Thinking Through The Body – a multimodal approach from autism

Paper presented at the International Conference for Research Creativity: Praxis, Baptist University of Hong Kong, 21-23 November 2012.



How should the artist approach practice and research without becoming so overly abstract that the grounded, proprioceptive concreteness of art becomes mired inside oppressive, draconian intellectualism? The reciprocal processes of researching artistic practice and practicing artistic research require actively synergetic, symbiotic sensory and cognitive engagement, the interaction and inter-reaction of the bodily senses with theoretical, philosophical insight and invention.

Sensorial contemplation, that is, “thinking through the body,” is an inherent trait of Autism Spectrum Condition. How do autistic sensory, proprioceptive and cognitive idiosyncrasies affect creative motivation and process? May the model of autism inspire a fresh perspective for research and praxis? As an artist with Autism Spectrum Condition, the aims of my paper are to provide an ‘insider’ view of how sensory and cognitive idiosyncrasy shape my creativity, and using the autistic body-mind model, suggest an alternative milieu for creating visionary collaborative research, and mutually empathic platforms.


Art is a process of ‘becoming’: it is an inclusive, embracing and exhaustive creativity, a series of meticulous, practical innovations building one upon another in myriad combinations and permutations. The artist, in creating a work of artistic expression, engages in rumination and rigorous mental exposition, but the act of artistry is not confined to philosophical notions alone, and requires parturition of theoretical and metaphysical ideas in the form of concrete, tangible actualisations, which are then perceived by the audience through the physical senses.

Elevated status is nowadays given to our human ability to consciously ponder and contemplate. In fact, our very identities are so deeply entrenched in the transcendental and cogitative dimensions, we often ignore the stark reality that all our brilliance is contained within, and must be conveyed via, a somatic vessel made up of tangible substance. This intrinsic interdependency, though not always convenient, is ever present. How, then, should the artist approach practice and research without becoming so overly abstract that the grounded, proprioceptive concreteness of art becomes mired inside oppressive, draconian intellectualism? Perhaps a more inclusive paradigm is necessary: one that embraces the entirety of existence, where the cerebral is in persistent, active sympathy with dynamic material.

The senses are essential to elemental functioning, and profoundly impact our mental states, whether or not we are consciously aware of the actual processes taking place. It is through our senses that we experience and perceive the world around us, and through our senses that we derive insights into our own existence. Greek philosopher Aristotle placed much importance in the senses and postulated that relationships and interaction between the senses are crucial to comprehensive mental function.[1] Scientific discoveries today now support the ancient theories that the brain is multimodal in its organisation and operation, and non-associative areas actually possess multiple connectivity channels from one to another.[2] In addition, neuroimaging technology reveals that multimodal brain function exists also in those who are sensory impaired.[3]

The reciprocal processes of researching artistic practice and practicing artistic research thus require synergetic, symbiotic sensory and cognitive engagement – in other words, vital interaction and inter-reaction of the bodily senses with theoretical, philosophical insight and invention. For the vast majority of people, however, physical sentience is seldom at the forefront of attention, unless or until some illness, injury or other inconvenience highlights the function of body consciousness. The opposite is true for those with Autism Spectrum Condition.

THINKING THROUGH THE BODY: THE AUTISM MODEL                                                                                                                  

Autism Spectrum Condition is a widely heterogeneous neurological condition, encompassing the severely intellectually challenged, those with normal IQ, and others with remarkable intellect and abilities. Diagnostic features of this spectrum condition include eccentric modes of social reciprocity and communication, restricted and intense patterns of behaviour, activities and interests, and a predilection for repetition and routine.[4] Multimodal sensory idiosyncrasy is also prevalent, although individual profiles vary considerably.[5]

Hypersensitivity is common, where sensorial reception and reaction are overly acute. Relatively innocuous stimuli can precipitate extreme fear, anxiety, distress, confusion, physical symptoms like nausea, headache and pain, as well as interfere with basic executive function.[6] Common indications include extreme reactivity to sound, smell, taste, textures and touch, acute hearing, ability to view objects from multiple perspectives, and unusual sensory attractions or aversions.[7]

Proprioceptive and vestibular impediments are also common in Autism Spectrum Condition. These range from severe movement impairment and delayed motor responses, to clumsiness, problems with balance and fine motor coordination, awkward posture and gait, and other less obvious struggles with executive functioning. For example, I can dance effortlessly to music and rhythm, but require conscious vigilance to maintain balance while walking in the street. I perform delicate manoeuvres requiring fine motor skills when creating art installations or working on craft projects, but I am unable to catch any object that is thrown at me.

