Savants or Spokespeople? On Autism and Creativity

When I was a child I was desperately scared of loud noises. The world seemed like a sensory avalanche of sensations best represented by the whooshing of cars, the chattering of voices or the shunting of trains. When I began to enter ultra-sensory environments like school, I took a long time to comprehend the ‘noisy’ environments I found myself in. I would have panic attacks, or react by covering my ears, trying to block out the world.

I think even I was surprised when I developed a keen interest in music and live performance. I have no musical talent but I’m able to analyze and write about my passion. That said, I think I can help explain why when the world is such a ‘noisy’ and overwhelming place to autisitc people, we find solace in either being creative or enjoying creativity. The answer to me is twofold: control and emotion. sound, colours and textures surround us every day and are normally out of our control so through art and particularly through having certain pieces of art which we keep coming back to, we find a sense of stability in our lives. Secondly, as deeply emotional beings, autistic people feel lots but struggle to express ourselves, and so the art we create or enjoy provides a cathartic outlet.

“Artists have a hand in publicly demanding change. They can capture the imagination of an entire public sphere” says art activist Beth Pickens. Another observation I like is from one of my favourite musicians, Steven Wilson, who talks about how he makes music for selfish reasons in the hope that his audience will resonate with him, rather than appealing to some imaginary concept of what he thinks his audience want. That’s kind of how atypical perspectives works. I hope that through this blog, I can bring people in to new ways of thinking about the world around them, yet the blog primarily serves as a means for me to express my own emotions.

None of this is to say that creative autistic people are necessarily masters in thier field. All of the factors I’ve outlined are all things neurotypical people do as well. At the same time I don’t want to get into diagnosing celebrities and pointing to that as a symbol of what autistics can achieve. Marshall Mathers, Anthony Hopkins and Gary Numen have all come out as being on the spectrum and as great as I think it is to have that representation there, the truth is that most people on the spectrum are not savants and are not famous. I do think theres a risk that by focusing on autisitc celebrities, we undermine the work many do to hone thier talent, and create an artificially high standard of success.

What I want to focus on today is how and why autisitcs express themselves creatively, or find solace and relatability through the creations of other people. Why is it that I have such a love of music, and such a keen interest in writing? Why is it that some spend hours honing thier art or photography? In exploring these questions we will hopefully explore new concepts and debunk a few misconceptions.

‘Outside the box’

“The most interesting people you’ll find are ones that don’t fit into your average cardboard box.” Perhaps autistic people are also the ones who truly think outside the box”

Temple Grandin

Autism is commonly associated with logical, rather than emotional thinking. I’ve pointed out before how that distinction is not quite as simple as it may look because while autistic people are better at analyzing detail, there will be situations where we use mental shortcuts in making a decision. In these cases our ‘logic’ might converge with somebody elses, who has a different set of emotions and past experiences.

One study found that autistic people are likely to come up with more creative ideas. Participants were asked to come up with alternative uses for random items like a brick or a paperclip, and responses were judged in terms of innovation, elaborateness and usefulness. Autistic participants suggested uses for the paperclip such as a weight on a paper airplane; as wire to support cut flowers; as a token for gambling; and as a light duty spring. On the other hand, responses graded useful but not paticulary ‘outside the box’ came from neurotypical participants and included hook; pin; to clean small grooves; and to make jewelry.

Interestingly, the university of east Anglia who conducted the study presented these findings as strange, equating autism with more ‘rigid thinking’. However, to me, this just shows that autisitcs approach problems in different ways. While the neurotypical participants might have been using a memory and prediction based hypothesis to come up with uses for a paperclip, autistic people might have been looking at the details – its sharpness, its colour, its weight.

The Adult Autism Quotient test designed by Professor Baron Cohen assesses autistic traits relating to routine, communication and socializing and is used to help diagnose people with autism. It launched in 2001 and continues to be reproduced across websites, books and magazines worldwide. The questionnaire includes carefully-scored questions regarding maths and the arts. If your answers indicate an interest in maths, that will raise your autism score. Any answers suggesting an interest in fiction or art score towards “neurotypicality” – or non-autism. So, if you are autistic but you like music, your autism quotient will be lower and could be less likely to be referred for assessment. It also means that mathematicians may score higher on the questionnaire because they are interested in numbers but not necessarily because they are autistic.

On that, some might see that kind of details based thinking as an anathema to creative thought and its true that creative products do rely on memorability cues, and associations between ‘signifiers’ like a note or a colour, and an emotion. However, this isn’t divorced from an autistic way of thinking, at all. In music or painting, detail is the key, and comprehending how separate elements interact with one another is of vital importance. One stereotype associated with autism is that they are good at maths and science and yet we’re surprised when somebody on the spectrum effectively uses the tools of timing, rhythm and complexity to create a song, or uses analysis and observation as a method of critiquing art.

