture of a pig… and my dad simply could not figure out how to even start.

He sat there, for the whole period, without making a single mark on his sheet of paper.  The teacher was not pleased.  As a matter of fact, he got very angry.  My dad was smart and had high marks, but he was not the most compliant of students.  The teacher would not believe him when my dad said he did not know how to do draw a pig, and concluded this was simply defiance…  and to report to him after school for detention.

The detention?  My dad was to sit at his desk until he drew the picture of a pig, then he was to bring it to the teacher’s office.  Once that was done, he could go home.  But try as he might, he simply could not resolve the image of a pig into its componenet parts, which he could then draw.  So, he sat at his desk, for several hours.  Finally, the janitor took pity on him. 

He, too, found it hard to believe a kid could not figure out how to draw a pig, but when he saw my dad just sitting there, for hours, he took a plain piece of paper and a pencil, drew a rectangle for a body, a triangle with a dot for the head and an eye, four sticks coming out of the bottom of the rectangle for legs and a curly spring on the back for tail.  “Here” he said.  “A pig!”

This was a revelation to my dad!  He easily reproduced the simplified ‘pig’ onto his sheet of paper, brought it to the teacher, and was allowed to go home.  

I have since met several people who do not naturally have an ability to break down a visual image into subsets, individual lines, which could then be put onto paper.  However, they can be shown how to go about it, and learn the process – just that to be effective, this process of learning needs to take place when they are older than when most kids learn to draw. 

Similarly, many Aspies do not have a natural ability to break a thought into constituent parts that can be written down – we start looking up words, checking spelling and grammar, wonder about better ways of saying it…. and end up producing very few actual words…  Yet, like with drawing, this process can also be learned – and it, too, will only be effectively learned at a later age than that of non-Aspie peers.

Could it be the same ‘prioritization’ or ‘orderig’ of ‘stuff’ that is causing both effects?

Another connection between them:  once Aspies ‘learn’ this process, they do not simply ‘learn’ it, they often ‘master’ it, and become better at it than most other people.  And yes, some do become successful writers or artists… Eccentric, yes, but successful.

Is this simply ‘overcompensation’?  Or is there something else at play here?

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25 Responses to “Aspergers, drawing and art”

  1. Meander Says:

    this is very interesting. i don’t know the answers to your questions. my son who has autism is very talented with art but my other son who is not on the spectrum can barely grip a pencil correctly.

  2. xanthippa Says:

    Thank you, Meander, for your comment.

    If I am mistaken, Autism and Aspergers are related in that they both have ‘less differentiated cells’ in the brain. It is plausible (though certainly not yet seriously proposed) that this decrease in cell differentiation could, in some cases, be caused by the same underlying processes. In fact, there could be several completely different causes for this ‘cell non-differentiation’.

    The difference is in the areas of the brain where this ‘non-defferentiation’ occurs. In the Autistic person, the cell non-differentiation occurs in the frontal cortex. In the Aspergers person, it occurs in the amygdala. Of course, there can be some, or even significant, overlap. There is also a variation in the number, and level, of non-differentiation/non-differentiated cells.

    This means that different ‘brain processes’ are affected by this. In the Autistic person, the ‘prioritization’ might me intact – which can lead to the incredible achievemnts seen in some autistic people. In the Aspie, it is the amygdala which is affected – and IT controls both the understanding of the expression of/demonstration of emotions/feelings, as well as ‘prioritization of tasks/memories/perceptions’. That is why there is such a strong overlap between Aspergers and ADD (non-prioritization of memories/percetions).

    It is, in my highly non-professional opinion, this inability to recognize priorities, which prevents the Aspies from effectively reducing an image into its components: until they are TAUGHT the RULES of such a prioritization. Because the Autistic child would have a different part of the brain affected, he/she would not display this particular difficulty.

    I cannot ever understand just how difficult it must be to raise an Autistic child: Aspergers is challenging enough for me, and, as I have said before, it is like a case of the sniffles vs pneumonia compared to the difficulties many Autistic children face.

    Good luck to you and your family! If I can help in any way, please, let me know…I’m here.