“Stimming” – habitual repetitive gesturing or other bodily movements – is another common characteristic in Autism. Although viewed by the social majority as disturbing and bizarre, many autistic individuals nevertheless describe stimming as a self-calming mechanism, and a way of “being in a constant conversation with every aspect of (the) environment.”[8] The most common forms of stimming are rocking back and forth, spinning the body or objects, muttering to oneself, and hand or arm flapping.[9]

Preference for systems and logic, exceptional visual sense, and a strong instinct for the material dimension are features of autism cognition. As a consequence, the mind is more attuned to matter-centric relationships than to social-relational interactions. In a now famous experiment by Ami Klin, the eye gazes of autistic and non-autistic subjects were mapped while viewing an excerpt from the 1996 Mike Nichols film, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” The autistic subjects instinctively focused their visual attention on the film’s physical settings, subtle changes in camera angles within scenes and the actors’ mouths, while the non-autistic subjects concentrated more on the human interaction and the actors’ eyes and facial expressions.[10] Many autistic individuals are also more drawn to animals than to humans, perhaps because of their more primal, acute sensory-based interactions and highly specific focus. World famous animal behaviourist and autism advocate, Temple Grandin, documents her visual-spatial thinking and natural autistic gravitational attraction towards animals in her autobiographic writings.[11]

The experiential world of Autism Spectrum Condition is very often fragmented and bewildering, when juxtaposed within the social-physical constructs and built environments created by the neurotypical[12] majority. Sensory contemplation, that is, “thinking through the body,” is constantly at the forefront of the autistic existence, and it is from out of this panorama, that the ideas of this paper emerge.

Neurological studies are now indicating that creative talent is influenced by the individual’s ability for exactitude, and that the exceptional talents in autistic and other gifted individuals are based largely on their innate predisposition towards intense attention to minutiae and pursuit of repetition.[13] Brain scientist and expert on savantism, Allan Snyder, suggests that exceptional savant skills are basically the result of uninhibited ‘bottom-up thinking’,[14] that is, detail focused cognition, which, although not confined to autism, is nevertheless the distinguishing cognitive style. Not all savants are autistic, but the majority are. The study of savantism may serve as kind of archetype for unusual talent, especially in people who have neurological challenges.

Creative invention is a discrete, sophisticated articulation of comprehending our world. For artistic research led practice and practice based research to remain faithful to this reflection, there needs to be a breakdown of the arbitrary demarcations between heuristic and hermeneutic attitudes and conventions, as well as an active pursuit of multi-sensory frameworks and strategies. The autistic mind does not differentiate between heuristic and hermeneutic process, they are intertwined, inseparable components of ‘pneuma’, the sense of ‘being.’ The creative autistic is artist as much as scientist on an intense journey of discovery, rigorous investigation of fascinating phenomena, and innovative response.

Perspectives from inside out.

How shall we view the embedded semiotics of aesthetic expressions in the autistic mindscape? How do autistic sensory, proprioceptive and cognitive peculiarity affect creative motivation and process, and how may the model of autism influence and inspire a fresh perspective for research, practice and collaboration? More than that, how can this kind of creative investigation and application bring about advantageous understanding between conflicting states of mind?

From this point, I shall speak in the first person, as an autistic individual. The pronouns “I” and “we” shall be interchangeable and refer to persons with Autism Spectrum Condition, while “you” refers to the neurotypical social majority.[15] I have no explicit or predetermined theoretical or methodological manifesto or design to dispense. My model for addressing artistic praxis and research is to “think through the body,” as each artist employs his or her own inventions and interpretations, inspired and motivated by the autistic existence.

We sense, and therefore we exist. We exist in conscious relation to matter. We communicate with and through the elements that constantly impact our senses. We seek sensation, at the same time as we recoil from it. To the outside world, we may seem to live in a vacuum, but it is actually a busy vortex of intimate corporeal-cerebral conversation with the material universe. There are those of us synaesthetes who taste colour, touch rhythm, smell timbre,[16] and others whose thoughts, emotions and physical states are profoundly affected by minute and subtle changes in light, temperature, wind direction or the impact of a plethora of sounds and smells. Artistry is intuition, and intuition dwells not only within theoretical contemplation, but is at the same time embedded in our fingertips, inspiring the rhythm of our breath, communicating through the sensation of dust particles upon our skin, or the sound and feel of water running from the tap. To us, all creative energy is multi-sensorial.

Dry verbal intercourses, vast swaths of text, they are so often devoid of imagery or fabric. Are words all we have to touch each other’s souls with, and is the spoken language the only syntax that you can understand?

