Number 22 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights how people on the autism spectrum can contribute to and benefit from art...

A new study has suggested that the world’s earliest artists may have been on the autism spectrum.

Experts in archaeology and autism have concluded that humans were able to survive the Ice Age because of certain people’s ability to focus on tasks in great detail for long periods of time and to see their environment in an enhanced way. Not only did this allow them to find food in the vast ice sheet but led to them producing the first realistic art over 30,000 years ago.

Autism is a very wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental (brain development) differences. It can become apparent in various ways, including: unique strengths, social and communication challenges, obsessive or repetitive behaviours, and sensory processing issues. Roughly 70 million people around the world are on the autism spectrum.

Robyn, a participant in Artworks I Like, our study exploring the art preferences of people on the autism spectrum

While autism and artistic ability have strong links, these links are often misinterpreted or misunderstood. Most of us who have little experience with autism, when asked to think about art made by someone on the spectrum, will think only of a very finely detailed drawing. This is certainly common, especially when it comes to what it is portrayed in the media, but the ability to focus on detail is not the only aspect of autism that benefits artistic practice.

A study published in 2015 found a strong link between autism and creative thinking. People on the autistic spectrum, when asked to name as many uses as they could for an object, came up with fewer suggestions… However, the suggestions they made were far more unusual and creative than those of the neurotypical participants.

With the right approach, in my opinion, all children on the autistic spectrum can benefit from art activities.

Claire Tottle, SEN Teacher

Beyond this, art can be an ideal means of expression for people on the autism spectrum. Researchers and experts in the field tend to agree that many people with autism think in a more visual way. Around a third of autistic people are non-speaking. And for those who do speak, words can be lacking when it come to conveying the way they see things. On the other hand, visual communication offers a way to process thoughts flexibly and sensorially.

In recent years, art therapists have published research on how art therapy has made a difference to the lives of autistic people. A study last year found that: “art therapy could have an effect on reducing behavioural problems of children with autism in specific problem areas, including social communicative behaviour, flexibility, and self-image.” Further findings suggest that regular art therapy can help autistic children to regulate their emotions, interact with friends and family, and build self-confidence.

A tutor and student taking part in a Paintings in Hospitals activity at Swalcliffe Park School for boys with autism

In 2014, Paintings in Hospitals worked with Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art on Artworks I Like, a study exploring the visual art preferences of people on the autism spectrum. The study generated a set of 17 principles that are not intended to be prescriptive but instead aim to inform and guide in choosing artworks with and for people with autism. If you’d like to find out more about our Art & Autism loan programme, get in touch with us here.

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