Understanding autism
Understanding autism

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Free course

Understanding autism

5.4 Managing exceptionality

The success and public interest enjoyed by exceptional autistic artists is as fulfilling and well-deserved as that of any gifted artist. Stephen Wiltshire has his own gallery in the Mall in London, where people can watch him creating his drawings and buy items from his extensive collection of works. Family members run the commercial side of his business.

Activity 3 Exceptional talent: positives and pitfalls

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

In what ways do you think exceptional talent might benefit an autistic person and their family? What drawbacks might there be for the individual, and indeed for other autistic individuals and their families? Make a few notes.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Working in a field that you enjoy and excel at is likely to be a source of well-being, self-esteem and income. Clearly, exceptionality must be managed so that the gifted autistic person is not exploited or treated as a spectacle.

Publicity for exceptional autistic talent could promote the idea that everyone on the autism spectrum has exceptional savant-type skills, such that autistic people without notable special skills and their parents may feel that everyone expects them to do something exceptional. It is important to recognise and celebrate the exceptional individuals, but not to overlook the needs and difficulties of the majority with autism without extraordinary skills.

Arabella, Iris Grace’s mother, discusses some of the pros and cons of her daughter’s talent in the following clip:

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week2_5_arabella.mp4
Skip transcript


Iris Grace is a very gifted child. Her paintings have attracted public interest all over the world. And as a parent, what would you say are the advantages and pitfalls of having a child on the autism spectrum with such gifts?
Well, the advantages are that our story has been able to reach so many parents. I mean, the emails and letters I get, they just make me cry. They're so beautiful.
And it has meant a lot to families to read a story of hope, to read a story that I encourage Iris's autism in a way that I don't try and make her something else that she's-- I don't try and say, all right, stop flapping your hands, stop dancing around on tiptoes. I encourage her to do what she needs to do. And I will always do that.
And I think the pitfalls-- I worry that maybe it makes her so out on a limb. It means that people think, oh, well, it's OK for Iris. She's got that, but my kid isn't talented in any particular way. Or they don't see how this story can relate to them.
But I hope the more I open up about the dark times, as well as the good-- like in my book, I've really tried to make an even balance between what, say, the media sees, the kind of romantic side of it, to the reality. Iris still, now, finds some parts of life very challenging. Sleep-- it's still tough to get on some days.
So it's showing the real side of it, I think, is important. Some people always just see the prodigy child. But I would like to think that they also see a family that's just made the best of the situation and encouraged their child and seen the positives.
End transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371