    • Lesley Says:

      Interesting discussion, both my husband and my son have Asperger’s. My son used drawing as his primary form of social interaction for years. Other children found his strange little drawings fascinating and he would draw scenarios they would suggest to him. My husband has a masters of fine arts, I think for him it has always been his only form of self-expression. Art school is also a place where you can create images of your own personal demons without being shunned. My husband paintings are wildly expressive, most people find them disturbing because there is no regard for the viewer – violet, sexual, and some times grotesque.
      I would like to make a comment about Asperger’s being a lesser form of Autism. Every child with Autism is different and to categorize the life condition of the child and the parent as you have negates other peoples experiences. Like many children with Asperger’s my son suffers from crippling anxiety and he was so badly bullied that we have had to take him out of the school system. He will never return to school and I expect that he will live with me for the rest of his life. He is aware of the loss in his life and we have to watch him because he talks about killing himself. Pain comes in many forms, so please don’t minimize our experience.

      • xanthippa Says:

        Please, accept my apologies – I certainly did not mean to minimize your experience.

        In our situation, my older son was identified as an Aspie precisely because we sought help as he, at the age of 7, started to slip into a very, very deep depression. And, I myself had gone through some very, very dark times. The frustration between knowing and being express that knowledge in a manner that is acceptable to society can be overwhelming.

  3. adifferentvoice Says:

    Very interesting, Xanthippa, and gives me a new perspective. I notice that some children love a wide open brief – “draw a picture” – but it causes others to freak out and freeze. However, ask them to draw a picture of, for example, a pig rolling in mud, and they will execute it very well. It clearly is not that they cannot draw, but that the too enormous possibilities make it impossible for them to choose/prioritise. It’s the same with the question “what have you been doing?” – for some people it is too open ended a question (do you mean ten minutes ago, an hour ago, this morning, this week) and so they will say “nothing”, but ask them how their maths lesson was and they will be much more communicative. My two daughters are very different – one needs a more defined framework in which to operate. The other one loves the freedom to do whatever she wants …

  4. rebecca anne richardson Says:

    Hi, i have aspergers (no associated learning difficulties) and my talent lies in drawing, and i actually find it easier to articulate myself in writing. i believe many people with aspergers think in images/shapes…wether thats the shape of numbers, or as in my case pictures.

  5. xanthippa Says:

    Thank you for your comment.

    As a matter of fact, I have been thinking along the same lines as you have just expressed, and, one of these days, I will write a post on it (doing some reading up on it first).

    Why? When I was (ages ago) reading up on linguistics, I was struck by an assertion that I came across that the development of early language is what allowed humans to develop higher thinking, because without language, higher thinking was not possible. This struck me as absurd, because it seemed obvious to me that language had nothing whatsoever to do with thinking – except that we need to struggle to find linguistic means of expressing our thoughts, should we wish to share them with others.

    Later, when learning other languages, I was told that ‘you know you’ve truly learned a language when you are able to THINK in that language.’ This also struck me as absurd, because I could not conceive of HOW one COULD think in ‘language’ – any language! Perhaps I have not ‘truly’ learned any language at all!

    Personally, I do not think in ‘words’ or ‘numbers’ at all. I think in overreaching, non-symbolized concepts. Once I get the comprehension I sought, I work hard to translate it into symbols – either visual, or audial, or ‘whatever’.

    So, YES, I DO think you are completely right – many Aspies DO NOT think in any language at all. The questions now are: ‘is this related to the difficulty many of us have in expressing ourselves in writing?’ and ‘how come other people’s thought patterns are limited by their language, and how do we help them shed the shackles and prejudices this necessarily imposes upon their thoughts?’

  6. Andromeda Says:

    this is kinda bias, It does have a strong point, I have aspergers, and I have a hard time writing, but i just hold the pencil differently. I am colourblind and therefore do not colour, but i am bragging when i say i am the best artist at my school.

    this link is my most recent drawing, proving how we view on art is pseudo true. I do agree that we do not think in a language, move like pictures. In the instance where we already know what we want to think about it a second. you are not wrong and i did enjoy reading more about my condition.

