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News archive - January 2015

The impact of art on autism

The impact of art on autism

New research is providing evidence of how artwork can help to enhance the lives of people with autism.

Paintings in Hospitals and the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art have published Artworks I Like, a study exploring the artwork preferred by people on the autistic spectrum.

Funded by the Shirley Foundation, the findings reveal the importance of balance, symmetry, detail, technicality and narrative in helping to engage patient, as well as enhance their health and wellbeing.

The study adopted an inclusive design methodology to enable autistic people across the spectrum to participate, express opinions on the subject, and help to select artworks for supportive environments, both within hospitals and community, educational and charitable facilities.

The resulting 72-page report offers advice on the sort of artwork to include within buildings, as well as the ideal location, context and positioning.

Key findings include:

  • Special interests: Pairing the subject and/or style of an artwork to a person’s own interests is a good way to engender positive engagement
  • Detail is key: Detailed, technically-drawn artworks proved very popular with some participants, who became preoccupied with the level of detail
  • Balance/symmetry: Artworks that are balanced and symmetrical are important to many people with autism who find uneven or incomplete work frustrating
  • Pattern/repetition/order: Artworks with repeating patterns, shapes and details proved to be popular, appealing to a need for predictability and order
  • Counting/systemising: Artworks with repeating elements that viewers could count and systemise (for example, leaves or bricks) were seen as relaxing and calming
  • Colour: While the study did not reveal any direct correlation between specific colours and reactions to artwork, it did reveal the importance of choosing colours with special care for hyper and/or hypo sensitive people. Reds and yellows were found to be particularly off-putting
  • Narrative: Artworks that communicate stories and events in an image that is clear, simple and unambigious were useful to people with autism, for example a scene of a seaside resort
  • Realistic/technical: Artworks with a realistic, precise and accurate depiction of subjects were popular as people with autism were quick to point out any inaccurate details

The report states: “The diverse nature of autism as a spectrum condition makes it impossible to create a generic set of design principles.

“Sensitivity to individuals and specific contexts is necessary to provide environments that can offer the best balance between different needs.”

It adds: “The principles presented in this report are not intended to be mandatory or prescriptive. The intention is to build awareness and inspire professionals, service providers, support staff and family members to consider the many elements that make up an experience of artworks in terms of sensory preferences, social communication traits, and special interests and how these, combined with a person’s hyper and hypo sensitivity, can be related to artworks.”

Artwork to be avoided includes portraits, as autistic people can find social interaction and eye contact challenging, so if a subject is gazing directly from an image, it can cause upset and anxiety. Metaphors are also advised against, with the researchers urging designers to ensure any new artworks, or changes to existing exhibits, are carried out in full consultation with service users as this can cause distress.

Recommendations contained in the report were included in the design of the Chitra Sethia Autism Centre in Cambridge, which will be used to evaluate the principles.



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