Could Art Help Us Understand Autism?

Jul 7, 2014

From the All For One exhibit at the Park Trades Center in Kalamazoo
Credit courtesy of Bill Davis

Last year, Western Michigan University art students took a class that examined art made by kids with autism to better understand how they communicate.

Now the Autism & Visual Art Project has blossomed to a global program that includes workshop materials for educators, an exhibit, and even a documentary film.

WMU Art Professor Bill Davis got the idea for the project in 2009 while working on an art program for people with mental disabilities. He says the most intriguing art came from people living with autism spectrum disorder. 

“It was exciting. It was cryptic. It was curious and it was visually arresting," he says. "And I thought that this was something that I wanted to do—mix, combine outreach with art.”

So, Davis decided to pair up WMU art students with Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency children with autism. During workshops the kids were asked to draw something from a picture or still life.

Credit courtesy of Bill Davis

Davis says some of the results were typical. When the kids were told to recreate drawings of cats—the children with better communication skills made more detailed pictures.

But when they did the same exercise while listening to cats meowing, Davis says the results were surprising.

“The majority of students drew the white outline cat with more whiskers and a tail, some eyelashes. And so they were stimulated by what they heard to draw more accurately what they saw,” he says.

“Then we played the sound of a dog barking and we asked them to draw the image of a white cat again. Many of the students drew a dog.”

For another part of the project, Davis had WMU students wear things that made it difficult to make their art so they would know what it’s like to be impaired in some way. WMU student Jessica Parrish, for example, wore large PVC piping on her arms while trying to make clay pottery.

Jessica Parrish's pottery using self-impairment techniques
Credit courtesy of Bill Davis

 Amy James is a recent grad who participated in the project, now living in Colorado. For one of her impairment experiments, she tried taking photos while wearing blacked out goggles.

“I accomplished this by putting a piece of black paper in the front of the goggle and then I would try and view through my camera with my peripheral vision," James says.

"But this was very difficult because it was difficult knowing if I was underexposing or overexposing or if it was even focused or not."

James says the class not only made her see her art in a different way, but it also helped her to feel better connected with her cousin.

“I’d known she was autistic, but working with her kind of separately, it allowed for a new identification of who she is and really what she was going through,” she says.

Davis says WMU doesn’t have enough research yet to determine if making art improves the lives of people with autism. But he says the project does help educators and caregivers to better understand how they think.

“And if you surround yourself with people who understand you, and they take the effort to understand you, it’s going to be a better experience for you as you make your way,” says Davis.

Now Davis is working on a website that will help people all over the world to start their own Autism & Visual Art Projects. The site will also have a forum where people with autism and their caregivers can share their drawings.