International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 3 Review 4

December 25, 2002


Kellman, Julia. (2001). Autism, Art, and Children: The Stories We Draw. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.

160 pages

$52.95       ISBN: 0-89789-735-8

Reviewed by Sally Gradle
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Queen of Makeup, Peter, age eight, marker on paper.
Used with the author’s permission.

Author Julia Kellman has honed a thoughtful craft of reflection in Autism, Art, and Children (2001). We are transported into a realm where sense making in art requires diligent interpretation of experience if one is to understand the autistic child artist. Gone are the more familiar methods that help us examine child art; such as dialogue with young artists or observations of social engagement in art making. Furthermore, we must free ourselves from the logic bound constraints of science in order to plumb the depths of meaning in this uncharted territory. This may best be accomplished by adopting a more natural narrative to construct meaning that is a “creative, fluid undertaking;” Kellman suggests, “…for it is in the flow of events and lived experience that children and art making come together” (p. 4). The author’s discussion of intersubjective meaning, as defined by Zurmuehlen, Coles, and Schutz, reveals a belief that the stories we tell each other and ourselves allow for sense making in our lives.

This established, Kellman leads us on to her particular intentions in this research. Her approach is phenomenological and anthropological; one that will focus on case studies of autistic children as valid child artists rather than disabled students. This tack has a hidden strength: through narrative, the phenomena of experiences engage us in looking at these unusual artists in ways that a more objective, rational approach might discount. This broad based observational stance has afforded Kellman the opportunities to learn from the worlds of others through a larger array of observable events, rather than limiting her vantage to defining and labeling behaviors of disabled artists.

In the second chapter, Kellman continues her positive observations; citing several shared characteristics that exemplify precocious autistic art makers. Early or sudden onset of drawing skills, content that is visually based, and a descriptive style that defines and structures their art through the use of line are among these interesting characteristics. Because the world of autistic children is isolated from the sociocultural engagement that occurs in usual interactions, Kellman suggests that moments of visual learning are “made longer and more accessible to them by autism” (p. 17). Without the self-awareness and the dictates of a peer-enhanced, circumscribed social world, the autistic artist is more open to the sense of “now.” While Kellman is not suggesting that this explains all autistic creation, she does set the stage for further elaboration about particular case studies.

Living Room, Jamie, age seven, ballpoint on paper.
Used with the author’s permission.

We meet, for example, a young man at a center for disabled adults who repeats zigzag markings on sheet after sheet of paper while looking anywhere but his work. He is apparently satisfied with this repetitious visual outcome. Kellman poses an interesting question that the reader may be asking as well at this point. Does this scenario offer insight into how autistic and non-autistic artists see? To answer, Kellman turns to research on the brain, citing neurobiologist David Marr’s ((1982) explanations for how the brain develops. Art that exploits early vision, characteristic of the autistic child artist, “emphasizes the process’s attributes in regard to the structure, location in space, and directionality of objects,” Kellman informs us (p. 25). The unconceptual nature of autistic art, coupled with the visual acuity of the artist in apprehending structures of forms in three dimensional space, link them with other visual thinkers who organize their worlds spatially. Kellman further clarifies this with the example of autistic designer and researcher, Temple Grandin, who enlightens the reader, saying that relationships made little sense to her until she began to visualize them as a series of doors and windows one must open and close in social interactions (p.29).

Stairway, The towering Inferno, Jamie, age seven, pencil on paper.
Used with the author’s permission.

Continuing to build on the strengths of such visual thinking, we are introduced to Jamie, the architectural planner who is a gifted shaper of spaces, one who defines whole worlds of detailed interiors such as elevators, car engines, and ventilating systems. Through his work, we see that the relationship of form to meaning is essential. Kellman informs us that it establishes a structure which allows feelings to be shared. The less culturally derived lens of the autistic artist thus forms a unique art expression—one which we could easily dismiss—without Kellman’s narratives illustrating how seeing is a “prelinguisitic undertaking” (p. 32) that anchors all of our meaning making. “For art in its very substance and structure provides individual artists—Jamie and others--with a sense of mastery, meaning and coherence at the same time that it affords viewers a glimpse of artistic resolve and personal narrative” (p. 48).

In a similar manner, we are introduced to Peter, Katie, and Mark; each of whom illustrate ways of being with art that acknowledge the importance of image as it becomes a meaningful text of their lives through a language of form. Kellman’s prose is precise, and wonderfully descriptive of behavior: “...when I patted his shoulder in thanks for a job well done, he winced, dropping down and sideways to avoid my hand. It was as if I had burned him” (p. 44). “Tongue clicks, hums, and a long, deep bell-like tone suggesting a movie soundtrack composed to describe deep space or perhaps to imitate the sound of distance chanting Tibetan monks also accompany the shouted warnings and commands” (p. 80).

Characters from The Wizard of Oz, Peter, age seven, ballpoint on paper
Used with the author’s permission

With a thorough investigation of the research on the causes and diagnostic trends of autism in children, Kellman grounds her observations in further evidence from genetics, embryology, and neurobiology. Although she notes that no single cause or definitive answers have been uncovered, Kellman suggests that “the cascading events that cause changes in the early developing fetus likely produce the condition of autism” (p. 102). She observes that the exemplars of this study could well inform us of the role the qualities of autism play in the making of art. As a marker of experience, “the momentary, the individual, and the particular” can be understood as “preattentive aspects of the vision process” (p. 103).

So what are we to take away from this insightful book? Clearly, we are now freed from the bondage of meaning-as-social-construction alone. Some other construction of meaning is possible in the hidden realm of autistic, artistic vision. Likewise, we have learned that language by itself is insufficient in guiding our interpretation of this visual narration. We must examine in context how it is lived by the artist as an internal expression made visible. As Kellman suggests, it is as though “Orpheus singing into being the very actions of a world” (p. 84), retrieves meaning from a place and establishes through such artful action that which is common to us all. Finally, this study is both positive and hopeful: acknowledging the strengths of the autistic artists rather than their more usual description of need. There is much we have yet to understand through further study and reflection on the art of the precocious artist child. However, as philosopher Paul Ricouer (1965) states, “[The] recuperative reflection is certainly the philosophical impact of hope, no longer the category of the “not yet” but in that of the “from now on” (pp. 12-13). Autism, Art and Children shares insight and inquiry from just such a viewpoint.


Ricouer, P. (1965). History and Truth. (C. A. Kelbley, Trans.), Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

About the Reviewer

Sally Gradle is a doctoral student in Art Education at the University of Illinois, and a veteran art teacher in the local public schools. She is interested in documenting artists’ encounters with the sacred in their work and has presented her work in AERA and NAEA.

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