    Xanthippa says:

    Thank you – both for your picture and for your kind words!

    I agree with you – some Aspies are very, very artistic! From musicians to painters and sculptors and architects and more – some Aspies are extremely artistic. I myself enjoy visual arts and like to paint.

    However, each Aspie is different – each of us is affected a little differently. And some among us have difficulty learning HOW to break ‘things’ into ‘managable bits’. This can include drawing images: many – but not all – Aspies will have problems translating a concept from ‘mind’ to ‘paper’.

    This does NOT mean that they cannot learn it!

    To the contrary: I am convinced that once an Aspie is taught HOW to do the steps – he or she can excell at it! The ‘learning’ will be much harder than it is for non-Aspies, but, if one perseveres, the success may be much, much higher than that of others!

  7. emma Says:

    Hello my name is emma, I’m a 13 year girl old with aspergers (I know aspergers isn’t commen in girls) syndrome, I would like to comment on your post by saying that I am quite good at drawing, I am brilliant at drawing! This post confuzed me alot because I am probley the best drawing in my school! I would like to know more about the source of your information! Maybe your speculating a bit too much…:/

    Xanthippa says:

    I’m glad to hear from you! I, too, am a female with Aspergers…

    And it is essential to stress that Aspergers affects each person differently.

    Yes – some people with Aspergers will be great at drawing. I do not deny this. Not in the least.

    Rather, and I am sorry if I have not been as explicit in this specific post about this as I should have been, we, Aspies have a ‘sphere of excellence’ where all seems natural and intuitive to us and a ‘sphere of incomprehension’ where what seems ‘basic’ and ‘natural’ to neurotypicals is incomprehensible and inaccessible to us.

    So it is with drawing.

    Some Aspies will be excellent at it. As a matter of fact, they’ll be better at it than just about anyone else – it will be ‘obvious’ to them how to go about it. Many of these do go on to have a career as artists – and do really well at it.

    This does not mean that other Aspies have no clue as to where to begin: how to break an object down into its component shapes which could then be drawn, and so on.

    This post dealt with a true, real-life story of an Aspie who cannot ‘naturally’ draw and who needed to learn the skill, to have it explained one tiny step at a time.

    Most Aspies will have an area of their life that will be as difficult for them to master as drawing was for this person.

  8. Melanie Says:

    I draw and I have aspergers. I find it very annoying that i see shapes i cannot copy exactly. I draw things but not from memory as i cannot memorize shapes and can only describe something which i am looking at.http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1325332141424&set=a.1563746541635.2081030.1474514468&theater

    This is a drawing i did of a lady with a pencil. I cannot colour it in as it will ruin it.

  9. Melanie Says:

    This is a picture i did, that i coloured in with oil pastels. I wore gloves because i do not like to get messy hands and i don’t like the feeling of the pastels. I like to make things out of paper, like prams and cars. I give them my friends for their weddings. I like to fold paper.

  10. Andrea Pfeifer Says:

    I am an art Education graduate student at Concordia University doing a final thesis paper comparing the drawing development of children with Asperger’s with that of their non-afflicted siblings. I am interested digitally archiving collections of work from children for my study. If there would be any way I could be put in touch with families who have collected their childrens’ drawings over the years… preferably those who have both an Asperger’s child and a non-Asperger’s child, I would be eternally grateful. Parents will receive the work back along with a digital picture disc of their child’s work. Sincerely, Andrea Pfeifer email:binky@binkytunny.com

    • Lesley clarke Says:

      This reply may be too late to be useful. I also graduated from Concordia with an MFA. I have a son with Aspergers and a daughter who is NT. I have collected my son’s drawings over the years and he is 13.
      Lesley

      • Andrae Pfeifer Says:

        It’s not too late at all! I am still in the art collection stage of the thesis process… could I possibly pick up the work to document and return to you? Or you could send me jpegs. Any/all images would be a great help!

