Asperger's and Creativity

By Douglas Eby

Asperger's and Creativity
by Douglas Eby

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Article also published in my Psych Central column The Creative Mind.

The photos on the title page are Mary and Jerry Newport, both ‘Aspies’ (people with Asperger’s), who wrote "Mozart and the Whale," and actor Thomas Horn in the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.” [Background image for title page: Lilac by AlicePopkorn.]

Can Asperger’s Syndrome or related conditions include neurological differences and qualities that enhance creativity?
A page on the Asperger’s Association of New England site – What is Asperger Syndrome? – declares “There is strong evidence that such superstars as Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Albert Einstein, code-breaker Alan Turing, and musician Glen Gould, among many others, all had Asperger Syndrome. "Today, too, there are adults with AS who are successful as professors, lawyers, physicians, artists, authors, and educators.” The Asperger’s Syndrome page on webmd.com says “Many children with Asperger’s syndrome are exceptionally talented or skilled in a particular area, such as music or math.” Although it is classified among the pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), like many people I think a better label for conditions like Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is neurological or learning ‘difference’ – because, for one thing, what is “normal” anyway? Also, a number of experts note there is a very real problem of diagnosing such characteristics; see my post Misdiagnosis of gifted adults: Pathologized and stigmatized. The photo is Mary and Jerry Newport, both ‘Aspies’ (people with Asperger’s), who wrote “Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story” (made into a movie). [The photo is from the site Top 5 Amazing Savants.] In the book, Mary writes about having “explosions of creativity” and admiring Van Gogh as an artist with whom she may have shared a similar “brain wiring.”

For a brief introduction, click image below to see the short video: What Is Asperger’s Syndrome? with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

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An article about John and Mary brings up a number of aspects of their personalities and lives. For example, Mary “has been prone to sensory overload all of her life” and as a child, “often responded to stress, loud noises or strong smells by spinning in circles or rocking.” [That sounds like possibly an intense form of the sensory overwhelm that many highly sensitive (HS) people can experience. But I have not looked into any connection between HS and AS.] The article continues: “Her methods are unusual. She draws without looking at the page, allowing her hand to follow its own course. Only later, she says, does she find hidden images that she had no idea she was creating. “She composes by waving a pencil in circles over a score sheet until a sensation tells her where to put each note. She says she has no idea how it will sound until she programs the score into her keyboard and plays.” [Mary had a non-speaking role as a blue-tinted Bolian on the television series "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."] David Quaschnick, an Emmy-award-winning makeup artist who worked with her for “Star Trek,” describes her as “a very creative artist” whose art and music is “intensely creative.” She doesn’t have any formal

training in art, but she somehow has a natural understanding of depth and focus,” he said. “Her music is the same way. It comes from pure creativity.” But, the article adds, “her art didn’t always draw such praise. In the late 1980s, relatives and friends who were convinced Mary was doing ‘the devil’s work’ persuaded her to burn her art and music – and to undergo an exorcism. The next few years were punctuated by deep depressions and two nervous breakdowns. “In 1993, a UCLA psychologist finally helped her make sense of the painful turns her life had taken. The psychologist told her she had ‘autism/Asperger syndrome’ and referred her to Jerry’s self-help group.” From Against the Odds: a Love Story by Kim Kowsky, The Los Angeles Times October 23, 1995. A number of movies and TV shows have characters who show characteristics associated with autism – with varying degrees of accuracy, according to critics – including “Touch,” “Parenthood,” physicist Sheldon Cooper on “The Big Bang Theory” and forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan on “Bones.” This photo is actor Thomas Horn in the powerful movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as Oskar, a “nine-year-old amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist who searches New York City for the lock that matches a mysterious key left behind by his father, who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001ʺ″ [imdb.com summary]. The photo is from the article “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Familiar” by Beth Arky, (Child Mind Institute), who noted “Autism advocates embrace the movie, and slam critics who disparage the hero.” Arky wrote, “So what does Oskar do to elicit such rancor? To put it simply, spectrum-y things: He covers his ears to block out the noise of screeching subways and loud planes. He is always talking about what

