Portrait of the Artist

Nadia: A Case of Extraordinary Drawing Ability in an Autistic Child

by Lorna Selfe
Academic Press, 137 pp., $12.30

This is the story:

The child, Nadia, is the second of three children born in Nottingham to Ukrainian immigrant parents. The father is an electrical engineer, the mother a laboratory technician with a Polish Master’s degree in chemistry. Both go out to work. There is also a Ukrainian granny on the premises—“much absorbed in her traditional culture,” as is usually the case with transplanted grannies.

Granny hardly ever speaks. Father is perfectly bilingual. So are his eldest and youngest children. Mother doesn’t feel at home in English, so Ukrainian is the rule at the dinner table. Nadia, born in 1967, picks up a dozen-odd words in her first year and then “loses” them and relapses into silence.

Something is wrong with her. She is large, dumpy, and tends to flop about—incapable of going on a swing or skipping rope. She is perfectly impassive—except when she explodes in a terrible tantrum and smashes things and tries to kick the door to pieces. She looks at the world out of the “corners of her eyes” and ignores any persons except the few for whom she develops an “obssession.” When she wants something, she gestures, or leads someone by the hand to where the thing is. But she must not cross a road; she has no sense of danger.

At the same time, her life is governed by an intense feeling for arrangement. When her clothes are put on (she can’t, or won’t, put them on herself, except at a snail’s pace), everything must be exactly right. She loves new clothes, but only if they are “just so.” Her dolls and teddy bears sit in a fixed order on her bed; great distress arises if one of them is misplaced. She likes tearing paper into thin strips; when she uses scissors, she can get each strip about one tenth of an inch wide with remarkable accuracy.

When she is three-and-a-half her mother has to spend a few months in the hospital. Nadia is “confined to her bedroom for long periods” by her overworked granny and is “overjoyed” to get her mother back. Abruptly, she begins to draw—all over the walls. Her mother is delighted and supplies paper instead. Nadia takes to any sort of paper, even when it is lined or covered with print; she makes do with empty cartons when the paper runs out.

She draws quickly, surely, and with intense concentration, her eyes very close to the paper. She is left-handed. She will have nothing to do with color; she will use nothing but a ball point pen. After one minute or so of rapid drawing, she sits back “to survey the effect,” and after doing so intently “she often smiled, babbled, and shook her hands and knees in glee.”

She chooses most of her models out of books, in particular a rotogravure series published for children with stock pictures of a mare and foal, the mounted guardsman at Buckingham Palace, a rooster in mid-crow, and such like. Her football…

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