By Marga Vicedo
A two-and-a-half year old girl sits on the floor. Her mother lays besides her, making random marks with a brush and paint on a piece of paper. She is hoping her little girl, Jessy, will imitate her. Unlike most children her age, Jessica has shown little interest in imitating her siblings or her parents. She seems content playing alone, placing some set of objects carefully in rows. Jessica did not start to use the brush and paint herself that day with her mom; but, remarkably, she did so three days later, on her own. From then on, her mother made sure Jessy always had paper, crayons, and paints.[i] These tools would open up a new world of experiences and interests for Jessica. Decades later, her art allows us to understand that world a bit better than people did for many years.
One of the most persistent stereotypes about autistic people is that they have a limited emotional life. The original definition of infantile autism as a condition of the affects contributed to this perception. For John Hopkins University child psychiatrist Leo Kanner, who first identified childhood autism as an independent syndrome in 1943, autistic children lacked the standard innate ability to establish affective connections with people. Soon afterwards, many psychiatrists and psychoanalysts reframed autism as a ‘retreat’ from the social world. For them, cold or rejecting mothers pushed their children into autism. Supposedly, these “refrigerator mothers” created ‘frozen’ children, that is, children with stunted emotional development. Seen as suffering from a condition of the affects, autistic people were deemed unable or unwilling to connect to others, and were often believed to be emotionally disturbed.[ii]
Today, the scientific community has rejected these ideas, but the stereotype of autistic people as individuals with a poor emotional life persists. Because many autistic people have sensory sensitivities and difficulties in social relations, they tend to avoid loud and busy interactions with others. This is often interpreted as reflecting a lack of interest in human contact or even dearth of emotional life. We have known for a while that this is not the case. In fact, autistic people have a rich and varied emotional life. Similar to everyone else, their emotions are connected to their diverse and unique personal interests. Among my autistic friends, I count Jessica. More than anything I’ve read about autism, her life and work taught me this.
Jessica Park is an accomplished painter; her art can offer us a better understanding of the rich emotional life of many autistic people. We can follow Jessica’s emotional development by looking at her journey into a world lived and expressed not in words but in lines, shapes, and colors. Jessica was drawn to the elements of that world ever since she sat on the floor with her mother Clara, and often with her siblings Katy, Rachel, and Paul, to scribble and draw. She showed proficiency in learning colors and shapes very early on. At age six, she knew how to get pink out of red and white. She developed a connoisseur’s taste and affinity for subtle color variations. She loved specific shades of a color, such as pale mint or aquamarine.
In her adolescence, Jessica used drawing as an expressive instrument, employing simple drawings to tell stories. These reveal much about her inner life. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jessica developed over two hundred stories. They all start with a title page, run for about five pages – always numbered - and end with a page that says in large print: “THE END.” They cover a great range of subjects, as some of the titles show: Book about the radio, Book about the hamburger, Book about the number 3 in it [the presence of number 3], Book about the number of three in it [numbers divisible by 3]. Some tell stories about real people or ‘imaginary’ people. Some include Jessica herself, as “Little Jessy” or “Big Jessy.” Many stories she presents as ‘fictional’ even if they involve real people. For example, in the book “Up Side Down” Jessica draws three figures, herself, her mother, and her father crying. On the side she writes: “Just make believe!”
In other stories, Jessica’s drawing points to a future event. In a picture of a big table with many chairs but only a few with people seated, there is an annotation by her mother. She asked Jessica: Why so many chairs? The answer: For the children who will come later. These ‘graphic stories’ disclose not only Jessica’s imagination and creativity, but also the depth of her emotional life.
Encouraged by friends, family, and teachers, Jessica flourished as an artist. A turning point was the art program at Mount Greylock Regional High School, where she met a supportive teacher and the twin sisters Ana and Diana who became lifelong friends. The twins stayed after regular class had ended to spend more time with Jessica. At first, Jessica just copied their drawings: an eye, a tree, or a flower.[iii] Soon, Jessica focused on her own interests.
In her drawings and paintings, Jessica reveals what many would call her obsessions, but she calls them her “enthusiasms.” Jessica trembled with delight upon seeing, or just thinking about, auroras, eclipses, and double-yolk eggs. The objects or events that bring her intense pleasure have changed over time. In her early drawings and paintings, Jessica depicted the gadgets she found mysterious and fascinating: radio dials, clocks, quartz space heaters, and electric blanket controls.
Later, Jessica’s acrylic paintings showed her enduring fascination with the night sky. She represents stars and constellations faithfully in paintings of buildings and bridges. At first sight, the representation seems mimetic, a faithful rendering of what her eye sees. But it is not so simple. She carefully chooses specific parts of a building, decides which corner to focus on, and determines how many windows to paint. She also selects which celestial bodies to include. She will represent them accurately, but she does not shy away from moving the Southern stars to the Northern hemisphere, as she did in her depiction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Her choice of colors is also unique and playful. She reflects on the different shades she will choose, and the resulting combinations are creative and often surprising, conveying a sense of joy and intense engagement.
Jessica’s artwork reveals the richness of her emotional world.
As we celebrate disability pride this July, we are called on to recognize and appreciate the neuro-diversity among all of us. We should also celebrate the varied lives of the heart and the enthusiasms of those around us.
[i] Anna Saldo-Burke, Green Mittens Covered Her Ears: A Look at Autism; My Story with Jessica Park, ill. Diana M. Saldo (self pub., 2010).
[ii] Marga Vicedo, Intelligent Love: The Story of Clara Park, her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother (Boston, MA: Beacon, 2021)
[iii] Clara Park, “The slow growth of an artist.” Unpublished manuscript, p. 1. Clara Park personal papers. See also: Clara Claiborne Park, Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001). Tony Gengarelly and Adria A. Weatherbee, eds. Exploring Nirvana: The Art of Jessica Park (North Adams, MA: Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 2008); Tony Gengarelly, ed. A World Transformed: The Art of Jessica Park (North Adams, MA: Jessica Park Project, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, 2014).
About the Author
Marga Vicedo, PhD, is a philosopher and historian of science. She is a professor at the University of Toronto, where she teaches and writes about the history of biology, psychology, and psychiatry since the turn of the twentieth century. She is on the editorial board of numerous journals, including the Review of General Psychology and Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and is the author of The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America and Intelligent Love: The Story of Clara Park, Her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother. Connect with her at margavicedo.com.