matters to him, whether we’re hearing his racing thoughts as narrative or out loud. He has trouble with social interactions.” She adds, “When he believes a key found in an envelope with the name Black written on it will lead him to some concrete answers as to his father’s incomprehensible death, he sets off on an elaborate quest to find all the Blacks in New York City patterned on the ‘expeditions’ his father created for him…He becomes so single-minded, no one and nothing—not even his disabling phobias—will deter him. And when he’s unable to express his torment in any other way, he rages at both people and things around him and, in some of the most heartbreaking scenes, himself.” [Another article on this topic is "How TV shows try (or choose not) to depict Asperger's syndrome" by Alan Sepinwall, The Star-Ledger.] One of the TV series that re-ignited my interest in exploring the qualities of people with Asperger’s syndrome, especially those characteristics that can enhance creative problem-solving, is the crime drama “The Bridge” with Diane Kruger as El Paso police detective Sonya Cross. Kruger said the Asperger element of her character “is really what drew me initially also to the project, because, yes, she has this condition, and there are so many shortcomings in her personal life that appear because of it, yet she is so different in her job because she has this ability to focus and to really look at things from a different point of view.” [From article: The Bridge's Diane Kruger Hails FX Drama's 'Risky' Themes, 'Ballsy' Handling of Asperger's.] Here is a short video with Kruger - also see Facebook page The Bridge.

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One of the show’s producers comments in the video that Sonya is “very shut down emotionally, but very, very focused and dogged when it comes to her work.” This quality of focus, even to the level of obsessive concentration on a problem or interest, is one of the characteristics of Asperger’s – and many artists – that I find fascinating. In my article Creative Obsession I quote writer John Updike, about J. D. Salinger: “The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.” Of course, there are many different flavors of obsession and other behaviors, and some kinds and levels are harmful. Perseverance can turn into perseveration. But just because a group of psychiatrists has declared in the DSM, the psychological symptom “bible,” that a collection of symptoms is, for example, OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, does not necessarily mean it is “really” pathological. In her article "Television on the Spectrum: The Best (and Worst) Depictions of Asperger Syndrome on TV" Sarah Kurchak (who notes she has Asperger's) writes, "Asperger syndrome is no longer in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — the DSM kids are calling it an autism spectrum disorder these days — but it’s still all over our television screens."

Photo: Jim Parsons, at left, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper, with Simon Helberg and Kaley Cuoco on the TV series “The Big Bang Theory” - Cooper is considered to have Asperger's.

A number of mental health experts are questioning the validity of this diagnostic manual for acknowledging and respecting the wide ranges of human behavior that are not “disordered” or harmful, or in need of therapeutic intervention. For example, in his article “Mis-Diagnosis and Dual Diagnosis of Gifted Children: Gifted and LD, ADHD, OCD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” psychologist James T. Webb writes that “common mis-diagnoses stem from an ignorance among professionals about specific social and emotional characteristics of gifted children which are then mistakenly assumed by these professionals to be signs of pathology.” Also see his related book Misdiagnosis And Dual Diagnoses Of Gifted Children And Adults. Quirks and creativity Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development, commented in a post of his: “I think a lot of things that we call ‘quirks’, or maybe even some things we call ‘disabilities’, can turn out to be some of the determinants of high levels of creativity that we never could plan ahead of time.” From Conversations on Creativity with Darold Treffert, Part I: Defining Autism, Savantism, and Genius. [Photo from his video "Creativity" - see a clip in my post Don’t You Have To Be “Gifted and Talented” To Be Creative?] In his book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, Kaufman writes about many aspects of the syndrome, and notes that people with Asperger’s tend to do “exceptionally well on perceptual tests of fluid reasoning, such as the Raven’s progressive matrices test.”

He thinks, “Perhaps their enhanced ability to consciously detect nonverbal patterns is due to their spared working memory functions, fascination with order and structure, and enhanced perceptual abilities. These are all questions ripe for further research.” He also refers to research by Mary Ann Winter-Messiers on “the impact of special interest areas (SIAs) among children with Asperger’s syndrome. She defined special interest areas as ‘passions that capture the mind, heart, time, and attention of individuals with AS [Asperger’s syndrome], providing the lens through which they view the world.’ “Her research team interviewed 2 girls and 21 boys with Asperger’s syndrome (aged 7 to 21) about their special interest areas. All of the participants talked enthusiastically about their areas at length and displayed extensive professional knowledge of their area that went way beyond what would be expected based solely on their ages. “Major themes included transportation, music, animals, solitary sports (such as swimming), video games (such as role-playing games), fantasy motion pictures (Star Wars, vampire movies), woodworking, and art (Anime, Manga, sculpting). Many children used video games as a way to socially bond with others with similar interests.” If you have ever seen a video of a Star Wars or Star Trek convention, you have probably seen many people, often in costume, with this kind of passionate enthusiasm. Photo: Actor, writer and producer Felicia Day in costume for her web series "The Guild" - a show loosely based on her life as a gamer. She says, “I have a little obsessivecompulsive personality. You can tell because I played online games for eight hours a day. "I have a very focused personality. I spent years not doing anything because I was inhibited.”

