Liz, as she is affectionately called, has spent her 29 years living a life of resiliency – a life which given inherent challenges makes her journey that much more remarkable. During her childhood, Liz received early intervention services beginning at nine months when it was suspected that she might have a mild form of Cerebral Palsy. She excelled in preschool and was recommended for general education. However, due to Elizabeth’s learning disabilities, she was transferred to special education classes.
Social awkwardness, a classic feature of autism, can be quite daunting for a person on the spectrum. As noted by Autism Speaks, many children and adults on the autism spectrum need help in learning how to act in different types of social situations. They often have the desire to interact with others but may not know how to engage friends or may be overwhelmed by the idea of new experiences (Autism Speaks; Social Skills and Autism). This was indeed true for Elizabeth who had the desire to socialize but didn’t know how to socialize and thus did not know how to make friends. Her social skills were described as poor and she relied on her circle of support found in her family – her mother, father, two brothers, sister, and extended family members. She was also challenged by self-esteem issues, making experiences in her community extremely limited.
In her formative years, it became evident that Elizabeth had a unique gift for meticulous attention to detail. At the young age of 5, she began to draw. She found solace from her poor social skills in artistic expression and “canvassed” the world as seen through her eyes. Her inspiration was found through watching friends of her older brothers and sister, as well as art curation shows on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) channel. While largely self-taught, Elizabeth’s budding craft was nurtured through classes at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens as well as weekly art classes at her school. Elizabeth developed a specialty for making portraits in the style of realism.
Evidence has shown that not only are many children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) highly intelligent, demonstrating creative and cognitive abilities that far exceed those of their non-ASD peers, but children with ASD are also better able to process details compared to other children (Drake, J. E. (2012)).
While not explicitly diagnosed as a savant, Elizabeth’s intrinsic artistic abilities, where she is able to draw completely from memory, can be likened to Savant Syndrome. Instructor Monica Walker notes in Autism & Artistic Talent that “roughly ten percent of those diagnosed with autism will have savant syndrome. These individuals will possess inherent autistic savant abilities, generally first seen during early childhood. Common abilities include extensive mathematical calculations, memorization, and artistic or musical skills. The latter group, artistic autistic savants, may play a musical instrument with perfect pitch or be able to play a piece of music in its entirety after only hearing it once. Another may see a landscape or cityscape and draw it in detail without having taken art classes or entirely from memory. Research shows that one ability that features across all individuals with savant syndrome is a prodigious working memory, no matter the skill. Working memory involves the ability to hold and process an abundance of verbal and non-verbal information. It appears to be an intrinsic part of the syndrome. Research also shows that these individuals have an intense attention to detail. Researchers have not yet been able to identify why savant syndrome occurs. One of the leading theories is that left brain (logic, language) impairment or injury results in right brain (artistic, concrete thinking) compensation, as there are high occurrences of left-brain abnormal functioning among individuals diagnosed with ASDs. In other words, the right side of the brain takes over the functions of the left side. The left hemisphere often completes development later, and, as a result, is under prenatal influences that can be harmful for an extended period of time.
Currently, researchers are using CT and fMRI scans to study the artistic savant brain at work. However, more studies on the link between autism and artistic genius need to be conducted.
Researchers have set out to examine common patterns in the lives and artwork of six artistic savants who had features of “pervasive developmental disorder” including impairment in social interaction and communication as well as restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interest, and activities. Results of the study noted that, “all six demonstrated a strong preference for a single art medium and showed a restricted variation in artistic themes. None understood art theory. Some autistic features contributed to their success, including attention to visual detail, a tendency toward ritualistic compulsive repetition, the ability to focus on one topic at the expense of other interests, and intact memory and visuospatial skills. The artistic savant syndrome remains rare and mysterious in origin. Savants exhibit extraordinary visual talents along with profound linguistic and social impairment. The intense focus on and ability to remember visual detail contributes to the artistic product of the savant” (Autistic savants. [correction of artistic]. Hou C, Miller BL, Cummings JL, Goldberg M, Mychack P, Bottino V, Benson DF. Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, 01 Jan 2000)
The Big Transition
Change doesn’t necessarily come easy nor without a certain degree of emotional upheaval. For Elizabeth, that was especially true when she moved into residential living at Services for the UnderServed (S:US) in 2020 after having lived in the community with her family since infancy. As an extremely shy person, this transition could have proved challenging as adjusting and settling in takes time. However, Elizabeth bonded with her peers through art. She created precise and intriguingly detailed portraits of her peers and offered her masterpieces as treasured gifts to her housemates.
At S:US, Elizabeth’s creative talents are nurtured. Staff members work with Elizabeth to help research and expose her to various expressive opportunities by way of professional art classes and events that are of interest. However, her social awkwardness stands in the way of her being able to take advantage of some of these opportunities. Through routine work with her Psychiatrist, Counselor, Behavior Intervention Specialist, staff, and those alike, we continue to explore ways in which Elizabeth can overcome her anxieties and become more at ease in public.
Elizabeth’s favorite type of art is ancient Egyptian, but she also enjoys art spanning the Roman period, influences from India, and the Native American heritage. She also draws inspiration from visits to art museums and galleries and draws on a daily basis, frequently crafting her art 3-5 times per week.
In a recent interview, when asked what she loves about art, Elizabeth shared that, “I can draw anything I want. Sometimes I look at people and draw them or sometimes I make it up in my head or look at photos on my phone or tablet.” She also shared her realization that the practice of making art is therapeutic. She stated, “Art calms me down and helps me feel better when I am angry or feel sad.”
Elizabeth’s goal of sharing her talent more widely was realized in the selection of her artwork at the 2022 New York Alliance For Inclusion and Innovation Virtual Art Gallery in April. The gallery showcased three of Elizabeth’s pieces amongst those of other artists with developmental disabilities. The gallery curated unique pieces that captured the impact of the global pandemic on their lives, and pieces that reflected feelings around racism, racist behavior, violence, and bullying, as well as pieces on advocacy for people with disabilities in an exhibit entitled “The View from Here.” Elizabeth was honored and beyond thrilled to have her drawings featured and the S:US community and is very proud of her many accomplishments. Since she has been making art for over 20 years, Elizabeth feels that drawing is her lifelong passion. She endeavors to pursue painting classes, attend art school, and dreams of selling her drawings in the future. Anyone would be privileged to own one of her pieces.
Jozette Prescott, MA, is Vice President of Residential Services at Services for the UnderServed (S:US). For more information, visit sus.org.
Drake, J. E. (2012)
Autism & Artistic Talent. (2017, June 13). Retrieved from https://study.com/academy/lesson/autism-artistic-talent.html
Autistic savants. [correction of artistic]. Hou C, Miller BL, Cummings JL, Goldberg M, Mychack P, Bottino V, Benson DF. Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology, and Behavioral Neurology, 01 Jan 2000