“aetiological imbroglio

ontological contrariety

anthropomorphic manifesto

verbal dysentery”[17]

Not all of us like to speak in words, although some of us have learned the technicalities of social language expertly. Nevertheless, we continue to project ourselves within our pedanticism. This is our parlance: it is tangible, direct. My words, even when cleverly employed, are merely painting pictures, creating smells and tastes, and composing soundscapes. Sometimes we are captivated by complex terminology, but there are no loquacious, convoluted, interactional lines to read between, no subtle sarcasm, no nuanced interpersonal signals, and no tortuously circuitous social-relational calisthenics to perform. Signs and symbols are our linguistic hieroglyphics, and our vocabulary is multi-sensorial: many words embodied within one object, which may be variously seen, touched, tasted, smelled and heard in an instance. Condensed, exploratory, immediate, inundated, luscious, exploding, we can empathise without verbal dialogue through the symbolic, and perceive these through our senses, our bodies.

How shall we explain our compulsion to create? Perhaps we are not ‘artists’ the way you may be, and yet, perhaps you and I are one and the same, at the very core of Creativity itself. Contrapuntal, harmonious or symphonic, even at times ponderous, we enunciate our art from our sensory eclecticism: painstakingly rigorous visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory impressions and compressions. We create because we are inexorably driven to evince the palpable universe within us, with us and without.

What is our process, our strategy? We have no devices but the inexorable. Our fascination is in precision and occurrence. To us, each time the same dial is turned, a different and fascinating pattern is created. We may be mistaken as having no imagination, because of our love for so-called repetition. That is because you have not yet understood. There is no true replication in our world: there is only a persistence of evolution and transformation, themes and variations.


Neurotypical. Neurodiverse. Autistic. Disabled. Abled. Whatever the terminology or label may be, I believe it is possible for distinct mentalities to co-exist, that we can find a space where we can ‘be’ together. Perhaps, the ‘parallel play’ of very young children and autism may be the answer: devoid of verbose social chatter, cognizant of your own senses, as well as mine. We are alongside, but not encroaching, a companionship without coercion, a spontaneous choreography in suspended moments in time and space. We must, however, be ever respectful of the interstices, bodies apart, minds solitary, not fraternising but nevertheless connected and tactile, inside a communal sensory expanse. Your experience, your thoughts, they are yours, and mine belong solely to myself, but we are simultaneously encountering: our senses, our existences, and our discernment of the perceptible, pulsating world.

How do I speak my symbols to you, so that you may understand? I can do so with references to your signs and symbols, things that have meaning to you from your world, stories, motifs and icons that we both know. I have diligently studied your metaphors, would you not take time now to learn mine? What your senses perceive may merely be superficial scratches on the surface of our world, but we invite you to intuit our reality, perhaps by magnifying your own. Sense your senses, and in sensing your senses, allow your senses to sense your self, and the world around you. Become aware of your body, become cognisant of other bodies, from the miniscule to the colossal. Taste, touch, smell, listen and move – conscious of your every vibration, the reverberations and echoes you create. At the same time, your mind questions the consciousness of your senses: where are the convergences, confluences, conflicts and what are the resultants?

Smallness is monument. Begin with the most basic, most diminutive organism. Remember. Imprint. Expand. Then reach outward to the next organism, sensing the process, one axon and dendrite at a time. Again, remember, imprint, and expand. Become aware of independent entities merging slowly, patiently, precisely, and enjoy the intricate patterns they make as they greet and touch and intertwine, until a larger and larger organ is constructed.

“Too busy, too confusing, I cannot find a central focus!” you may say.

And my reply shall be, “Welcome to my world!”

If you are unable to identify and revel in the intricacies, you may have not yet immersed yourself from inside out. Attend to one molecule, one cell at a time, until you are able to sense the labyrinth, and emerge to perceive the entirety. There you will find the global perspective that your minds are predisposed to seek. If you approach the rich tumultuous tapestries in this manner, from the inside out, you will not be confounded, despite the apparent chaos, because your understanding shall be sensed throughout your body, without need for meandering postulation.

To conclude, for the purpose of open-ended reflection and consideration, I offer a casual autobiographic ‘snapshot,’ from the sensory and cognitive perspective of an autistic individual. Try to perceive the following by ‘thinking through the body.’

“My name is Dawn. I am an Aspie chick,[18] artist-musician-writer, scientist, adventurer, eternal scholar, observer and performer of life, trundling in a rusty old wheelbarrow along the rocky road towards a Ph.D., flipping the pages of imagination, creating dog ears, making splotches, humming in and out of tune, dancing around polyrhythmic-chromatic-pandiatonic mental fires, flying and falling, meandering in and out of discombobulation and obdurate revelation, gazing at pulchritude, picking up sound waves, tasting, smelling, hearing, caressing, embracing and learning new ways to comprehend and breathe. What more could anyone wish for?”



Grateful thanks to my fellow autistics and friends, for your generous personal and collective insights of the eclectic and wonderful world in which we live.


