Anna Lina Litz

Can an Artwork be Autistic?

Using keywords to identify autistic characteristics in artworks

Repetition, extreme consistency, radical truth, cataloging, systematising,  questioning, over- and understimulation. All of these words are part of a list the A/artist team brainstormed last year with the intention of collecting words that could be used to identify “autistic artworks“. What does 'autistic art' look or sound like? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a list like this? We discussed these questions during our third A/artist discussion round. 


A/Artist keywords - A list of keywords compiled as part of the A/Artist project in order to recognise autistic characteristics in art works.

Inspired by the DSM-5 

The idea for this list is based loosely on the psychology handbook DSM-5, which covers lists of criteria for diagnosing mental disorders and neurodiversity. According to this system, when  someone checks a certain number of the listed criteria for a condition, they can officially be diagnosed. Of course, our list is very different from the DSM, as it is not intended as a rule book to arrive at a formal diagnosis, but instead can be used as freely and creatively as we like. It is simply meant as a collection of keywords and criteria that we can use to look at artworks in a different way and possibly draw relevant connections to autism. 

Labeling the work instead of the artist 

One of the greatest advantages of an approach like this is that by using a list like this, it is the artwork which is linked to the topic of autism, and not the artist. This way, it is possible to consider an artwork through the lens of its connection to autism without bombarding the artist with a label that they might not be comfortable with claiming publicly for various reasons. Their work, however, can gain an additional depth and nuance when it is considered in this way. 

Why these words and not others?  

During the discussion, the question came up of how we arrived at this list of words, and specifically whether it is based on the work of any particular artists. The answer is that the goal was to find a list of criteria simply based on how the experiences of autistic people might be reflected in their art. However, the list was also influenced by the work of well-known artists such as Andy Warhol and On Kawara, who are strongly suspected to have been autistic and whose work is characterised by repetition and extreme consistency. 

The problem of using art to define art 

In response to this it was pointed out that using established art, such as the famous work of Andy Warhol, in order to define or classify new art can be a dangerous approach. The creative expression of contemporary autistic artists is, like all art, very varied and subjective, and likely quite different from the established examples. This means that their work would thus fall under the radar of our list.

To give a concrete example of this, one of the artists present showed a conceptual piece of music created to explicitly reflect his experiences of navigating social situations as an autistic person. It quickly became clear that rather than being characterised by systematic structure or repetition, the piece was very calm and atmospheric, with occasional louder outbursts.

All artists present agreed that they would never associate the word autism with this piece of music based on our list, although it was created explicitly to express the experience of an autistic person. According to the list, typical examples of 'autistic music' could be minimal techno, or the works of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass. 

'Isn't all art a little bit autistic?'

Out of this situation, the question arises: can autistic people make non-autistic art, and vice-versa? As we saw, when using a list like ours to define autistic art, the answer to both of these questions is likely to be 'yes'. This can be problematic, because it can be perceived to take away from the validity of the work of autistic artists whose autism inspires their work in ways not captured by our list. At the same time, any artwork might check a criteria or two from the list, which can convey the unloved sentiment that 'all art is a little bit autistic'. 

Circling back and looking forward

I believe that at this point it is helpful to backtrack and look at the original intention behind making this list. This original intention  was to create a tool for looking at art in a different way and engage with the concept of 'autistic art' in a playful way. Of course, a simple list of words can never 'catch' all the art that should rightfully fall under this umbrella, and is by nature exclusionary and imperfect.

This is something we should definitely be mindful of when using it as a tool to look at art, especially when using terms such as 'diagnosing' to describe the process. But, when used mindfully, the list could be developed into a valuable tool to establish the connections of specific artworks to the topic of autism. Ideally, this will enrich the viewer's experience of the art without putting the pressure of a label on the artist. With the input from this discussion round we will continue to develop, question and test the concept of this list so that it comes closer to this ideal state. 

Many more questions

Finally, as usual, many questions still remained at the end of the discussion. Is our list of words too short, or too long? Do we have the right words, or are there important words missing? And are some of the words more important than others? It seems that more conversations will be necessary for finding the answers.