Asperger’s, Object Art and a Case of Extreme Empathy: Adventures in Visual Thinking

Asperger’s, Object Art and a Case of Extreme Empathy:

Adventures in Visual Thinking

by Sonia Boué & Brent White


 “We’ve shared a language that seems to hit the retina first and is beyond words. There is a definite emotional connection and a growing friendship.

During February 2014 I (Sonia) undertook a creative online project called La Retirada, in which I made daily posts on Facebook and Twitter detailing my researches into the Republican flight from Spain at the close of the Spanish Civil War. I am a visual artist and this was a personal story about my grandparents and my father who numbered among the half a million Spaniards who fled Spain during the mass exodus of February 1939.  I told my story through photographs and objects, I posted my feelings, observations, original poetry and all manner of documentary material. As I inched my way towards the creation of a piece of object art to mark my journey, I gained a group of followers. As the days passed I began to see that I had made a particular and unexpectedly powerful connection with one of my followers.

Brent White, viewed my work daily and as the project gathered momentum he posted comments of unusual perceptiveness and emotional intensity. It became clear that here was a visual responder and a person of extreme emotional sensitivity. I confess I was surprised. Brent is creator and director of Ala Costa Centers Adult Transition Program (ACAT) in Berkeley CA. He identifies as autistic, dyslexic and PSTD.

It was such a rich experience having Brent alongside the project that I knew I had to share the two most important discoveries not to say gifts that Brent’s contributions had given me. The first was how very powerful object work can be even when the objects belong to someone else. The second was how extraordinarily and delightfully empathic an autistic person can be.

The significance of social media as a facilitator throughout this process is also noteworthy. The immediacy and intimacy of the comment facility on FaceBook is moderated by the distance and control bestowed by the virtual world it occupies. This enabled conversation and response to take place that was personal but felt safe.

The following is our conversation recorded in the days that followed the final piece about our experience in which we try to make sense of what happened between us.  It’s important to note that I am also wired differently (dyscalculia and a sensory processing condition) but do not have a diagnosis of autism.

Sonia: Brent, your response to and contributions to the Retirada project were exceptional. I came to feel I was conversing with someone with an unusual visual gift and sensitivity. I’ve been delighted to observe that the project has come to mean a great deal to you and I would like to explore this.

You connected to the images, to the story, and to the characters. Through this process we’ve quickly arrived at a feeling of mutual understanding. It feels like we share a language in which words are secondary, and in which empathy and intuitive knowledge lead.

How odd! This isn’t supposed to happen, right? Asperger’s is supposed to prevent you from relating, empathising and communicating with others. Yet here we are, within the space of one calendar month, collaborating on a piece of writing which will attempt to describe how we’ve experienced this meeting of minds through an art project.

So, I would like to ask how you felt when you first saw the project? Did you sense immediately that it was something you could relate to or was it a slow build up?

Brent: I struggle to answer this because we communicated in a space with very few actual words, but a great understanding of what the other was saying. So much of how I experienced Barcelona in a Bag is far out of the reach of ordinary language. I do not have a strong enough access to descriptive language to ever adequately say how I felt or what the psychic trips down the rabbit hole where like when I viewed a photograph of a purse inside of suitcase. Your choice of objects, the way they were posed, stacked or grouped together sparked my imagination and opened up vast spaces of understanding.

I loved how the story unfolded each day without really having a clue of what was coming next [I was a little afraid that I might say something to change it in some way!]. Each day you would add more and more weight. The story was universally human, so perfectly told. It was about your family, but it was about our families, all of us. It was magical and sad and rich.

It took me a little while to understand what was going on with Barcelona in a Bag, which seems strange to me now since I felt so swept up in it. I was confused at first about what the project was meant to be.  It wasn’t until the objects started to appear that I found my attention taken. On February 6th the suitcase with the initials S.L.C first showed up. I knew then that Barcelona in a bag was not ordinary.

The question about relating is difficult. The short answer is yes. I have a fascination with old suitcases. I find them magical, but here this is a problem, because I need to say why and what magical is and all I can really do is think of how excited [jumping up and down excited] I was when the suitcase opened up and the purse was inside…

I need to reflect on the whys of this, so I need to stop and walk and think, but let me ask you; why is it magical?

Sonia: Okay, why is the suitcase magical – I take it you mean Socorro’s suitcase?