Sensitive Minds

My observations so far have been quite clinical, looking at how a knack for detail and analysis allows autistic people to make and understand art. Still, that’s not the only element. In order to do either of those you need to have the ability to identify on an emotional level with what your creating.

One possibility that I can certainly identify with is that autistic people struggle to express themselves and so find ways of expression either through creating, or through the emotional experience that comes through enjoying art. It may also be the case that autisitc people are less constrained by social norms and expectations and so can express themselves in a way which defies any inhibitions or conceptions of normality that might be placed on them. Michael Bakan, an ethnomusicology professor at Florida University says of the association between music and communication that:

“The kind of rules of etiquette and the kind of social demands are actually much looser in a music making environment, where there isn’t a predetermined outcome. In conversation, you’re having to constantly modulate to satisfy the expectations of the other person, second by second. So I don’t think it’s language so much that is the challenge, I think it is the social paradigm of language exchange that makes communication difficult for verbal autistic people and why there’s a certain kind of fluency in music that exceeds that”

Michael Bakan

From this interpretation, autisitc people might be able to find more meaningful ways to express themselves through art, than through conversation, as creating doesn’t come with the social anxiety which comes from the risk of being misunderstood or judged. Perhaps this is why listening to music is an outlet for helping me to understand how I’m feeling in a way which simply describing how I’m feeling, dosent achieve.

As autisitc people we experience the world in very noisy ways, so when I’m in a busy room, I will struggle to distinguish between one person talking to me and the cluster of surrounding noises and sensations. Ironically, this makes me a quite attentive listener and by extension quite receptive to cues. When I’m reviewing a film or an album I focus on the nuances as opposed to the elements which are most obvious.

Creative designs feel like a sort of organized chaos where random elements or happenings come together to form a cohesive whole that makes sense as one. The same could be said for emotions. As an autistic person I might have difficulty deciphering how I’m feeling at times, but thats not because I’m not feeling anything. Rather, I’m experiencing my emotions more acutely because I’m taking in more information. A song is, after all, a collection of sounds designed to make you feel something, yet its the combination of those noises and emotional cues together that imparts meaning and takes us on an emotional journey.

All this opens up worlds of opportunity for how we think about communication. One study found that while recognising an emotion on someone’s face is a struggle for many with autism, when the emotion is portrayed in music, identifying it is not a problem. Another investigation, as referenced by the National Autistic society, presents case studies where children with severe autism are seen to use music as a complex language that can even include humour. Bear in mind that these are just a few examples and that for other autisitc people, colour or poetry might present the key to understanding emotion.

I don’t think there is an ‘art of autism’ as in a directing or playing style which captures autism, although there are obviously ones I find relateable. I enjoy photographs which bring out colour and detail as that resonates with the way I’m viewing the world. When I’m watching a film I like to understand and sympathize with the characters, and the songs I like the most are ones which start off on a small detail before swelling into something huge as if to demonstrate that detailed, layered approach towards harmony and rhythm. I also think that’s why we care when figures like Marshall Mathers or Gary Numen reveal themselves as autistic and indeed why we often like to guess at whether musicians or directors we like are on the spectrum. There’s that question of ‘maybe they are autistic?’, because when we resonate with a film or a piece of music, we experience part of ourselves in them.

An Atypical Perspective…

The ‘minds wired for science’ concept needs a rethink: While its true that autistic minds are predisposed to detail, the way that’s been presented seems very strange. Part of the problem is we treat maths and science as necessarily consistent with that logical, detail-oriented, way of thinking about the world, ignoring the fact that a significant amount of science relies on risk, trial and error and innovation. On the other hand we treat creativity as divorced from that way of thinking when so much of it is based in understanding math and how different elements combine. You could put a dividing line at how emotionally motivated these disciplines are, but again the line is far from clear and even if it was you would have to prove that autisitc people aren’t influenced by emotion. Like everything else we simply experience our emotions in a more detailed way – an element of ourselves that many of us choose to explore through creativity.

Creativity helps us make sense of our emotions: I find the concept that art can be used to portray emotions absolutely fascinating, especially when its something abstract like a painting or a song. There’s something truly intriguing about how a set of notes or a colour palate organized to form a piece can act as an outlet for emotions or make you feel something. In the sense that pieces of art employ detail and specifics in transmitting emotions though, they helps autisitcs make sense of our own emotions by giving sound, colour and texture to them, and transcending the limitations of typical communication methods.

Creativity helps to defy social norms: Despite being quite an optimistic possibility, the idea that autistic people might be less constrained by social norms helps explain thier creative tendency. In non-autistic individuals, the pressures of expectation and compliance with group behaviour may get in the way of creativity, preventing some of the more unusual ideas. In addition, we may be less bound by ‘top down’ ideas of what’s normal and expected. Freedom from all these influences and pressures might allow more unusual ideas to form.

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