In 2013/2014, we 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 autistic spectrum.

The study, funded by the Shirley Foundation, describes the methods, findings and implications of our qualitative research project and presents a number of insights into the qualities of artworks and ways in which to use different types of visual art that create positive engagement for people with autism.

The research, conducted by Dr Chris McGinley and Doctoral candidate Katie Gaudion, and supervised by Professor Jeremy Myerson, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, used the Paintings in Hospitals art collection as the main resource.

The study adopted an inclusive design methodology to enable autistic people across the spectrum to participate in the study, express opinions on the subject and help to select artworks for their environment. It also adopted a strength-based approach, by exploring the sensory preferences, special interests and different action capabilities of people with autism.

Following a review of current perceptual theories and interviews with four experts in the autism field, the study took a three-pronged approach to gathering research data. This approach included: an online survey targeted at people with autism, their carers and family members, and academics and professionals in the field; a specially designed survey booklet distributed to four relevant centres (The Kingwood Trust, Action Space, The Hub Day Centre and The Chitra Sethia Autism Centre) to be completed by people with autism and their carers; and a postcard activity in which images of artworks were shown to a small group at the Chitra Sethia Autism Centre in Cambridge.

The study analysed responses to specific artworks covering 21 different categories, including: animals, countryside, photograph/realism, shapes, and abstraction. This analysis generated a set of 17 artwork principles that were qualified by a further round of expert interviews. These principles are not intended to be prescriptive but instead aim to inform and guide in choosing artworks with and for people with autism.

Some of the artwork principles include:

  • Special interests: Pairing the subject and/or style of an artwork to a person’s special interests is a good way to engender positive engagement.
  • Detail: Detailed, technically drawn artworks proved very popular with some participants who became preoccupied with the level of detail.
  • Balance/symmetry: Artworks that are balanced and symmetrical are important to many people with autism who find uneven or incomplete work frustrating.

The study concludes with general advice on the location, context and positioning of artworks in the environment.

You can download the full study here.

See more of our research and evaluation...