She was accepted to Juilliard but chose to attend the University of Texas on a full scholarship and double majored in math and music performance. From post: Felicia Day on developing multiple talents. Kaufman also refers to Daniel Tammet as “an extraordinary adult with Asperger’s syndrome.” In my post Savant abilities and learning differences relate to developing multiple talents, I note that Tammet thinks his astounding abilities are not due to some cerebral or genetic fluke, but based on an associative form of thinking and imagination. He thinks differences between savant and non-savant minds have been exaggerated, to the detriment of how most of us value our own abilities and develop our talents. “Every brain is amazing,” he commented. Positives about being an “Aspie” This is an excerpt from a longer video of that title by Maja Toudal, a singer/songwriter from Denmark. [For her video channel, she uses the name "TheAnMish."] [Also see her Facebook page.]

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[Disregard "Suggested clips" - those are added automatically by the clipping software. Click "See more" for the original video.]

Also see her article Aspie or NT? The Pros and Cons of Acting Neurotypical. ~~ More Resources Sites: Wrong Planet Take The AQ Test [Wired mag.] – “Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen and his colleagues at Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre have created the Autism-Spectrum Quotient, or AQ, as a measure of the extent of autistic traits in adults.” This is a self-scoring test with 50 questions. Here is a screenshot of the first few questions – Don’t some of these look like they would fit for the traits of high sensitivity, or introversion?

Artists with Asperger’s [Facebook] HeART of the Spectrum [Facebook] A.S.P.E.N. (Asperger Syndrome Education Network)  [Facebook] Documentary film: Arts: A Film About Possibilities, Disabilities and the Arts.

Books: Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Story by Jerry Newport, Mary Newport. The title “comes from the costumes they wore to a Halloween party: Willy the Whale for Jerry, and Mozart’s sister, Maria Anna Mozart, for Mary.” Genesis of Artistic Creativity: Asperger’s Syndrome and the Arts by Michael Fitzgerald – an “exploration of the lives of 21 famous writers, philosophers, musicians and painters including George Orwell, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Andy Warhol and many others, in light of the recognized criteria for diagnosis of high-functioning autism and Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).” Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Tony Attwood. Parallel Play by Tim Page – “An affecting memoir of life as a boy who didn’t know he had Asperger’s syndrome until he became a man.” Articles: Asperger’s Disorder: Clearly bright and imaginative – and autistic The Geek Syndrome (from WIRED magazine), by Steve Silberman – “Autism – and its milder cousin Asperger’s syndrome – is surging among the children of Silicon Valley.” Are You On It? By Benjamin Wallace, New York Magazine. “On the Asperger’s community site Wrong Planet, threads like ‘Real life celebrities who have or probably have Asperger’s’ include Jim Carrey, Daryl Hannah, Slash, Billy Joel, J. K. Rowling… ‘Kanye Probably Has Asperger’s,’ BuzzFeed recently declared… David Byrne said: ‘I was a peculiar young man—borderline Asperger’s, I would guess.’” What Asperger’s syndrome has done for us by Megan Lane, BBC News Online Magazine – “Informed speculation that Michelangelo might have had Asperger’s syndrome is just that – the Renaissance artist was never diagnosed in his lifetime. But two medical experts have drawn this conclusion from studying contemporary accounts of the artist’s behaviour…It’s a theory which has been rubbished by art historians, but which has piqued the interest of Eileen Hopkins, of the National Autistic

Society. The artist’s meticulously observed figures and high work rate resonate with such a diagnosis.” Famous Faces: Daryl Hannah – “Known for her performances in Splash, Blade Runner, and Steel Magnolias, Daryl is also one of the few Hollywood stars to speak openly about having Asperger’s Syndrome.” Brain Differences and Creativity Claire Danes and Temple Grandin on Autism and thinking differently. Q&A: Temple Grandin on the Autistic Brain by Maia Szalavitz. – Temple Grandin comments, “There definitely are some strengths. You see, there’s a point where mild autism is just a personality variation. There’s no black and white dividing line between autism and non-autism from the mild end of the spectrum. And some people on the mild end of the spectrum have extreme talent areas in things like computer programming, mathematics, art, design, graphics, writing skills…” More Autism and Asperger’s articles.

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