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Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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5.2 Exceptional talents

While pursuing their special interest (see the previous section), an autistic person is likely to develop an exceptional knowledge or grasp of their favoured topic and so become an expert. A minority of autistic people show truly exceptional talents, which typically appear in early childhood, often without prior learning or practice.

For instance, Stephen Wiltshire did not speak until he was 5 years old, and was diagnosed with autism. But he showed an outstanding talent for drawing from an early age, and without being taught. Ever since then he has been drawing complex cityscapes such as Canary Wharf, producing impressive and astonishingly accurate works after just a few minutes studying the subject matter.

Described image
Figure 5 Canary Wharf by Stephen Wiltshire, 2006.

Watch these clips to learn more about the work of talented autistic artists.

  1. Stephen Wiltshire and his sister talk us through as he makes a drawing of New York City. watch?v=bsJbApZ5GF0 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

  2. Iris Grace is another extremely talented artist, whose talent just took off when her mother bought her some paints. Here she is shown aged 3, working on one of her colourful paintings. 134532771

  3. Derek Paravicini displayed a similar early and self-taught talent for the piano. As an adult he has an impressive musical repertoire, is an accomplished jazz pianist and has played with Jools Holland among others. Here he improvises on a well-known Brazilian melody. watch?v=Ti2xi48WCMQ

Such exceptional talent, surpassing that of most neurotypical people and coupled with fairly profound difficulties, is often known as savant talent. As in these examples, it often involves visual art or music, though savant talent may also involve domains such as calculation, as portrayed in the film Rain Man. Note that Dustin Hoffman’s character Raymond had difficulty with everyday transactions despite his specific calculating skills.