NEWS & COLUMN
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Amazingly Intricate Miniatures
The Vast Potential of People with Autism
A.U. is a 19-year-old self-taught artist with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. She has created around 750 works in less than two years, using her index finger to draw on the screen of an iPod touch (1.97 by 3.54 inches, or 5 by 9 cm).
Founded nine years ago, Mind Recovery is a non-profit that runs a helpline and offers face-to-face support for people with autism, providing them with information, advice, and residential services.
I first met A.U. at Mind Recovery’s Tokyo office in the spring of 2018. She took out her iPod touch and showed me a drawing that she’d created using her index finger.
"Utapuri" inspired me to draw
Photo 1: Using the ibisPaint app, A.U. drew this bouquet on her iPod touch to provide a background for one of the characters in the game: Uta no Prince-sama or Utapuri.
A.U. has created many drawings inspired by anime and video game characters, including Pokémon and Uta no Prince-Sama (Utapuri). She also creates original backgrounds and accessories to personalize her character drawings.
The bouquet is one example of such a background. A.U. says she drew the flowers from memory and aimed for a look that was reminiscent of stained glass or paper cutouts.
The character she likes to draw most is Kira Sumeragi, a member of the boy band featured in Utapuri. She says he is the reason she was drawn to the music video game in the first place, and she loves his voice.
She bought her iPod Touch when she was 17 specifically because she wanted to play Utapuri.
Inspired by the smartphone illustrations created by a student in a class above her at senior high school, she started using her iPod touch to draw without any prior study of computer art.
738 creations in less than two years.
Photo 2: A.U. uses her iPod touch to magnify and draw in detail.
A.U. has been using the ibisPaint app on her iPod touch since high school to create detailed works with her index finger.
She started in March 2018, and by December 2019 had created 738 drawings. When I asked her how she would categorize her works, she immediately said that out of the 738, 75% were based on anime characters and 25% were original works, and explained using a pie chart.
—Why draw with just one finger?
A.U. says it’s easier for her to draw with her finger rather than with pencils or pens, probably because it’s a continuation of what she has enjoyed doing since childhood—drawing on glass misted over with steam in the bathroom.
A.U. uses her iPod touch all the time, drawing while traveling on trains and buses, or when taking a break from work.
She says it only takes her half an hour or so to create a black-and-white drawing like the bouquet, but a multi-colored drawing like the one in Photo 3 takes about seven to eight hours to complete.
The ibisPaint app automatically saves the work process and a record of how long it took. The opening video is one example of such a recording.
Hopes to work in film and anime production and inspire people
Photo 3: Although this work is not a self-portrait, I felt somehow similar to her. (The drawing process is captured in the opening video.)
“The image which I want to express gradually get more clearing by visualizing”, A.U. said. “while drawing, I keep in mind to be conscious others.”
A.U. tends not to publish her works, but she has posted some favorite drawings on social media to coincide with special dates associated with characters. She said “The comments are supportive, and they have gradually help me to understand how my work is appreciated.”
The very first film she went to see in a theater was Pixar’s “Finding Nemo.” A.U. said “I still remember getting lost in that world as a little child. I’d never experienced that kind of emotion before.”
A.U. now has a dream. “I want to work at an animation studio and collaborate to create works that will enable others to experience what I felt back then.”
Incredible memory and visual expressiveness
Photo 4: A pocket watch drawn from memory on her iPod touch. All her drawings are done with her index finger.
A.U. says she only needs to look at a real object two or three times to be able to draw it from memory. That’s how she drew this pocket watch.
Is A.U. uniquely talented or do all those with autism share this trait?
According to Dr. Kenichi Ariji, an associate professor of neuroscience (neurolinguistics/neuroeducation) at Shinshu University, “Not everyone with autism shares her talent. Her ability to draw something she has only seen two or three times has to do with what’s known as “eidetic memory”, the ability to recall an image from memory after seeing it just once.” Dr. Ariji says that very few adults have “eidetic memory”. He added that A.U.’s drawings do reveal a characteristic shared by others with autism, and with Art Brut. He says that the artwork of those with autism tends to be highly detailed.
I was surprised to hear Dr. Ariji compare A.U.’s work to Art Brut. ”Art Brut” means "raw art" or "rough art" in French, and refers to art created by those who are not bound by the conventions of art education and culture. The examples of Art Brut I was familiar with were all created using materials like clay, paper, and cloth. They were full of raw energy, springing from the artist’s subconscious.
A.U.’s digital works did not seem the same to me as my perception of Art Brut. However, Dr. Ariji is well versed in Art Brut, and he explained that the absolute requirement in the definition of “Art Brut” is that the work is the result of purely creative impulses and is not intended to win awards, become mainstream, or become famous.
“The reason A.U. created as many as 750 works in less than 2 years was because she was driven to do purely creative impulses. That’s how it seems to me. It all stems from her desire to create.” Dr. Ariji said. The moment he mentioned “driven to do purely creative impulses”, an image of A.U. drawing on her iPod touch came to my mind. I realized that to her, drawing was as essential to life as breathing.
The vast potential of people with autism
Photo 5: Junichiro Yamamoto, who has autism, is able to differentiate the printed engravings on golf balls at a glance.
In the IT (information technology) industry and the computer graphics, a growing number of corporations are attempting the possibility of harnessing the remarkable ability of those with autism to commit matters to memory and to pay extreme attention to detail. In this trend, one thing we always have to keep in mind is to appreciate the diverse skills of those with autism.
Junichiro Yamamoto, a 47-year-old with high-functioning autism in ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), is an instructor at a community workshop in Tokyo. He said "I used to work in the IT industry but I have changed jobs a lot of times. I found it hard to adapt to the workplaces of IT."
From childhood, Junichiro says he unconsciously turns his attention about changes in corporate logos. We see the corporate logos printed on the countless numbers of packages in everyday life. He remembers them and has noticed that corporate logos often change subtly. He says, take the "Bridgestone" logo's first letter "B", it's corner is sharp, or rounded slightly keep changing. ”Others may not be conscious of such minor changes. But I notice every detail and it bothers me. It just stays in memory.”
His work at the community workshop includes overseeing the categorization of recycled golf balls according to the logo and the code printed on the surface of each ball. There is a different code for each specification such as distance, control and for use by women. Junichiro says he can identify the printed engraving at a glance. Although he works as an instructor, he sometimes categorizes and packs hundreds of golf balls himself. He says time flies when he’s doing this. “I feel like I can go on and on for hours on end without a break."
There are many articles on how people with autism have trouble adapting to a workplace or a community. At school and in the workplace, the tendency is to focus on the hurdles facing those with autism rather than on their talents and strengths
Each individual has unique talents and strengths. While some people with autism have truly outstanding abilities, they may represent only a fraction of the total. Perhaps that’s why even striking abilities may be overlooked at school and in the workplace. Since ancient times, Japanese people have respected the "superhuman feats” of artisans who have honed an outstanding ability.
April 2 is World Autism Awareness Day. Instead of focusing on the symptoms of autism, let's also focus on their "work" itself.
"Savant Syndrome: Empirical Findings and Educational Practice" Kenichi Ariji, Asaka Sekiguchi, Shinshu University Journal of Arts and Sciences (11), 195-217, 2017 - 03.
Kuniko Sakamoto has a PhD in Science (mathematics, neuroscience) and is a psychiatric social worker. She studied oil painting for two years at the research institute of the Japan Art Association. She is Representative Director of the nonprofit organization Mind Recovery.