ART LESSONS for a Young Artist with Asperger Syndrome

By Furniss, Gillian J. | Art Education, May 2009 | Go to article overview
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ART LESSONS for a Young Artist with Asperger Syndrome


Furniss, Gillian J., Art Education


This article addresses the art lessons of a young artist with Asperger Syndrome (AS). It discusses the interpersonal relationship between the author, an art teacher, and this young art student with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It also describes some of the behavior modification techniques I used during art lessons to instruct the young artist. It describes artmaking in terms of subject matter, art materials, and the environment. I acted as curator of this young artist's first solo art exhibit at Macy Gallery, Teachers College, Columbia University. I discuss how working in these areas of great interest for this young artist with AS contributed to advance his artistic talents and acquisition of skills. In addition, this work may have impacted his interpersonal skills and social communication skills, including his use of social language.

Brief History

Despite recent progress in understanding autism as a pervasive developmental disorder with neurological origins (Frith, 2003), individuals with autism still are seen primarily as having disabilities. Disabilities are conditions characterized by functional limitations that impede development such as physical or sensory impairments, difficulty in learning or social adjustment (Heward, 2003). At present, criteria for diagnosis of autism include impairments in social communication skills, impairments in interpersonal relationship skills, and repetitive and restrictive behavior and areas of interest (DSM-IV). British psychiatrist and physician Dr. Lorna Wing explains the autistic spectrum of individuals, stating that, "The continuum ranges from the most profoundly physically and mentally retarded person, who has social impairments as one item among a multitude of problems, to the most able, highly intelligent person with social impairment in its subtlest form as his only disability" (Park, 2001, p. 22).

Asperger Syndrome is one of the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). It is dissimilar to autism in that individuals with Asperger Syndrome have very good speech and language abilities, and score high on I.Q. tests. Often they have difficulty establishing friendships with peers. In the 1940s, the Austrian Dr. Hans Asperger identified a small group of children that now would be identified as having characteristics of Asperger Syndrome (Frith, 2003). These children had "a lack of or inadequate social relatedness" and "difficulties in the areas of affective reaction, nature and range of interests, and social use of language" (Paradiz, 2002, p. 69). Asperger Syndrome has been considered a separate disorder since the 1990s (Tammet, 2006). Some individuals with autism and Asperger Syndrome demonstrate talent and skill in the visual arts (Furniss, 2008b; Kellman, 1999; Park, 2001; Sacks, 1995; Selfe, 1977).

The Young Artist and His Early Drawings

I received an e-mail from the father of Benjamin, a boy with Asperger Syndrome. He had searched for quite some time for someone to give art lessons to his son. I had worked before with children diagnosed with autism, but not Asperger Syndrome. I wrote my dissertation on the role of intervention in the early artmaking of Jessica Park, who is now an artist with autism (Furniss, 2008c). I was already familiar with Jessica Park's world of autism, and her obsessions of prime numbers, diseases, and weather phenomenon. Jessica referred to her happy obsessions as "enthusiasms" (Furniss, 2008c; Park, 2001). I knew that family members who live with a child with ASD often must adjust, and accommodate within reason, to these bizarre ways of thinking and behaving in order to function on a daily basis.

I met Benjamin and his father for the first time in New York City during the summer of 2006. Benjamin was 13 years old. His hair was dark and fell below his shoulders. Although a typical awkward pre-adolescent in some ways, he made graceful sweeping movements, his hands and arms flowing in the air. This self-stimulatory behavior or "stims" are repetitive bodily movements such as rocking or hand flapping that may be performed to process and regulate sensory information in the body.

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