At her pre-kinder orientation session Jasmine drifts around each of the activity areas: a kitchen table with wooden fruit, a bench with bowls of play dough, a colourful array of outside play equipment, and a table with a red-and-white-check tablecloth for snack time. Across the room I perch on one of the tiny kinder chairs to breast feed Evie. Jasmine is on her own nibbling her fruit and crackers and gliding her blue eyes around the room without focusing on anything or anyone. I can’t pinpoint why she looks so vulnerable. By the time I resettle Evie into her pram, Jasmine is outside painting with water on the wooden cubby’s walls. For the rest of the session she dashes the wet brush repeatedly across the surfaces, casting undiscernible images that rapidly dry and vanish in the hot February air.
A fortnight later Evie and I arrive at the kinder just as all the other parents are leaving with their tired charges. I pluck Evie from her car capsule and hurry inside. Jasmine is standing in front of her teacher, a relentlessly chipper blonde in her mid twenties. ‘Has she had her three-year-old maternal health nurse check yet?’ the teacher asks, pointing downwards at Jasmine’s auburn head. ‘Uh, no’, I reply, ‘she’s not three yet. She turns three next month.’
‘Oh, okay. I’d still expect her to have a few more words for her age.’
‘I don’t understand’.
‘She seems to have some developmental delays. You should probably have her hearing tested.’
‘How would you describe her gait?’ asks the occupational therapist, the second in a series of children’s health professionals we will consult over the next year to find out what’s going on with Jasmine (her hearing is fine).
Jasmine reels between the consultation room door and the back wall. ‘Running! Running!’ she proclaims repeatedly.
‘Well,’ I swallow, ‘It’s like she’s … always drunk.’ I look at the floor. How could I talk this way about my own little girl?
The therapist’s report arrives like a stink bomb in the mailbox a week later. ‘Jasmine became fixed on tasks during the assessment. For example, when asked to draw or copy a circle she made it into a face each time despite instruction to the contrary. She then found it difficult to move to the next activity despite prompting and continued to draw faces.’
Jasmine is formally diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in a paediatrician’s room smothered by Winnie the Pooh decals. I feel like a spider has given me a massive poisonous bite, but also graciously anaesthetised me. The next morning, I drop Jasmine off at pre-kinder and, as usual, fret for her wellbeing. Her teachers don’t understand her. I should be there to translate. I take Evie to the Louise Bourgeois exhibition at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. I have to move quickly as babies are intolerant of their parents dawdling over contextual information panels. Because I am pushing the pram around so rapidly, I don’t have time to adjust to the profound response I am having to each piece, so by the end I am wide-eyed and breathless. Bourgeois’s works—constructed from tapestry, metal, kitchen implements, wood and wool—are meditations on childhood trauma, sex and family. Her enormous sculpture Spider is a tribute to her mother: ‘Like a spider, my mother was a weaver … spiders are helpful and protective, just like my mother.’
At a playgroup catch-up in a Reservoir back yard, the children zoom on tricycles, thread beads on string, work together to build a rocket out of boxes. Jasmine sits on her own in the middle of the concrete garden path completely immersed in a Dr Seuss book. The wheels of a careering tricycle narrowly miss her fingers.
At four-year-old kinder Jasmine is inseparable from an etch-a-sketch. At home she spends hours and hours filling A4 exercise books with ballet dancers, princesses, girls riding bicycles, fairies sprinkling magic dust. The exercise books begin to pile up in a corner of the living room. Then they are transferred to a plastic tub in the shed. Then the tubs begin to pile up to the shed roof. Drawing is Jasmine’s ‘thing’.
As Jasmine’s drawing skills briskly progress from a charmingly blobby self-portrait on a kinder-produced tea towel to highly detailed portraits of Anna and Elsa from Frozen—replete with elaborate hairstyles, embroidered skirts, pointy high heels and full repertoires of facial expressions—I dip into the academic literature on autism and drawing. Researchers from the fields of psychology and child development evidently value such work for what it can reveal about how the autistic brain works in comparison to a ‘neurotypical’ one, particularly in relation to social skills, imagination and executive functioning. I instantly regret reading articles that emphasise the supposed deficits, weaknesses and dysfunctions of autistic people.
