Autism and drawings: A scientific perspective
Do children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) draw differently to those without? This is a highly debated question given the various perceptions of ASD and creative endeavours. In this article we look to explain children's drawings and how they related to ASD from the perspective of psychological research, by providing an overview to some key questions.
Why are drawings and artwork an interesting view in to Autism?
Often, part of the expression of ASD is weakness of social perception and understanding. Social perception itself can be considered a combination of the understanding and representation of other people, their emotions, their feelings, and their beliefs. A great way to gain insight into a child's understanding of emotions and other people is through how they draw them.
Drawing is one of the most accessible forms of expression, and unlike language and music, requires no mastery of skill to provide depth of expression. Every stroke, colour and shape decision can tell us something! The massive additional benefit in ASD is that this method is accessible even to non-verbal children.Above all, why not? It is creative, cathartic and rewarding to express oneself through art.
What kinds of drawing are interesting?
Although anything and everything that a child draws is both interesting and insightful, that leaves us with an infinite spectrum of possibility. In order to make research on the topic tractable, researchers and psychologists often use 'Human Figure Drawing' as the most simple possible test. In this test, children are often asked to draw: 'a person', 'a person of the opposite gender', and 'themselves'.
At the very least this facilitates insight into the child's understanding of the differences between people, and how they perceive themselves by comparison.Human Figure Drawings from children with and without ASD, aged 8 (left) and 11 (right), from Papangelo et al. 2020.
To unpick what elements of the drawings are a result of artistic skill, and what are of more relevance to interpersonal understanding, these drawings are often compared to a similar battery of drawings of inanimate objects. For example, draw: 'a house', 'a different house', 'my home'. However, one might even see emotional connotations seeping through into these!
Why not ask your child to try drawing the above topics, and then ask them to explain the differences they made between the drawings?
How are drawings assessed?
Assessment of artistic prowess is a tricky thing, after all, isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? But we scientists do love to put numbers on things; and for meaningful research, this is necessary. Therefore, there are several ways that this is done. One such traditional method to assess the execution of the drawing is by Goodenough-Harris scoring.
This provides incremental scores for increased accuracy in each of the composition characteristics: gross detail, attachments, head detail, clothing, hand detail, joints, proportion, motor coordination, fine head detail, and profile. However, metrics such as these do not assess interpersonal or emotional understanding - but they are a start at quantifying the test.
So, can ASD be identified from drawings?
Well, as with almost all complex questions associated with the brain, the answer lies in the intriguing realm between 'yes' and 'no'; and the scientific community is in constant debate. Various research groups have found evidence either for or against ASD being associated with drawing maturity, scores, colour selection, and various other characteristics.
Regardless, there will likely never be an absolute answer, as people are multi-faceted and unique. Several papers have shown examples of drawings from children with ASD well beyond their general intelligence level, and there are some truly remarkable examples of draftsmanship, with notable cases of incredible savantism. The field appears to be composed entirely of exceptions that prove no rules.
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