Autistic Artists and Plagiarism

I’ve been having a bit of an argument with someone on another site — a wiki — over his tendency to copy pages from other sites, instead of restating the information in his own words.

Stick around. This isn’t about SIWOTI. I promise I’ll get to the autistic artists soon enough.

I think we all recognize that there’s a difference between copying, and summarizing or paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is a two-step process: first, you read and understand the original text, that is, you convert it into an internal representation in your brain; and then you take that internal representation and turn it back into text. Copying, on the other hand, is a relatively mindless activity: you just take the original string of words and duplicate them.

Paraphrasing takes much more mental activity than copying, and that’s why it’s more respectable: if you can successfully paraphrase an article, that means you’ve managed to understand it, and have also managed to express thoughts in writing.

There are a number of autistic people with exceptional artistic talents: , Gilles Tréhin, Stephen Wiltshire, and others. Chuck Close isn’t autistic, but he is face-blind, meaning that he doesn’t see faces. Yet he’s an artist known for his portraits of faces.

Stephen Wiltshire - Royal Albert Hall
Drawing of the Royal Albert Hall by Stephen Wiltshire, made at the age of 9.

What I notice about these artists is that their pictures are realistic. They seem to have an innate grasp of perspective. Windows and such are not evenly spaced on paper, but become progressivel closer as they are bunched together. Balconies and buttresses change orientation as they go around a building, and so forth. These are things that pre-Renaissance artists struggled with. (Okay, I’m not talking about Chuck Close so much here. More Wiltshire and Tréhin.)

And this brings us back to copying vs. paraphrasing.

The stereotypical child’s drawing has a house represented as an irregular pentagon, a tilted rectangle for a chimney, some curlicues for smoke coming out of the chimney, and one to four stick figures one and a half to two stories tall, standing on a flat expanse of green. In other words, it looks nothing like a house.

So I suspect that the way normal people draw is comparable to paraphrasing, as described above: when we see a house, or a tree, or a person, we don’t really see the lines, colors, and shapes formed on our retinas. All of that detail is processed, number-crunched, and turned into some internal data structure that represents the subject. For instance, I can instantly recognize my friends and family, even under different lighting conditions, or after the passage of time has altered their features. But I would have much more trouble describing them to you in such a way that you could pick them out of a lineup. I’d have even more trouble drawing a picture of them.

So when ordinary people draw a house or a face, we have trouble converting our abstract internal representation into concrete lines, because we never paid much attention to those lines. That’s one of the things you learn in art class. You have to unlearn the intuitive understanding of what a thing is, and look past it to see what the thing looks like. (This may be related to “first sight” in Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky.)

But if someone has a problem recognizing things, if their world is a jumble of lines and colors, that may serve them in good stead in artistic endeavors, in that they’re not distracted by what things are, and can see what things look like. There’s an art class exercise in which you have to copy a picture — say, a portrait — that’s been turned upside-down. That way, the original picture is what it is, but it isn’t a face, and you’re not distracted by its being a face.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m not a neurologist, psychologist, or even an artist, so I’m not qualified to make pronouncements on this. But it seems like fairly nifty idea.


For all the diversity in human speech, as far as I know, every language has verbs and nouns.

No big surprise there: our world is full of things, like trees and lakes and ostriches and stars, something that nouns are very good at describing. And a lot of these things do things that we care about, like attack or fall or impede, which is where verbs come in.

But nouns refer to a lot of things that aren’t, well, things, like symmetry and justice and heaps and understanding. I can imagine an alien species in which every language uses different parts of speech for things and for collections of things that, as a whole, have a certain property. Call this an assemblage. Thus, to them, “rock” would be a noun, but “heap”, as in “a heap of rocks”, would be an assemblage. “Symmetry”, “pair”, and “order” would also be assemblages, rather than nouns.

They might even go further, and have yet another part of speech to describe the motion of things that has certain properties, like “dance” or “following”.

I want to emphasize that this wouldn’t change what the world is like; it would just change the words and sentences they use to describe it. And perhaps say something about the way they think.

To these aliens, a sentence like “time is money” would sound odd, because it would have a grammatical error (assuming that “time” is an assemblage, while “money” is a thing). In fact, we already have something like this in English, which treats nouns about people differently from nouns about things: “Who didn’t finish its dinner?” is bad English (note, too, how this makes the line “It rubs the lotion on its skin” in Silence of the Lambs particularly creepy).

It’s known that our brains are wired to treat people differently from other elements in our environment. See, for instance, the way we’re more prone to see people and faces in random noise like inkblots, clouds, and wood grain, than inanimate objects. So it seems reasonable to consider that our brains have special-purpose modules for nouns and verbs.

The obvious explanation is that our distant ancestors, before there was speech, still needed to deal with things and actions to survive. Once language appeared, the brain already had the infrastructure necessary to model things and actions, and manipulate that model, so evolution built on what was available. This can perhaps also be seen in the way that a lot of expressions treat abstractions as though they were things: “weighing the evidence”, “transferring ownership”, and so forth.

I don’t want to read too much into these sorts of things. I note, for instance, that in French, there’s a smaller distinction between nouns about people and nouns about non-people. And in German, the gender of both “Kind” (child) and “Mädchen” (young woman) is neuter.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be scientific literature on stroke patients who have trouble naming things, but no trouble naming actions, or vice-versa.[citation needed] And this suggests that the brain has separate modules for dealing with nouns and verbs.

In practice, I think this means that we are predisposed to see the world in terms of nouns and verbs, even when we’re not dealing with concrete things, and this can affect our perceptions. I guess it’s a bit like Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining to people that a hot ball of rock, a huge ball of gas that generates its own heat, and an irregular lump of ice are vastly different things, and so it doesn’t make sense to lump Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto all under the label of “planet”.

For instance, if we’re thinking about the way languages have migrated through history, it might be tempting to think of one language displacing another, much as putting a finger in a glass displaces water. But of course languages don’t behave the way that solid objects like fingers and water do; multiple languages can coexist, even in the same mind.

I guess what this all boils down to is that there’s a difference between what something is, and what it’s called.

Update, 15:47: Typo.