Scott and Baron-Cohen, for example, concluded in their study ‘Imagining real and unreal things: Evidence of a dissociation in autism’ that autistic children’s drawings starkly reveal their imaginative deficits. Meanwhile, Jolley et al. found in their study ‘Expressive drawing ability in children with autism’ that there was no appreciable difference in the expressive drawing abilities of autistic and non-autistic children. However, they guessed that children on the spectrum are only able to depict emotional expression because they ‘receive considerable social skills training in schools, and through other programmes accessed by parents, of which understanding emotion is a component’ (p. 147). Fuck you, I think, my kid’s extraordinary replication of human emotion in her churned-through exercise books wasn’t learnt in therapy. Her ability to illustrate human emotion is wholly innate.
Group swim classes have proved a noisy and confusing sensory overload for Jasmine, and she gets into trouble with her teachers for not obeying instructions. With immense relief and gratitude we find a swim school that offers free one-on-one classes to children with developmental delays. At her first session, Jasmine’s teacher gently cradles the back of her head and guides her into a float. I halt my regal lap of breaststroke in the slow lane, and stare at Jasmine’s face. She is utterly serene. As the baby within me flexes his limbs—urging me back into motion—I have a flashback to another time I have seen Jasmine exactly like this: in the brief lull between contractions, Lachlan holds my left hand, and the midwife urges me to look down at the mirror. In its reflection I see her for the first time, her head supported by the doctor. Eyes and rosebud lips closed, a small swirl of auburn hair perceptible through the white vernix. She is about to be born and she is calm.
It is Jasmine’s first day of school. She winds through her new classmates and their parents to a chair. In front of her are paper and a box of textas. She sits and starts to draw. Evie—now a toddler—explores the whole room and my newborn, Vincent, sleeps against my chest in his baby carrier. I unpack Jasmine’s sun hat, lunch box and water bottle from her pristine new backpack. Jasmine’s teacher stands over her. ‘Look, Jasmine,’ she says, pointing. ‘Here is the paper and here is the table. Keep your drawing inside the paper.’ Jasmine’s rainbow has extended beyond the arbitrary confines of her page to the white laminated surface underneath.
‘Have you seen the way she places her hand over the pictures in her storybooks?’ asks Jasmine’s grandmother, Sandra.
I have. She puts her hand down on one part of the picture and looks at the rest of it for five seconds or so, then moves her hand to cover another part of the image and again peers at it closely. She does this four or five times, then turns the page. Sometimes she uses a toy to cover up parts of the picture. Her favourite tool for this is the feet of her toy mouse Matilda. When Matilda’s feet refuse to line up properly over the picture, Jasmine becomes acutely distressed.
‘It’s very … weird,’ says Sandra.
Many researchers refute findings that the disabilities of autistic children are evident in their drawings. Conversely, they argue, the unique abilities of children on the spectrum are to be found in their art. A ‘local processing bias’—defined by such studies not as a deficit but a strength—enables talented autistic illustrators (and many artists not on the spectrum) to pay extraordinarily close attention to detail. Those of us without this bias are distracted by our ‘global processing’ of a scene. In their study ‘“Autistic” local processing bias also found in children gifted in realistic drawing’, Drake et al. write:
… aids such as a Dürer’s grid (where the artist looks at the scene through a grid and draws what is seen in each section of the grid, part by part) or the trick of looking with one eye through a viewfinder are both ways of breaking up a three-dimensional scene into smaller parts and weakening the influence of the whole. (p. 770)
Artists can also train themselves not to trigger their ‘global schema’ of an object or scene and ‘keep their eyes trained on the local components’ (p. 770). People like Jasmine seem to have no need for this training, or devices like Dürer’s grids. However, when I read Drake et al.’s article I recall Jasmine placing her hands and Matilda’s feet over different parts of picture book illustrations. It was as if she were segmenting the image in order to focus on different details. By age five she apparently finished this ‘training’ and at seven is using just her eyes to achieve near-perfect replicas of children’s book illustrations. By this age she can also read novels.