I was at the flea market towards the end of the first week, that period when I was living with the sensation of sand in my teeth and waking in the night feeling Abuela’s haunting presence. Having scoured the Robert Capa photographs I knew I was looking for blankets. I got so lucky right off I couldn’t believe it. A woman had two blankets on her stall, one of which was perfect and dates from 1941. I suddenly felt the project had it’s own wheels and would carry me along.

It was then I saw the suitcase. It had something special and when I saw the letters I knew it had to become part of the project. The letters enabled me to weave in the character of Socorro Lorca – the story of NOT being Lorca is hugely significant and will be explored over much more time. So I really needed that suitcase.

So perhaps the suitcase is magical because it belongs to Socorro? Socorro brings hope and humanity to a dark, dark place.

A suitcase also manages to suggest so many possibilities – but for me it is about travelling to Abuela – all those journeys I made to her as a child were so wonderful. The suitcase is in the end about Abuela – endlessly resourceful determined and loving.

I was interested in your comment on one day that your head was spinning with the objects. Can you say more about this? I remember for example you said I had made the people in the story and their night in the forest real to you.

Brent: This is my riff….The suitcase opens up a space, a rift into your imagination. Soccoro walks through and takes form. She is made real, made flesh because of the solid weight of the suitcase. I believe in her because of the suitcase. You walk through the portal and knit her together from memories of Abuela, of things in your life. None of it real to me, but reality of it cannot be questioned.

Are objects portals? Also, I cannot yet answer why the purse inside of the suitcase grabs my attention. So much of what we are talking about feels like those fleeting moments when you wake from a dream and try desperately to remember or to hang on because it made you feel. You might not even know how it made you feel, only that you felt deeply. So much of what we are talking about here for me is this.

The objects are a portal and Sonia is making dreams. Sonia speaks in dream language.

Sonia: It’s to do with visual thinking I think. It’s something to do with the concreteness of the object perhaps?

Verbal language is abstract, it’s not a direct experience we can’t touch it or see it though it might conjure pictures in our minds.

This is why objects are so important and powerful to us – in a very real way they are our language and we read them at a level that occurs before verbal language comes in to name it, add some further more ‘complex’ meaning, or attempt to explain it. This is why language sometimes feel so limiting and reductive I think. It can’t capture the immersive dream like experience that significant objects can evoke in us. Just now I am wondering about parallels with music.

So your idea of objects as a portal is wonderful – seeing concrete objects makes a direct connection to a part of our brain that has preverbal knowledge, for visual thinkers this is a strength area. Visual understanding seems to be linked to our emotions perhaps because this is how we connect to the world.

About those suitcases. The blue suitcase I can now trace back to 1968. That year we were living in Mexico because my father had a sabbatical there. I have a picture of him coming off the plane from Mexico at Madrid airport. The suitcase at that very moment would be either in the hold or being taken out of the hold to be put on the conveyor belt. That’s the scarred suitcase by the way.

I wonder if the suitcases are so potent also because they have an outer shell and an inner space, which we can’t see. They are a little bit like people in that way. We can’t read what’s inside, we have to guess.

Brent: Magical is sticking with me as an important part of our conversation….

seeing concrete objects makes a direct connection to a part of our brain that has pre-verbal knowledge, this is our strength area in which we know stuff before we can give it words

I think this is exactly right. This is causing me to bounce around a little bit. When I started the ACAT program, I had ideas about what I wanted it to look like, but I wasn’t able to articulate it for months. This is how my original idea looked my mind.


If you see it out of the periphery of your left eye, that comes close to my pre-verbal concept. It took me three years to put it all into words. [the spiel as I call it]. I believe the lines are boundaries and the red circle [which was more of a red blob] was sort of the meat. I knew when the program was finally going in the direction I wanted because those lines became the front of a large ship in my mind, forceful and solid.

I keep mentioning dream language because dream language is pure emotional expression that generates metaphoric images. I realize of course autistic minds are not supposed to grasp this.

I have a strong attraction to suitcases, vintage, but not too old. I had a memory this morning while I was showering of the interior of a suitcase from my childhood. Mostly the silk pockets along the sides used for holding items.

I agree about the inner space of the suitcase, a closed suitcase is mysterious, who knows what can happen. I also have a feeling that they as objects are important because they mark fixed moments in time. They are artifacts. In a sense that make the human experience ephemeral. Objects hold the moment in time. People pass on, they change, they forget. Objects remain. Maybe that is why finding your father’s suitcase is so emotionally powerful. It holds his essence, his dust frozen in the moment, 1968. I like your idea of ‘Skin” and the tear, the wound becomes powerful.

