A picture of autism


The remarkable story of a creative project for young artists with autism

On an icy evening in February 2010, the opening preview of We Were There, Now We’re Here, an exhibition of contemporary paintings, took place at the Mary Ogilvie Gallery at St Anne’s College in the cloistered heart of the University of Oxford. The beautifully proportioned and lit modern gallery was heaving with visitors from beginning to end, a Morsean cross-section of Oxford life drawn by the images on show, which ranged from monumental abstracts and ethereal figurative studies to loosely-painted religious icons and eerie, crepuscular cityscapes. Each work had been carefully curated, framed and labelled to a museum standard, and carried prices appropriate to promising early-career artists. In short, this was a significant, even cutting-edge, exhibition staged in an important and well-established space.

There was something, however, that differentiated this particular exhibition from other successful and critically acclaimed Oxonian shows. That unique difference lay in the identity of the eighteen young contributing painters and the extraordinary and courageous journey they had taken to reach that night. For those artists, aged from eleven to seventeen, were or are all students at the SENSS Ormerod Base, a specialist centre for children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and multiple learning disabilities, situated in the Marlborough Church of England School in Woodstock, Oxfordshire.

Charlie Lagden, The Ormerod Base, acrylic on canvas, 2009.Before the Oxford University show, none had exhibited before, even informally within a school context; many had never even attempted, let alone finished a painting. Collectively, their perception of the value of their creativity was uniformly low. One student with ASD would automatically damage or destroy his exquisitely beautiful abstract colour studies at the moment of completion, before they could be considered and praised by teachers and peers, convinced that his painterly explorations were of no value and deserved no space in the world. Others clearly perceived art-making purely as an imposed functional exercise and would perfunctorily follow instructions often with little enthusiasm or interest, either producing pieces entirely constructed around an adult-led stylistic and thematic agenda (copying Seurat’s Pointillism, for example, or Rothko’s colour blocking), or exclusively depicting repetitive imagery drawn from their current obsessional interests: Teletubbies, James Bond, Doctor Who and so forth.

Even within the Centre, with its emphasis on self-confidence, individual achievement and intelligent, tailor-made integration, the idea of art as a passionate, independent act, providing a unique and empowering method of communication and self-definition leading beyond childhood into adulthood, was not being fully explored or emphasised. Indeed, while the history of Western art would be unrecognizable without the contribution of disabled artists like Renoir (paralysed by  rheumatoid arthritis), Goya (deaf) or Kahlo (paralysed), the possibility of students practising art as a future part-time or full-time career within the mainstream art world is often overlooked as a pathway within the complex day-to-day timetable of an SEN school or centre. With employment levels of people with ASD remaining shockingly low (The National Autistic Society reports that only fifteen per cent of adults with autism in the UK are in full-time employment), we simply cannot afford to ignore the multiple career options and autism-friendly pathways which art can offer.

Formal qualifications and higher educational courses in practical art, design and sculpture, from GCSE-level to graduate degrees at major art schools, need to be wide open to those with autism and learning disabilities; at present, too much talent and creativity is lying obfuscated and unnourished.

This is not an issue of neglect by educationalists; rather, it is indicative of a wider malaise whereby the population with ASD and learning disabilities, from an early age, have an ideological labyrinth to negotiate before they can become or even think of becoming professional artists. In the past decade, despite an increasing presence of positive and empowering images of disability within contemporary art, grassroots and mainstream thrusts by organisations, collectives and funding bodies to support and debate disability arts, and the establishment of relatively higher profile disability/disabled artists within the European and American art worlds, there are still very few maps for the talented young artist with learning disabilities to follow. Categories which disabled artists can find themselves lodged in, such as outsider art, art brut, autistic art or even disability arts, can be extremely dangerous, ghettoizing dead-ends which are useful for marketing and sales, but catastrophic for the artist’s integrity and equality.

While savant artists such as Gilles Tréhin or Stephen Wiltshire are internationally acclaimed, their success is nevertheless undercut with a consuming public fascination with their savantistic skills, rather than with their art works as discrete creative images in their own right.

It was against this complex ideological background that the We Were Here, Now We’re There exhibition was conceived as a partnership between the Ormerod and arts organisation Flash of Splendour Arts.

Steve Pratley, an expert in music and creativity, had been working at the Ormerod for eleven years, concentrating on nurturing musical, song-writing and poetical skills among small groups of children. Whilst his work is rooted in the theory and methodology of music therapy, the idea of the children’s literary and musical works being considered as valid, freestanding pieces in their own right, separate from their therapeutic content, represents an important part of his didactic approach. Recording and performance have thus always been integral parts of the educational trajectory of the Ormerod students, who were simultaneously treated as young musicians and performers, as well as participants in the often groundbreaking therapy sessions.

As an art historian and curator with a research interest in the history and reception of artists with autism, I became interested in how that paradigm could be extended to include the visual arts. Steve and I discussed how to devise a practical programme, structured in a teacher and budget friendly form, within the regular school timetable at the Centre that could tackle what we perceived to be ineffectual strategies in current educational practice and open up new possibilities within the visual arts in an SEN context.

Alex Mulhall, St. Francis and the Birds, flashe vinyl on canvas, 2009.A focal point within the brief would be the treatment of the students as serious, individual artists with distinct voices, concerns, needs and goals. Art would be presented as a complex, liberating process of expression, with each young artist encouraged to publicly exhibit in the final Oxford University show and, if desired, sell their work to the wider community from a position of strength and equality. For the artists, the exhibition, professionally installed in spaces suitable for working mainstream artists or degree-level art students, would represent not only the culmination of months of hard work, but also a tangible visualisation of possibilities ahead. In other words, by seeing their paintings hanging at the centre of Oxford University, the children could confidently reassess the importance of their creative output and its relevance and interest to a wide audience, and resolutely imagine themselves as present and future artists.

Stretching over eighteen months, from the autumn of 2008 to the beginning of 2010, the project was structured around the idea that the students’ creative freedom and confidence could be slowly built through a multi-disciplinary approach, in which music, poetry, storytelling and song-writing — all modes of expression with which they already had a familiarity and self-assurance —established a series of themes from which inspiration for paintings could later be drawn. For the first couple of months, sessions were focused entirely on musical and literary invention in which the young artists thought, wrote, dreamed, sang, joked, argued, gossiped and composed about topics that had emerged directly from their own life experiences, their own being-in-the-world.

After a rich and extensive imaginative landscape was created, the focus moved towards painting. Organising the project in this way, with this kind of thematic layering, inculcated an ease of expression in the artists; art stopped being about fulfilling adults’ expectations or replicating Pokemon or Doctor Who, and starting being about giving form to important ideas, themes, and imagery that would otherwise not have been explored or expressed. Slowly, month by month, we witnessed a deeply moving and inspiring flowering of confident, innovative and powerful art which David Cameron would later describe as a “treasure trove of creativity and personal expression” and one of the artists, Sophie Roberts, as the paint simply “telling its own individual tale.”

At the end of the project, standing in the midst of the exhibition preview at St Anne’s, the sheer breadth of the achievement of the students took one’s breath away. Seeing the young artists darting between the crowds, explaining their works to art collectors, signing copies of the catalogue, beaming with pride at their first professional sales, and chatting to dons about their imagery brought home the underlying key to the exhibition: there is so much talent, so many ideas, so much innovation in SEN schools and bases, we just need to sometimes see the artist first, not the disabled child.

Further information

The exhibition We Were There, Now We’re Here: New Art by Young Artists with Autism and Learning Disabilities has now closed. However, the story of the show is told in detail in the accompanying book of the same name by Anne Louise Avery and Steve Pratley, with a foreword by the now Prime Minister David Cameron, which is available from Amazon, Blackwell’s, and directly from the publishers via their website: http://weweretherenowwearehere.wordpress.com

Flash of Splendour run a range of arts projects. For more information, visit:

Anne Louise Avery is an award-winning art historian, curator and public art consultant.

Steve Pratley is an expert in music, creativity and communication in special needs education with over twenty years experience in schools and colleges throughout the United Kingdom.

This article was first published in issue 48 (September/October 2010) of SEN Magazine.

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