This ability to focus on detail does, however, hamper Jasmine’s ability to complete a drawing task quickly. In their article ‘Drawing impossible entities’, Leevers and Harris argue that while there was no impairment evident in the drawings of their autistic study subjects, they noticed ‘a more piecemeal and less global approach than [that exhibited by] other children, often starting with minor aspects of the figure’ (p. 407).
I volunteer to help with the Shrove Tuesday classroom activities. The class is divided into two groups: the first make and eat pancakes, while the second group draws instructions for how to make pancakes. Then they swap over. While the other children in Jasmine’s group dash off cursory pictures of the various kitchen implements and ingredients involved in the process, Jasmine is focused on minutely reproducing the handle of a whisk. When Jasmine is in the middle of a detailed illustration she can react explosively if asked to stop. As the time to swap over approaches, I dread that she will have a tantrum in front of her classmates and the other volunteer parents. ‘Come on, Jasmine’, I gently urge her, ‘time to start drawing the flour and eggs.’ Luckily Jasmine’s sweet tooth is as voracious as her drawing appetite, and the promise of pancakes with strawberry jam makes the transition between tasks relatively smooth.
A close friend sends me a link to an article about a little autistic girl, Iris Halmshaw. Iris is a savant artist who produces exquisite renderings of gardens. I am upset to receive the link, but have no idea why, as there is no malice in my friend’s action. Just like when I felt intense emotion watching Jasmine eating her snack on her first day of pre-kinder, I can’t pinpoint the source of my ache. Years later I read British psychologist Lorna Selfe’s book about Nadia Chomyn, another young autistic girl who exhibited savant-like drawing talents. After Selfe presented a research paper about Nadia at an ASD conference in the early 1980s, the ‘somewhat distressed’ father of an autistic child approached her (p. 2).
How, he asked her, did the atypical case of a drawing wunderkind help parents like him cope with the daily challenges of raising autistic children without savant talents? How could she help him to understand his child? What strategies and interventions should he be using? This was how I felt when my friend sent me the link. But what I also felt was, if Jasmine is merely a talented drawer rather than a savant like Iris and Nadia, is she still worthy? Does an autistic person have to be a genius in order to be deemed of value to society?
‘Gradually and inexorably,’ Selfe wrote in the Guardian after Nadia’s untimely death at age 48, ‘she lost the ability to draw realistically.’ Her childhood drawings of cockerels, pelicans and fairground horses adorned the walls of her specialist care home, but Nadia was completely uninterested in them and, indeed, in drawing at all. Fear about Jasmine’s future has made me wail at my bedroom ceiling, and frustration about her schooling has caused me to sob over my car steering wheel. But these emotional states do not compare to the grief I would feel if Jasmine’s drawing abilities ebbed away, if her constant demand for biros, exercise books and uninterrupted time to illustrate (with the profound contentment it brings her) ceased. It is the dread of Jasmine losing her drawing that stops me from emptying those tubs filled with her exercise books into the recycling bin.
J.E. Drake, A. Redash, K. Coleman, J. Haimson and E. Winner, ‘“Autistic” local processing bias also found in children gifted in realistic drawing’, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, no. 40 (2010), pp. 762–73.
R.P. Jolley, R. O’Kelly, C.M. Barlow and C. Jarrold, ‘Expressive Drawing Ability in Children with Autism’, British Journal of Developmental Psychology, no. 31 (2013), pp. 143–9.
H.J. Leevers and P.L. Harris, ‘Drawing impossible entities: A measure of the imagination in children with autism, children with learning disabilities, and normal 4-year-olds’, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, vol. 39, no. 3 (1998), pp. 399–410.
F.J. Scott and S. Baron-Cohen, ‘Imagining Real and Unreal Things: Evidence of a Dissociation in Autism’, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, vol. 8, no. 4 (1996), pp. 371–82.
L. Selfe, Nadia Revisited: A Longitudinal Study of an Autistic Savant, Taylor & Francis, Hoboken, 2012.
L. Selfe, ‘Nadia Chomyn obituary’, Guardian, 9 December 2015, <theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/dec/09/nadia-chomyn>.