Friday, April 4, 2014

Q&A with analyst and editor Jill Mullin

Jill Mullin is the editor of Drawing Autism, now in a new second edition. She is a behavior analyst who has worked with people with ASD for more than a decade. She is based in New York City.

Q: How did you come to put together Drawing Autism, and what has the reaction been to the book, which is now in its second edition?

A: Drawing Autism began with an artist named Glen Russ. Glen had been diagnosed with autism at an early age and also at a young age had developed a passion for music and drawing.  

I met Glen at a residential group home in New York City where he lives with 5 other men with varying disabilities. The first two years I worked with Glen he would draw many pictures per week of his favorite bands such as the Jackson 5, Temptations, and the Whispers.

His stylistic stick figures drawings depicting the bands were drawn singing, dancing or playing instruments as if they were caught in a snapshot from the Ed Sullivan show.

For two years I cheered Glen on, every day that I saw him I asked, “Did you draw any pictures today?” If he had, he would proudly display his work (often times the drawings from the day would be stapled together with numerous staples, variously laid out across the drawings).  

Each day that I saw Glen’s drawings I would ask “Can I take one home with me?” to which he would promptly shrug his shoulders and reply “ahhh, no.”

And so this scene played out for two years until one day Glen finally answered “why yes, you can have it!”  I was delighted; I put the drawing on my refrigerator for family and friends to enjoy.

While Glen’s art was proudly displayed in the fine art gallery otherwise known as my kitchen, I had many casual observers comment on his art. Guests who would pass through my home would comment on the unique images and ask about the artist and his inspirations.  

Their questions sparked my interest to look into other artists with autism as it became clear to me that there must be other artists with autism whom have a unique perspective as well.

The reaction has been tremendous. The first edition went out of print and became a collector's item. That's what's so great about the new edition. People can get it again. Plus there is some great new content. 

Whenever I've been around someone seeing the book for the first time it just brings a smile to my face seeing how they fall into the work. They're surprised.

And I think they're surprised by lots of things about the book: the quality of the work, the variety, the examples from all over the world, the sheer talent.

Q: How did you select the artists to include?

A: The overwhelming number of submissions I received from all over the world astounded me. There were those already established in the art world, and others who has not even thought about becoming a professional artist.  

It was very challenging to choose the artists as there were so many great submissions. Ultimately, the images that spoke most to me and my editor were the ones chosen for the book.

Q: How did Temple Grandin, who wrote the introduction, become involved in the project?

A: Because of her notoriety as an incredibly successful individual with autism, and her work designing livestock handling systems -- actually drawing the plans -- Temple was the obvious person to ask about writing the foreword.

Not only was I lucky enough for her to say yes, but in the foreword she talks about how her mother encouraged her to draw when she was young. I know how much Temple's involvement means to the contributors.  

Q: Are there any specific messages you'd like readers to take away from the book?

A: Above all else, I hope the book inspires individuals with ASD and all the people in their lives.

The range of stories touched on in the book is amazing and whether we're talking about someone who is nonverbal using drawing to externally express themselves or someone who is more high functioning but uses their creative output to help themselves, and others, understand their place in the world, art can be a powerful tool. 

Something else this book does, I think, is make clear, thanks to the different types of artwork, just what it means when we talk about autism being a spectrum disorder. I organized the chapters around core characteristics of the spectrum so readers can get a sense for that.

Again, I'm a clinician and this is not a clinical book but it serves as a great point of entry for those who want to start learning about the disorder.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I work full time with my clients and their families, which keeps me plenty busy. For the next few weeks I'll be working to promote the book and who knows what will come of that. But in terms of other books or projects like that, I have no plans.  

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I think the book serves as a nice starting off point for people who are just starting to learn about the Autism Spectrum. The book serves as a powerful reminder that individuals on the spectrum have a unique point of view and are doubtlessly talented.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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