Autism, Art, and Science
(Johnny Redd, Studio Art undergraduate at UNO)
I’m an autistic person, and I am also an artist.
I have trouble interpreting social cues. I have intense and narrow interests. I am bothered by aspects of the sensory environment that others can easily filter out.
These things make me autistic.
I also paint, draw comics, take photographs, and create digital art.
These things make me an artist.
In many ways, I often feel that the world expects me to choose between, or separate, these aspects of my identity. Whenever we are exposed to successful, well-adjusted autistic adults in media (which isn’t often, but that’s a whole other ordeal), we see socially-awkward male engineers, physicists, or computer programmers. These stereotypes are further cemented by representations of autistic, or autistic-coded, people in fiction, like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.
A lot of autistic people are scientists and engineers, and that’s great.
But a lot of us aren’t.
While many aspects of autism are actually game-changers in STEM fields, those same qualities can also be part of what makes an amazing artist.
Our society likes to define everyone as either “left-brain dominant” or “right-brain dominant.” This popular myth, which suggests that creative tasks are controlled by the right brain while logical reasoning tasks are controlled by the left brain, has contributed to a false binarization of the way our brains work; it has also been debunked countless times, and research has found that all functions of our brain benefit the most when both hemispheres work together in conjunction.
This false binary, arts versus STEM, can be seen everywhere in our world, and the separation comes from both sides. It’s not uncommon on any university campus to hear art students lament about how bad they are at math, and for math students to gripe about how they were forced to take art in high school for an elective.
This separation harms everyone, but it especially harms autistic people in the arts.
As a population, we are stereotypically grouped as “left-brained.” This is because misinformed junk-science states that the left hemisphere of the brain exclusively handles logic, reason, critical thinking, and numbers, all things that autistics are traditionally associated with.
The stereotype that autistic people have to be mathematicians, scientists, or engineers, and that these fields are the “opposite” of the arts, contributes to the marginalization of us in communities that are already hard enough for us to navigate socially.
I am an autistic person, and I am an artist.
But I am also a scientist.
All of the things that make me an artist, like my attention to detail, my ability to look at things from a fresh perspective, my drive to explore new ideas, my ability to hyperfocus on a project for hours, are all things that also made me a scientist.
For the first half of my college experience, I was a neuroscience student, and I loved it. It didn’t end up working out for me (darn chemistry), so I switched to art. While there was definitely a culture shock going from STEM to art, I found that there is a lot more overlap between the two fields than people think. The skills that I had gained from my science education, like careful planning, persistence, and observation, gave me an edge when I began my education in art.
Autistic people are often exceptional planners and observers of the world. We are this way because of how our brains are programmed; I plan every minute of my day because I cannot handle the anxiety of not knowing what is going to happen next; I need structure, and that comes from my autism. We must observe the world very closely compared to everyone else in order to function socially with other people. These skills actually translate to real-world benefits in both art and STEM fields.
Autistic people exist in the world as scientists and engineers, but we also exist in the world of art, music, and design, just like everyone else. Some of us, myself included, exist in both. The false binary of arts versus STEM is harmful to not only autistics, but also to us as a society because it stunts our collective growth.
We need engineers who are artists, and designers who are programmers, and mathematicians who play music. The only way we can push forward is if we stop pigeonholing everyone, autistic or not, and combine our collective strengths into one.
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