In our show this weekend, “Being Autistic, Being Human,” Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder point out that not all people with autism have savant-like abilities. I think we’re drawn to those stories of extraordinary talents, in part, because they suggest the nearly limitless possibilities of the human mind. As Paul Collins writes in his book Not Even Wrong:
“Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. … But autism … is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result.”
This video is a clip from a German documentary series about savants called Beautiful Minds: A Voyage into the Brain. The subject of the clip is a man with autism named Stephen Wiltshire, who can draw an entire cityscape from memory after a single helicopter ride.
As I watch him draw, I can’t help but wonder at the origin of our uniquely human desire and ability to depict the world through art. Somehow, that ability emerged and was woven into our genetic code thousands of years ago, passed down from the cave painters to subsequent generations until the present, when even my own 4-year-old daughter can produce drawings that vaguely resemble things in the real world. But here we can see it rushing out of this man’s hand with such breadth and precision as to seem almost impossible. I’m not sure what it means, but it makes me feel proud of my species.