The world is full of extraordinary people. We are all extraordinary. Then there are those people who seem to be superhuman, people with spectacular islands of ability or brilliance. These savants display incredible talents in calendar calculating, music, lightning calculating and mathematics and prodigious memory.
Phenomenal art ability is rare among savants. There are plenty of examples of musical genius (almost exclusively limited to the piano) but not art. Stephen Wiltshire is an example of someone with this rare talent.
One person that has particularly grabbed my attention is Nadia Chomyn, an autistic artist who had an extraordinary ability at a very young age to draw realistic depictions of animals and horsemen. Nadia was a very handicapped girl
In 1973, when she was 6 years old, Nadia attended the Nottingham Child Development Research Unit with her mother for an assessment.
Nadia’s mum presented some drawings to Professors John and Elizabeth Newson. The drawings were extraordinary and although Elizabeth Newson marvelled at them she said she was also ashamed to admit she doubted them too.
Nadia was assigned to Lorna Selfe who witnessed her rare but amazing art ability.
Nadia could not even combine two words together except in simple phrases and often used unintelligible jargon. She had uncontrollable episodes of screaming and was very destructive which alternated with mutism, excessive slowness and withdrawal. It was reported that Nadia would stare into space for long periods or wander around the room aimlessly and she avoided eye contact and any physical contact.
Nadia was medically and psychologically examined when she was 5 years old and was diagnosed as someone with “autistic behaviour and possible considerable psychiatric disturbance.” An X-ray showed a shorter than normal skull.
One particular thing that really stood out was Nadia’s obsession for cutting strips of paper into incredibly thin strips with an astounding regularity and precision.
Her drawings at the age of 3 were exceptional. This was a time when she couldn’t feed or dress herself but what she did do was start drawing on the walls at home.
These weren’t just scribbles or mark making lines but rather precise, proportional, and on-point perspective drawings of carousels and horses. Her drawings were inspired by pictures that she had usually just seen once and they were known for their inventiveness and for their use of shading and shadow.
What we have to remember is that Nadia was not able bodied but when she drew she showed an extraordinary amount of manual dexterity and would place her face very close to the paper. Nadia communicated through her drawing.
Between the ages of 3 and 9, Nadia drew on hundreds of pieces of paper and her talent caught the attention of Walter Cronkite, a world-renowned newscaster who travelled to England to make a film on Nadia. She was also the subject of many articles and books including psychiatrist Oliver Sacks’ book, Classic Cases in Neuropsychology, Volume 2.
Lorna Selfe postulated that if Nadia developed her language skills then her drawing would disappear. This is what happened because at the age of 9 her ability to draw regressed and she lost it. When she was 7 she entered a school for autistic children and her language improved.
Nadia lived a quiet life in a residential facility until her death three years ago.
This is an incredible story and it as if her skills disappeared or were they just silenced and made unavailable? Where did that talent go? Was it the loss of her mother at the age of 7 that traumatised her?
One thought on “Nadia’s Drawings”
I don’t offer this as a definite answer, but as a possibility: when Nadia was first enrolled in school, ABA was both in its infancy and at the height of its cruelty, and is even now endorsed by the NAS. It’s possible that Nadia was put into an ABA programme at a NAS-affiliated school, and her favourite activity was so often held out of her reach as a ‘reward’ for ‘correct responses’ that the enforced lack of engagement in it caused her to lose her skill. Just putting it out there.