      • Gabby Says:

        …Thesis project…? I dont think-… Well… I only know how to draw animals… I suck at it too. Im sorry to have wasted your time like that but im not really sure what to draw for your thesis project anyway.

      • Andrea Pfeifer Says:

        No, no, no… don’t worry. I just need to collect drawings of anything… they don’t have to be great or special or anything. Anything you want.

        Xanthippa says: may I pass your email on to Gabby?

      • Gabby Says:

        Well you could some of the pictures i have made on here http://kirei-uchiha.deviantart.com/gallery/ I dont mind. How many pictures do you need? If you want I could draw more…

    • kurtcagleKurt Cagle Says:

      I self-test positive for Aspergers as an adult, though at 50 I grew up at a time when Aspergers was not known. My daughter has an Aspergers IEP. I’ve always had an aptitude for copying what I see, but find that this ability does not necessarily translate easily into visualization – the mental construction of an image inside my head – and significantly, I have very poor spatial visualization skills. I also find it difficult to abstract out or caricaturize a figure.

      My eldest daughter is not similarly hampered – she seems to have a natural talent for cartooning that she’s taking into art school. My youngest daughter (the one with the Aspergers diagnosis), on the other hand, for the longest time drew elongated people with strange proportions that seemed typical for someone three or four years younger – not stick figures so much as figures where she’s trying to draw what she sees, but struggling with proportion, rather than drawing what she thinks she sees symbolically. A few days ago I sat down with her and showed her how she can use circles and other shapes to draw figures, and it was as if a lightbulb went on in her head. Once she had a set of rules that she could follow, it made sense to her.

      What was most interesting to me, though, was that she never went through the symbolic phase (I didn’t either). Most neurotypicals do – they start out drawing a circle for a head, a stick body, arms and legs, and circles with fingers for hands and feet, and then have to unlearn that behavior when they start studying art.

      Andrea, I’d be interested in finding more about your research, and may (with my daughter’s permission) be able to contribute some drawings from her collection.

      Xanthippa says:

      That would be wonderful!!!

  11. Mike Says:

    This is very interesting. I have aspergers, and this may explain why I still struggle with life-drawing after I’ve been studying it for over two years in school. I’ve done much better at copying down what I see in a figure.

    But even now, I still struggle to understand this “Line of action” that I’m told is the principle and basis before drawing a figure or character. I’ve listened to explanations, studied it in books, made notes, and looked at many examples of sketches and drawings with the line of action; in fact I was just doing that a half hour ago. But I’m still unable to wrap my head around this concept, and how to duplicate it for my own drawings.

    And i still can’t figure out how to just use a pose as reference, to draw something completely different. I’m told constantly to imagine the pose as the skeleton, to use as the basis for my character. I understand that part, but I still can’t mentally do that in my mind. It’s just… hard. I’m unable to draw even the most simplest objects with my imagination, but I can copy and duplicate an image very well now.

    I didn’t think aspergers had anything to do with this disability, but now that I read this topic, I think that might be why it’s so much harder for me to understand and visualize what’s in front of me. Still, I love drawing too much to give it up completely. I just start over again!

  12. Gabby Says:

    Hi. Im 13 and I also have aspergers. I hope it isnt to lat to comment on this. My aunt told me to research a few things on aspergers. I love drawing for others and just plain drawing. But I dont really thing I have much potential. I usually post my artwork here http://kirei-uchiha.deviantart.com/ It sucks but I try.

    • Andrea Pfeifer Says:

      I would love to get my hands on all/any of the work you have done for my masters thesis project. If you would be willing to send it to me I will gladly pay postage and send it back as soon as I have it digitally archived… or you could send me jpegs. I would be more than happy to send you some drawing/painting art supplies for your trouble. I love your digital work! But seeing any/all work you have done int he last 13 years would be tremendously helpful. Feel free to email: binky@binkytunny.com

  13. Brandon Says:

    Yeah, a large part of the problem with Aspergers and art (from what I’ve theorized, and possibly dealt with firsthand) is that Autism and Aspergers drastically affect the capability to form ‘coherence’, that is multi-tasking and seeing things as a whole becomes a chore. It ties in greatly with difficulties in facial recognition,empathy, as well as visuospatial development as a whole.

