‘SAVANT’—A DCU MULTIMEDIA MASTERS THESIS PROJECT, 2002

‘Autistic people challenge us to perceive the world differently, think differently, feel differently, to stretch our imaginations to apprehend, even appreciate, an alternative world.’ (Clara Claiborne Park 2001, Exiting Nirvana, p.24) Authors: Oonagh Casey, David Coyle, Mark Matthews, Deirdre Molloy, Damian Polly and Sinead Stafford.

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Savant is an interactive, artistic interpretation of the autistic and savant experience. The experience is not to be interpreted as one of disability but rather a unique way of perceiving the world from an autistic point of view.

Although the project is called ‘Savant’, the profiles of the four savants chosen only occupy one section of the project. There are three other sections which deal with the many facets of autism. Our introduction to the savant condition came through reading the account of Jessica Park’s adolescent life in Exiting Nirvana which was written by her mother, Clara. From this starting point we researched the lives of other savants and this then served to broaden our research to autism in general. The project as a whole visualises and portrays many of the most common autistic characteristics that we discovered through our research.

The total timeframe for the completion of the project was three months, which included all research, design and production. Our primary research resources were books and the Internet, with videos and audio sources as secondary resources. We read widely about the different degrees of autism and the many different types of savants in the world, and also about the individual savants. Within the project, we wanted to profile a savant for each of the most common savant characteristics. The four categories and individuals that we chose were musical (Thristan ‘Tum-Tum’ Mendoza), artistic (Jessica Park), calendar calculation (David Kidd), and spatial (Temple Grandin).

Our research also included other savants such as Blind Tom, Richard Wawro, Kim Peek, Stephen Wiltshire, Matthew Wise and Hikari Oe.

There is an interesting, almost symbiotic relationship between savant abilities and multimedia. For this project, computers were used to represent their abilities, but their unique abilities are probably best understood when compared to those of a computer. Whether it is Temple Grandin’s assertion that she thinks in pictures rather than words, or Tum-Tum’s perfect pitch and rhythm, or David Kidd’s lightning-quick calendar calculations, all these abilities are beyond the ordinary individual and have more in common with a computer than a person.

One of the world’s prominent authorities on the savant, Dr Darold Treffert, said in 1989: ‘The significance of the savant syndrome lies in our inability to explain it. The savants stand as a clear reminder of our ignorance about ourselves, especially how our brains function.’ (http://www.nexus.edu.au/teachstud/gat/hendric1.htm).

Having researched the lives of the savants we wished to include in the project, we set about defining the most common autistic characteristics that we had discovered from our collective research. We narrowed down our findings until we felt that we had a core list which had been sufficiently researched. We wanted to ensure that we understood these characteristics to such a degree that we could feel confident that we would be able to represent them through multimedia.

The project covers many facets of autism:

  • Hyperconnectivity/ monotracking
  • Social disconnectedness
  • The Nirvana state
  • Love of repetitive actions and routine
  • Literalness
  • Love of spinning objects
  • Aural and visual hypersensitivities
  • Theory of mind

Early on in the project, we decided to adopt an overall theme to give the project a visual, cohesive feel. We had read a lot about the life of Donna Williams, an autistic woman who had written two very informative books about her life—Nobody nowhere and Somebody somewhere. These provided us with an invaluable insight into autism as they were written from an autistic perspective. From reading these books, we got the idea for the visual theme for the project—‘life beneath glass’ (based on Donna Williams’poem of the same name).

Life beneath glass…

Pure fear of the one touching touch,

Which could smash the glass forever,

And send the dancer plummeting from her tightrope,

Into the knowing of the unknown.

Today, it seemed the world was a scene.

In a book of secrets, from which we tore a page

A touching touch shattered the glass between the two worlds,

And the cold wind of uncertainty whistled a chill

Through body and soul………..

(Nobody nowhere—Donna Williams 1994, p.121)

A life behind glass, isolated from other people, is the world out of which there is no simple doorway or casual escape. The glass might magnify sensations; sounds, colours, smell, touch and tastes or it might force a withdrawal to an inner place where these sensations can be tuned out and the signals blocked.

As a result of this theme, the graphic design of the project has a very fractured appearance throughout, representing shards of glass, which ties in with Donna Williams’ poem.

From the start, we wanted to produce a project which could act as an aid to parents of autistic children. This project attempts to portray the autistic experience from both the autistic and non-autistic viewpoints, and could be of benefit to parents who are seeking to understand more about autism. One of the sections contains two video pieces which highlight the difficulty parents of autistic children have in communicating with and maintaining the attention of their children. Autistic children often become engrossed in a simple, repetitive activity to the exclusion of all other surrounding environmental happenings, including the calls of parents. In her book, Labelled autistic (1996), Temple Grandin explains that she enjoyed twirling herself around or spinning coins or lids round and round. She was intensely preoccupied with the movement and as a result she saw and heard nothing else. People around her were transparent. No sound intruded on her fixation.

Temple Grandin and other people with autism have also stated that they ‘think in pictures’, while the rest of us think in words. Language development is often slow and difficult for autistic children. But associating words with pictures by placing a picture of what the word represents beside it or by sounding the word as the corresponding picture is displayed, has been shown to aid language development. Multimedia lends itself very easily and simply to this task.

As well as helping to develop language skills, multimedia can be used to help autistic people to possess a theory of mind through the use of ‘social stories’. These short stories describe different scenarios, which allow autistic individuals to understand themselves and others better. Music therapy is particularly useful with autistic children, owing in part to the nonverbal, non-threatening nature of the medium. This is another area to which multimedia can be applied. But the opportunities for understanding different modes of perception and ability, through multimedia, are not limited to autism. Many different learning disabilities could benefit from the same treatment afforded in this project to autism.

The project is intended to be a rich audiovisual supplement to the textual analysis of autism that is to be found in many books and journals. The project is part of the growing development and range of ‘assistive technologies’ that are emerging to help those with learning disabilities. By putting a lot of effort into detailed and extensive research at the start of the project, we believe that this project can serve as a prototype learning aid to help those in the health, nursing and medical professions who work with, or who are training to work with, people with autism.

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