Justin was 5 when he picked up his first set of markers and began drawing Disney characters. His parents, Maria Teresa and Briant Canha, would watch as he drew a single figure—from the Lion King or Winnie the Pooh—over and over again until another movie, show or character captured his interest.
“His drawings never included real people and were done simply out of enjoyment,” says Maria Teresa. “Justin was always quite oblivious to his talent and abilities for drawing.”
A few years before Justin began drawing, his parents learned that he had autism. He had little eye to eye contact, social interest and use of social gestures, as well as atypical social-emotional responses. His language development was significantly delayed, he demonstrated stereotypic motor movements and he had a marked restriction in his range of interests.
Throughout his life, Justin’s art has been a true motivator for learning, communicating and feeling successful—essential experiences for all children. But his parents are quick to point out that they do not believe that Justin is a savant. Rather, he is a person with autism who is fortunate to have parents who identified a genuine interest and ability early in his life, and who have consistently provided opportunities for him to practice and develop his skill. For Justin, that has made all the difference.
When Justin was 8, he was introduced to a therapist in Florida who realized that art was an essential medium that could be used for teaching, therapy and discussion. “Where words and language were not coming to help Justin express his thoughts, he could express himself to others through drawing,” says Maria Teresa.
Later at age 10, Denise Melucci, an art teacher Justin’s parents came across, helped expand Justin’s art beyond repetitively drawing characters with markers, developing his skills and his focus. “We wanted to see Justin challenged beyond his comfort zone and after we established the goal of expanding his repertoire, Justin began using charcoals, pastels and water colors, and experimenting with different subject matter,” says his mother.
With the help of Denise, Justin’s parents organized a small art show to display Justin’s work—and from there, Justin has never looked back. Soon after the art show, family members began asking Justin to draw portraits of their pets. He was so skilled at drawing animals that Maria Teresa arranged for a display of his drawings at a pet store, where his work was met with rave reviews. Once his family moved to New Jersey, Justin became involved with Arts Unbound, an organization that markets the work of non-traditional artists. His talent was recognized by the Ricco/Maresca Gallery in 2005 and since then his artwork has been featured in many exhibits, some of which include works of renowned artists without disabilities. Justin slowly came to realize that others recognize and appreciate his work. Now, at age 19, Justin carries a sketchbook full of drawings as a way of initiating social interactions with people he meets.
Justin’s talent has provided him with a tool to navigate an otherwise confusing and difficult everyday life with autism. It is also his vocation, enabling him to earn money and have the potential to become increasingly self-sufficient.
Justin’s story raises many issues that are relevant to all people on the autism spectrum. When repetitive, stereotypic behaviors appear, they tend to be viewed as “stim” behaviors that can interfere with the child’s ability to respond to intervention programs. In addition, cognitive ability is difficult to evaluate because of the impact of the social, language and behavioral manifestations of autism. The results of formal testing procedures are difficult to interpret because of these factors.
However, a child’s ability, skill, and talent may initially present in the form of these repetitive behaviors. One of the core aspects of autism is a restriction in the range of preferred activities and the engagement in repetitive behaviors, with the presence of routines and rituals. Parents describe how, from the time of early development, their children show repetitive motor mannerisms and engage in repetitive activities, such as spinning objects or lining up toys. In addition, children with autism spectrum disorders often develop intense circumscribed interests that may involve repeatedly drawing certain objects. In many cases, parents recognize that these circumscribed skills or interests actually reflect their child’s intelligence. They often assert this perception despite being told by professionals that formal cognitive testing procedures have shown that their child is functioning at a low cognitive level.
Individuals with autism have a strong tendency to focus on detail. In contrast, they often have difficulty in developing a sense of the whole picture, or the gestalt. The theory that defines this style of viewing the world is referred to as “weak central coherence.” This implies a cognitive deficiency and underplays the presence of cognitive strengths. It is concerning that cognitive assessments report mental retardation in up to 70 percent of people on the autism spectrum. In a study by Dawson et al. (2007), intellectual assessments using the Ravens Progressive Matrices (Mackintosh, 1998) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (Wechsler, 1991) were administered to children with autism and compared to typically developing children. The scores of the Ravens in the children with autism were 30-70 percentile points higher than their Wechsler scores. In contrast, the typically developing children showed no discrepancy in the two sets of scores. This finding supports the concept of atypical cognitive processing in these children, rather than mental retardation.
“The Intense World Syndrome,” as described by Makram et al. (2007), hypothesizes that individuals with autism spectrum disorders have excessive, rather than diminished, cognitive functioning. The authors describe the phenomena of “hyper-perception, hyper-attention and hyper-memory” that may manifest clinically, for example, as acute sensitivity to noise, excessive focus on detail and impressive ability to memorize certain details. The theory proposes that individuals with autism have very intense perception of fragments of the sensory world with very clear and persistent attention to the detail. The theory proposes that there is an excess of neuronal information processing and storage in local microcircuits of the brain. They conclude that that these circuits are hyper-reactive and extremely plastic, driving the development of new learning, the formation of intense memories and often exceptional skill for a particular task. The negative consequence of this form of cognitive style is the marked restriction of behavioral responses to stimuli in the environment.
How is this all relevant to the development of Justin’s artistic ability? His desire to draw was first evident in early childhood, at a time when his ability to communicate was hampered by his language delay. His cognitive ability at that time was very difficult to assess and his repetitive stereotypic drawing could easily have been seen as interfering with his development and the acquisition of important social and language skills. However, given the encouragement and reinforcement of those around him and the opportunity to develop his drawing skill, he responded by rapidly expanding his skill, showing a keen eye for visual details and an ability to focus for sustained periods of time. He was drawn to novel subject matter and media, thus expanding his knowledge of how to draw and developing his artistic skills. Justin’s pattern of learning and his response to environmental stimulation appear to reflect this exaggerated brain plasticity, as hypothesized.
Maria Teresa and Briant hope that Justin will someday live independently in their hometown of Montclair, NJ, a community that now knows him well and admires his work. They hope that Justin’s talent will continue to allow him to grow as a person, and foster his future social life, friendships and happiness. This is the wish of all parents whose children are faced with the challenges of a life with autism.