Opening the suitcase and finding the purse I think connected the story right back to Abuela. The purse to me was hers. Her object, her essence. The purse was a magical object in my mind. Magic is possibility. The suitcase carried the possibility for a world beyond the obvious world. That is what my dream life is, magical possibility.

This is important because I perceive this waking/dreaming duality all the time. It is my constant reality. My brain makes connections, it is my strength. I see all things connected [although it is much harder for me to connect people to the larger breathing world constantly spinning, shaking, bouncing, vibrating all around us].

Spinning refers to opening my imagination. The objects in the piece would crack my imagination wide open at times, I would have access to memories and dreams, history I’d read about. It feels like traveling inward through a wormhole into the deeper universe of my mind. The secret language, the dream language. I would see and feel history clearly. The real and the imagined existed side by side in a way that didn’t matter. As it should be. AND I could talk to you about it in an open way. I didn’t need to hide the dream side. I didn’t fear that you would think that I was mad.

There were times toward the end of the project where the weight of the reality of your family would hit me solid. The revelation and reality of your grandparents hiding in the forest from the Nazis was stunning. And it was real because I realized that had they not done that, you would not have existed. I would have never viewed the suitcases. The kind of connection we were making would have never happened. I was grateful and scared. Your grandparents reached through time. The Abuela in my mind had shape and I honestly felt so impressed by the size and ability of her spirit to work such magic both in life and beyond.

Sonia: You’ve led me to the very beginning of Barcelona in a Bag.

It was Abuela’s handbag that knocked me into yesterday and I was back with her in her time and in her place: her flat in Barcelona. I felt her spirit so powerfully.

I found this odd to begin with but I’ve got used to the feeling Abuela is with me, that she helps drives the project and encourages me to be bold and share the story.

So you see your intuition about the purse and the suitcase is absolutely right. You’re not supposed to be able to do this kind of thing – and yet you do it beautifully because I’m using your language, you get it, you understand. I didn’t have to tell you, you just knew.

Brent: I don’t buy into the idea that autistic folks lack imagination. I do believe however it might not show up in ways that fit neatly into neuro-normative constructs of what imagination should look like. I feel the same about the notion of empathy.

I’m going to attempt to unpack your questions [Oh, I just realized the connection between unpacking suitcases and unpacking questions]. Dreaming: My childhood was filled with nightmares and there were times as a child that I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or awake, a feeling that was much more terrifying than the dreams. Nightmares and dreaming became just as important to me as what went on in the waking world. As I got older and the nightmares continued, I taught myself to dream lucidly. It was maybe the first place I learned to feel safe [or at least in control]. My mind exists in the dual universes.

I keep my imagination under wraps for the most part, because most people don’t know what I’m talking about, however I think artists are different. It might seem a bit odd and it has always been hard enough for me to fit into the world that adding layers of oddity to it would be even more isolating.

I haven’t really thought about the difference between neuro-typical and neuro-atypical folks and their imaginative processes. I don’t know. I don’t think the inner worlds, or secret language can be revealed. I think that it is beyond words. It is rich because it is beyond words. It exists in emotion and symbols which are too personal for ordinary language. Language is the limit. Language is maybe why neuro-typical folks don’t think we have imaginations or empathy. You can watch one of my films and at least feel close to how I feel, but if you look at it simply as a common narrative or need words around it, I would imagine that the films are a nonsense. The same is true of Barcelona in a Bag. How does a suitcase or a purse or a vase tell a story? How can you ever attach any emotional meaning to those objects? Yet the story is so vast, so human, so true.

Sonia: Is it exhausting to live with a duality of such powerful imaginary experience alongside ‘real world’? Does it get in your way?

Brent: No, it is just the opposite. It gives me access to the world. Sky-Bird-Tree-Dirt everything is connected and has meaning. Sometimes my mind draws these amazing lines, like graphs across the sky. I love the atoms of the world. They are like me. Like I said before, it is people I can’t connect. I know they connect because I am one of them, but they often feel separate. People, their constant chatter, their invading my personal space, their affects, their inability to see Sky-Bird-Tree-Dirt gets in my way. People scare me. Of course I’m making a generalized statement here, but it is my interactions with most people that makes everything difficult.