[1] Ronal M. Polansky, Aristotle’s De Anima (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[2] Harry McGurk and John McDonald, “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” Nature 267, (23 December 1976). One prime example of multi-modal sensory perception is illustrated in the experiment known as the McGurk effect. The experiment basically consists of a video recording of a human repeating the word, “Ga”, while the audio track overdubbed the voice of someone else saying the word, “Ba”. However, when this was played back to participants in the experiment, most perceived the word as, “Da”. This simple experiment, in which viewing lip and mouth movement alters phoneme identification, indicates that the brain functions multi-modally.

[3] Gemma Calvert, Charles Spence and Barry E. Stein, eds., The Handbook of Multi-sensory Processes (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004), 690. Tests done on the blind reveal that the area of the brain normally responsible for vision still activates during auditory processing.

[4] The American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV Text Revised [DSM-IV-TR], (The American Psychiatric Association, 2000): 69-70.

[5] Susan R. Leekam, Carmen Nieto, Sarah J. Libby, Lorna Wing, Judith Gould, “Describing the Sensory Abnormalities of Children and Adults with Autism,” Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders 37 (2007): 894-910.

[6] Although mostly associated with higher functioning autism, sensory acuity may be far more pervasive than previously thought in Classic autism, where many individuals appear to be hyposensitive, that is, devoid or lacking in sensory response. One possible reason is that such individuals may be more severely intellectually challenged, non-verbal, and/or unable to articulate or deal with the nature of their sensory reception and perception, which makes it difficult for accurate and specific assessment.

[7] Tony Attwood, “Sensory Sensitivity,” in The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (London: Jessica Kingsley Publications, 2007), 271-291.

[8] Amanda Baggs, “In My Language,”, accessed 15 August 2012. According to autism advocate Amanda Baggs, repetitive physical gesticulation is merely a natural process of communicating between the body and the material world.

[9] This phenomenon is most obviously observed in Classic autism, where many are non-verbal and face more severe functional challenges, but stimming is also often practised by higher functioning autistics, although the actual mannerisms are better masked or highly evolved into unnoticeable manoeuvres through ingenuous self-intervention.

[10] Ami Klin, Warren Jones, Robert Schultz, Fred Volkmar and Donald Cohen, “Defining and Quantifying the Social Phenotype in Autism,” The American Journal of Psychiatry vol 159, no. 6 (2002): 895-908.

[11] Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour (Simon & Schuster, 2004).

[12] A term originally coined by the autistic community to refer to the non-autistic majority. This term was later adopted by the scientific community to refer to the majority of the human population with social-relational based cognitive processing styles, and without any other neurological impediment.

[13] Francesca Happé and Uta Frith, Introduction to Autism and Talent, ed. Francesca Happé and Uta Frith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[14] Allan Snyder, “Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences vol.364 no.1522 (2009): 1399-1405.

[15] In order to offer a more cogent and inclusive sensory experience for the purposes of a ‘live’ presentation, projected onto a screen in the background is a silent video of visuals from my most recent work, Scheherazade’s Sea (2010), as I speak, and it is intended that my speech shall be the audio component for this dual sensory presentation. Dawn-joy Leong, Scheherazade’s Sea: a mixed media, multisensory installation and performance, (University of Hong Kong Premiere, 2010), excerpts. This audio-visual can be accessed from the following link:

[16] While not confined to autism, many autistic individuals also have synaesthesia.

[17] Dawn-joy Leong, Speak (2012), a poem about the autistic struggle with verbal discourse.

[18] “Aspie” is an affectionate term used by autistic individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome to refer to themselves.


Attwood, Tony. “Sensory Sensitivity.” In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, 271-291. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications, 2007.

Baggs, Amanda. “In My Language,”, accessed 15 August 2012.

Calvert, Gemma, Spence, Charles and Stein, Barry E. eds., The Handbook of Multi-sensory Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2004.

Grandin, Temple, and Johnson, Catherine. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behaviour. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Happé, Francesca, and Frith, Uta. Introduction to Autism and Talent, ed. Happé, Francesca, and Frith, Uta. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Klin, Ami, Jones, Warren, Schultz, Robert, Volkmar, Fred, and Cohen, Donald. “Defining and Quantifying the Social Phenotype in Autism.” The American Journal of Psychiatry vol 159, no. 6 (2002): 895-908.

Leekam, Susan R., Nieto, Carmen, Libby, Sarah J., Wing, Lorna, Gould, Judith. “Describing the Sensory Abnormalities of Children and Adults with Autism,” Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders 37 (2007): 894-910.

McGurk, Harry and McDonald, John. “Hearing Lips and Seeing Voices,” Nature 267, (23 December 1976).

Polansky, Ronal M. Aristotle’s De Anima. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Snyder, Allan. “Explaining and inducing savant skills: privileged access to lower level, less-processed information,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Biological Sciences vol.364 no.1522 (2009): 1399-1405.

The American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV Text Revised [DSM-IV-TR], 69-70. The American Psychiatric Association, 2000.

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