Art, Colors and Autism

Many years ago, I had the honor of providing an oral presentation at a meeting sponsored by the Royal Society in London. I felt greatly enthused to stand in the same auditorium where Newton and so many other prominent scientists had stood. It was an old auditorium with squeaky wood floors that had withstood a couple of hundred years of pacing up and down by lecturers. During the day, 8 or so people presented on various subjects all related to autism.  Some of the other speakers included Dame Uta Frith, Allan Snyder, Francesca Happe, Chris Frith, and Sir Michael Rutter.  One of the subjects discussed at the meeting was art in autism.  I must say that more than any other subject, this one captured my attention. For me, it was a revealing lecture that came close to an epiphany. Ever since, I have strived to promote art exhibits along with our international meetings.  Thus far, I have had the opportunity to delight in the artwork of autistic individuals in Spain, Russia, China, and other countries around the world. In this particular blog, I would like to expand upon some of the things that I have learned from this experience.

Art therapy in children is an accepted alternative treatment that helps promote their emotional growth, facilitate social skills, and foster self-expression.  It is especially useful for treating and following patients who otherwise cannot express their emotions. In this regard, art therapy may provide an alternative type of communication for some autistic individuals.

The use of colors in artwork is usually congruent to the emotive state of an individual. After a natural catastrophe, children suffering from post-traumatic stress represent in shades of gray the world around them.  A black sun with black rays of light, also known as a sun wheel, is a common motif in the artwork of these children.  The resultant contrast between black and white emphasizes the state of shock in which they are living and serves to portray the dangerous events that they survived.  Color returns to the painting of traumatized children after they begin their emotional recovery.

From a moralistic perspective, black means aggression while white, its polar opposite, indicates submission. People think of a black dog when they imagine an aggressive animal. Otherwise a white flag is an international symbol of surrender, truce or cease fire. White means no threat and indicates objects that are welcoming to us. Both black and white can be mixed with other colors. The tint of a color indicates the amount of white in a particular mixture, while its shade indicates the amount of black.  Dangerous objects are usually represented with sharp edges having a deep shade. Safe objects are usually drawn with rounded or soft contours and painted with a light tint.  The large majority of children prefer to paint in colors, a predominant black and white painting is more in-keeping with the artwork of an adult or probably an elderly individual.

The colors in artwork may convey additional meaning to the emotional state of an individual. It is similar to coloring fruit with their natural color. Off colors in this regard indicate that something is wrong with the picture or the fruit. Red, for example, brings attention to a particular object. According to evolutionary theory red is easily perceived to help in our survival as it allows us to recognize ripe fruit. In modern times, red is meant to attract our attention, in some instances it may even have a sexual connotation (e.g., red lipstick). It is also used to draw our attention to something that may pose a danger and is therefore usually used in our STOP signs. Using red to color something that is welcoming, otherwise bland, non-dangerous or unimportant, may be mood incongruent.

Yellow may mean happiness if it is bright. This type of yellow draws your attention and sometimes warns you as when used in construction equipment.  Yellow may also suggest fear or sickness if it is dull (think of jaundice). Green on the other hand is the color we see most in nature along with blue for the sky or ocean. Primitive people were attracted to lush green vegetation. Green reduces anxiety and provides for peacefulness. Blue serves to paint open spaces. Within art it mixes well with white. Many nurses’ uniforms are patchy mixtures of blue and white. A special photoreceptor in our eyes is sensitive to blue light and helps to establish our circadian rhythm.

Not all art tells a story. Some may be representational and only meant to inspire by its visual appeal. For most of us art is to be enjoyed for itself and interpretations are purely in the eye of the beholder. Personally, I like repeating shapes and colors that complement each other while my wife favors an eclectic style.  However, we both like artwork that, even within a given class, tends to stand by itself and shows a certain amount of originality in how an artist depicts a thought or idea.  In the end it is all about how much it appeals to you and what emotions surfaced during its contemplation.

For those interested I wrote a previous blog which illustrated some of the artwork of Eric Ruiz.  Eric emphasizes repeating geometrical patterns painted in warm inviting colors.  His paintings are those of friendly/loving animals in nature. Please note the number of hearts in the figure. Do you find it easier to detect those hearts painted in red (congruent color) than those painted using other colors?  Note the messages written into the drawing.

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