Sonia: You say that within an art context you feel comfortable talking about the secret language and that if you mentioned it in other contexts it would compound your otherness. I’m going to think about this a little before I respond fully. I get it, but I want to explore the notion that it’s not okay to share our inner processes with others, where the boundaries lie and how that changes from context to context. I think that this could be where it’s so difficult for Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC) because of difficulty with reading the subtle nuances of context. I want to encourage you to believe that it can be shared in a secure context, which may be more diverse than you first think (if that makes sense). I would love your film making to become something you can share more widely at some time. You are extremely talented. I want you to know this.

Brent: There is a way when I view art like Barcelona in a Bag, that I want to have my own experience with the piece first. That experience might be different from what the artist intended, but I don’t look at something and think, “I wonder what the artist is trying to tell me?” As a viewer I’m not sure that is the most important question. What is interesting about Barcelona is that I would have very visceral reactions and I would make connections [for example, my grandparents+dustbowl+migration+migrant camps from my personal history] but I was always keenly aware of your narrative. Your narrative was primary and whatever personal parallel experiences I had were secondary. Does that make sense? I might see a Kandinsky painting and go spinning off of a particular shade of green and not really care very much what Kandinsky meant by that shade of green [my apologies, Wassily].

This is where our conversation tailed off and quite naturally morphed into friendly exchanges about what was happening in real time for each of us. We shared our tricks for coaxing sleep during restless nights, our morning routines and most importantly our grief at the passing of young lives. The experience we shared through La Retirada appears to have forged a connection, a sense of recognition and excitement about finding each other, which continues and extends to the physical world. This week I sent Brent a small booklet based on the project and in a few days time it will land in his office in Berkeley – an object about the objects which brought us together. In a very real sense we have become friends.

Our conversation has been edited but is presented without analysis. I feel this is important for the following reason. Brent particularly (and I do so agree) would like to make clear that this experience and his responses are unique to him and that he doesn’t speak for autistic people generally. So we’re not sharing our process to advocate the use of objects to connect with ‘autistic’ people. Heaven forbid such a proscriptive and soulless notion.

No.This encounter has been about the power of objects to reach some of us. Further it is about the importance of understanding that the stereotypes (and even diagnostic criteria) about the emotional lives, imaginative reach and empathic capabilities of autistic people are seriously flawed because they are neurologically biased. As Brent explains, it is essentially a problem of translation – imagination, emotionality and empathy are experienced and expressed differently and may even be of a different hue entirely. The question becomes how to arrive at a meeting point. I call this cultural translation.

So finally, this piece is a provocation to think about the many possible pathways through to making connections with those who are wired differently, based on finding shared experiences, a sense of equivalence or recognition and most importantly on a relationship. For this to happen there needs to be a cultural shift in understanding that there are many languages available to us rather than remain so reliant and insistent on the ability to verbalise and converse in real time. Put that way a neuro-typically dominant/ biased society begins to sound unaccountably boring.  We’re all the richer for our neuro-diversities, without question.

3 Responses to Asperger’s, Object Art and a Case of Extreme Empathy: Adventures in Visual Thinking

  1. raspycricket says:

    I love this conversation, particularly because it sounds (to my neurotypical ears) like in this case, something that would normally hinder one’s ability to connect with the majority of the world – namely a neuroatypical way of thinking, communicating, and relating to the world and the objects in it – is precisely what made your connection stronger, if not made it happen in the first place.

  2. alexforshaw says:

    As a visual thinker myself I can identify with art as communication that bypasses the need to use the imperfect intermediary of words.

  3. Elena Thomas says:

    I love this conversation, Sonia and Brent… as I read the text things *ping* out at me, and some things settle in a reassuring layer. The word that pinged was “riff”… as a developing songwriter, with a foot in both camps, I find as an artist my understanding of the word is wider and deeper. Riffing, is what really good collaboration becomes, that deep understanding of an idea, along with making a response that changes it in a way that couldn’t happen if you were alone in the room. I can understand Brent’s caution in commenting, in case it breaks the magic. But here is where that settling layer occurs… in that safe place… the safe place without words where the idea invades, infiltrates, gets filtered, sifted and melds with your own. A depth of understanding occurs and your responses, verbal, written or otherwise become part of it. Really good riffing is dreamlike I feel… it’s going on in my head, and I can see it, but someone else also has control that with trust you can give into. At this point the concept becomes abstracted and I know that what I am writing, to those who don’t get it, is becoming a bit weird…. but this is a safe space right?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: