According to a recent study (Drake, Redash, Coleman, Haimson & Winner, 2010), typically-developing, average children with a gift for drawing realistically process information the same way that is seen in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
It is fairly common knowledge that some individuals with ASD demonstrate a gift in the area of artistic expression. For example, Stephen Wiltshire, an individual affected by autism, is an internationally acknowledged artistic talent. Although he was unable to speak until age 5, he was able to memorize and perfectly recreate an aerial view of London with pencil and paper at age 11 after only one helicopter ride.
Until now, it was unclear why exactly this extraordinary gift is present in some individuals with ASD.
Individuals with ASD, regardless of artistic talent, have a strong local processing bias and a tendency toward repetitive behaviors. The term “local processing bias” means a tendency for the brain to prefer to take in, understand, and use information from an immediate source (such as what the eyes are seeing out the window) and not incorporate that information into a larger context (such as looking out the window, and thinking, “that is the Louvre”).
The behavior that individuals with ASD often exhibit, such as lining up toys or objects instead of playing with them in a typical way, makes more sense in light of this information. For example, when a child with ASD lines up toy cars, he is responding to the immediate visual stimuli of the appearance of the toys, instead of the larger picture, that the toy cars are smaller versions of actual cars that one can use in pretend play.
Interestingly, this study suggests that a local processing bias is not necessarily a bad thing. When present in normally-developing children, it indicates artistic talent. Even more interestingly, the repetitive behaviors that are commonly noted among children with ASD (such as head-banging, hand flapping, or clapping) are also noted, to a lesser degree, among normally-developing children with artistic talent.
For more information, please visit: Learning activities for preschool children with autism, Autism in the classroom: The benefits and drawbacks of inclusion
Drake JE, Redash A, Coleman K, Haimson J, Winner E.
J Autism Dev Disord. 2010 Jan 5.