The Autist Artist

“Draw this,” I said, and gave José my pocket watch.

He was about twenty-one, said to be hopelessly retarded, and had earlier had one of the violent seizures from which he suffers. He was thin, muscular. His distraction, his restlessness, suddenly ceased. He took the watch carefully, as if it were a talisman or jewel, laid it before him, and stared at it in motionless concentration.

“He’s an idiot,” the attendant broke in. “Don’t even ask him. He don’t know what it is—he can’t tell time. He can’t even talk. They say he’s ‘autistic,’ but he’s just an idiot.” José turned pale, perhaps more at the attendant’s tone than at his words—the attendant had said earlier that José didn’t use words.

“Go on,” I said. “I know you can do it.”

José drew with an absolute stillness, concentrating completely on the little clock before him, everything else shut out.

Now, for the first time, he was bold, without hesitation, composed, not distracted. He drew swiftly but minutely, with a clear line, without erasures—and this is the clock he drew:

I nearly always ask patients, if it is possible for them, to write and draw, partly as a rough-and-ready index of various competences, but also as an expression of “character” or “style.”

José had drawn the watch with remarkable fidelity, putting in every feature (at least every essential feature—he did not put in WESTCLOX, SHOCK RESISTANT, MADE IN USA), not just “the time” (though this was faithfully registered as 11:31), but every second as well, and the inset round second’s dial, and, not least, the knurled winder and trapezoid clip of the watch, used to attach it to a chain. The clip was strikingly amplified, though everything else remained in due proportion. And the figures, now that I came to look at them, were different sizes, different shapes, different styles—some thick, some thin; some aligned, some inset; some plain and some elaborated, even a bit “gothic.” And the inset second hand, rather inconspicuous in the original, had been given a striking prominence, like the small inner dials of star clocks, or astrolabes.

The general grasp of the thing, its “feel,” had been strikingly brought out—all the more strikingly if, as the attendant said, José had no idea of time. And otherwise there was an odd mixture of close, even obsessive, accuracy, with curious (and, I felt, droll) elaborations and variations.

I was puzzled by this, haunted by it as I drove home. An “idiot”? Autism? No. Something else is going on here.

I was not called to see José again. The first call, on a Sunday evening, had been for an emergency: He had been having seizures the entire weekend, and I had prescribed changes in his anticonvulsants, over the phone, in the afternoon. Now that his seizures were “controlled,” further neurological advice was not requested. But I was still troubled by the problems presented by the clock, and felt an unresolved sense of…

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