Defining Autism


Suzanne Oshinsky

Some common signs of autism are difficulty communicating, lack of social skills, and repetitive behavior. [1]

Remove the word autism from that sentence and those descriptions define most artists. There is an iconic, preconceived notion associated with artists labeled as genius. As they are consumed by their practice and their unique vision of the world, their artwork is the defining way for them to relate to others. Their medium is their voice. Their reality is experienced in a tunneled vision which allows them to focus on their craft.

Two of my favorite artists are Dan Graham and Vito Acconci. I've attended their lectures and have noticed that they speak in a way that lacks the social norm of a professional presentation–their language skills curt, their body language riddled with stereotypy. Prior to my job with CARD, however, I would have never used these words to define their behaviors.

Some defining characteristics of those with autism may appear to be idiosyncratic and out of control. To be an artist is to be dedicated to an interest. One repeats the same action over and over to get the balance and the look of the piece just right. The stacking of objects, the layering of paint strokes, etc is repeated indefinitely until it feels right. I want to emphasize the word FEEL. It’s not anything tangible or concrete that lets an artist know that the piece has reached completion. It’s a subjective feeling that the repetition in finessing it is over.

It is problematic thinking to believe that those who have difficulty communicating, lack of social skills, and repetitive behavior are autistic and not just exhibiting idiosyncratic quirks.

I say this only because many of my peers–people who I think are brilliant–have these common signs of autism. While these traits are subtle they are there none of the less.

I have heard people express the opinion that ABA therapy will destroy any individuality and uniqueness that their child possesses. I believed that as well until meeting a former client of CARD named Ethan during an interview for a documentary on autism. Ethan is now recovered, and when we spoke he was a funny, charismatic kid. While he was somewhat quirky, he exhibited none of the traits that would qualify him for a diagnosis of autism.

I wonder what the fine line is between autism and quirkiness.

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