    Thus when needing to break down a complex piece of art into simpler bits, many are overwhelmed at this concept. An entire human shape can be roughly sketched into a ‘water-bottle’ shape or such, but getting this down AND incorporating the details properly is something at least I’VE had great trouble with.

    For example, I’ve learned to copy faces and features very well. But then it’s just a face, and with every every face you need a proper head shape, which needs a proper body, which needs a proper everything. If you cannot see things in context and relate to how individual pieces relate to a whole, making art becomes a chore. It’s like a long math-equation pretty much, and without being able to check/follow your work it just becomes gradually incomprehensible.

    Well, that’s just my experience at least.
    ~Brandon

    Xan says:

    So, you have mastered ‘the face’ – excellent!!!

    But, the rest is not as difficult as the face itself – there are rather rigid rules you can follow. Of course, you have to find the rules broken down into a format that would make sense to you!!!

    Or, you can make more freaky art, with the faces blending into darkness…

    You sound like you have the desire – just use your creativity to compensate for everything else: it is my firm opinion that ingenuity, originality and creative thinking are more important to modern art than technical execution.

  14. Abby Hogan Says:

    Thank you Thank you for this information! I have been spending our Thanksgiving holiday trying to work with my 13 year old son with Aspergers. He wants to draw so much! When he was younger he sit for hours drawing meandering, interconnected stories that filled up the page. Now he is horribly frustrated because he doesn’t feel like what he’s drawing is good enough. I have been having him try some of the exercises from “drawing on the right side of the brain” but he gets overwhelmed. We have been spending some really wonderful quiet late night hours though, where he is describing the emotion and posing what he wants to draw and I am drawing it for him. I am leaving details off and letting him fill them in. I enjoy the connection we are having, but he is also not as willing now to start drawing from scratch. Thank you so much for your observations about breaking a drawing or image down to it’s component parts. I would love to read your final paper.

    • xanthippa Says:

      Thank you, for not giving up on your son!

      I am happy to hear that you are developing a closer relationship through art.

      If you have a chance, pick him up a book which helps teach drawing by breaking it down into basic shapes – it might be a useful tool.

      In addition to drawing, if your son likes puzzles, something like a nonogram might help him develop a sense for the way shapes might be simplified yet recognizable – and who does not love working on a grid, right?

    • Kurt Cagle Says:

      Abby,

      My asperger daughter is the same age, and the challenge with drawing bedevils her a great deal, especially since her sister is in college studying animation and game design. One thing that helps her immensely is the use of what she calls “bases” – partial drawings (up on DeviantArt as well as a number of drawing and animation sites) that provide just enough of a general cartoon character or animal to help set up the proportions, whereupon she can erase, fill, or extrapolate her own variations to create a completed drawing that is “hers”.

      Some interesting things that I’ve noticed with this approach:
      * She’s becoming less and less dependent upon the bases for drawing. and her “from scratch” drawing is improving considerably.
      * As may not have been made clear, most of this drawing is done on the computer, and she’s actually becoming quite proficient in using the tools of the various paint programs she works with to complete her drawings. I find this is consistent with the Asperger’s approach – a lack of manual dexterity usually can be overcome with computer tools that do not have as much of a penalty for poor eye-hand coordination. However, this is also translating into better understanding of drawing principles even when she’s not on the computer.
      * She has a great deal of trouble copying directly from life, so she’s had to teach herself “tricks” to deal with the relevant abstractions. It’s easier for her to draw cartoons than it is to draw real things at this point, but it’s also something where SHE has to be the one teaching herself – its hard for her to learn drawing from other people.
      * The one downside is that the Asperger mania gets transferred to drawing, and we’ve had more than a few incidents with her school where she was spending more time drawing that focusing on schoolwork, I suspect because she had better control over the drawing. She’s also stopped being quite so hard on herself when drawings aren’t perfect in her eyes, and she’s finally absorbed the fact that to do drawing well she has to spend a lot of time doing it when it’s NOT perfect.


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