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Psychology Student Studies Autism Through A Child's Art

May 14, 2001
Contact: Bill Giduz 704/894-2244 or bigiduz@davidson.edu

Stephanie Barfield and Gray Stanback
Stephanie Barfield '01 looks on as Gray Stanback works on a drawing.

Autistic individuals generally live in their own worlds, shunning communication with those around them. But some are able to channel their self-expression through other means, and movies such as "Rain Man" showed the world how extraordinary their gifts can be.

Davidson senior psychology major Stephanie Barfield has spent almost three years trying to understand the world of seven-year-old Gray Stanback, an autistic boy who expresses his considerable artistic talents through rapid sketches on a Fisher Price "Magnadoodle&#tm;." She has made him the subject of her senior honors thesis, doing one of very few studies that compare the artistic development of a high functioning autistic individual to that of normal children.

She plans to use her experiences with Gray as a springboard toward a career of caring for those who struggle with this disorder. Next year she will be teaching at The New England Center for Children in Boston, an institution that specializes in the care and treatment of children with autism and learning disabilities.

Stephanie has sampled fifty of Gray's drawings made in the two-and-a-half years since he first picked up a marker, at age 4, and put it to paper. In her thesis, she compares Gray's abilities to normal childhood artistic development as well as to other autistic artists to conclude that his talents are extremely well-developed in techniques such as dimensionality, depiction of space, use of motion, and foreshortening.

Stephanie began babysitting for Gray in January 1999, after answering an ad seeking a babysitter for two children--one with special needs. Gray had begun drawing a year earlier. His first attempts at drawings were not just marks, but rudimentary versions of complicated pictures.

Gray's mother, Nancy Popkin, began saving the drawings, and later took photographs of his work when he switched from markers on paper to the Magnadoodle, where images are created temporarily by a stylus in magnetized dust, then wiped clean.

Stephanie says Gray's drawings have provided her with a revealing glimpse into the autistic mind.

"No one necessarily understands autism yet," said Stephanie. "It's a disorder that prevents people from being socially adaptable. However, autism has many faces, making it difficult to study and even more difficult to understand. Some, like Gray, are high functioning and extremely verbal, while those at the other end of the continuum are mute and unable to take part in any type of social interaction. Over the past decade, much research has been directed toward the disorder. Researchers are continuing to learn more about it every day."

She noted that about one in 500 children are born autistic making it more prevalent than Down Syndrome or childhood cancer, and that it affects five times more boys than girls. Stephanie continued, "Autistic children and adults often focus on one idea or thought obsessively, and Gray demonstrates that through his art."

Gray draws very rapidly on the Magnadoodle screen, creating a picture with a minimum of strokes often in less than a minute. "He creates art in the same way a camera would make a picture," said Barfield. "It suggests to me that there's no conceptualization of the piece, but it's rather like an immediate manifestation of his thoughts."

One thing Gray thinks a lot about these days is insects. He has practically memorized a field guide to insects, and can repeat its descriptions of creatures almost verbatim. That interest manifests itself in his art, as well. In the space of three minutes, Gray sketched and described in detail five scenes sequentially presenting the life cycle of a long-tailed wasp, including egg-laying, pupae development, and the pupae feeding on and destroying its host to grow to adulthood.

Stephanie said Gray's subjects have evolved over the long course of their association. "He was afraid of loud noises when he was young, and to reduce the anxiety they caused he drew blenders, food processors, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, or anything that made noise. Drawing allows Gray to diminish the turmoil caused by his fears, making him more calm and able to function in the world."

He has also demonstrated a preoccupation with birds and dinosaurs.

Though his artistic expression is well-developed, Gray displays many typical symptoms of autism. He rarely looks others in the eye, and exhibits repetitive preoccupations such as rapid scratching at the surface of the Magnadoodle, frequent dashes around the room, and occasional tantrums. He attends Moorehead Elementary School in Charlotte, which has a special program for autistic children. Though he performs above grade level in certain subjects, he has trouble concentrating and must have an aide with him at all times.

It's a combination of characteristics that both fascinates Stephanie and tries her patience. She has appreciated the real-world lessons in psychology, and her long-term association with Gray has led to some improvement in his condition. "Our eye contact has been constant over the past semester, and we've been having occasional, but real conversations," she said. "Then two weeks ago he gave me a hug for the first time since I have know him. It brough tears to my eyes. Small breakthroughs like this make me realize how hard it'll be to leave."

Below are some examples of Gray's work and Stephanie's analysis of it:

Gray Stanback drawing

Person Vacuuming, June 1998. This is one of Gray's first drawings that depict a human as one of the primary subjects of the image. Notice the simplicity with which the person is drawn--no clothing or skin. The vacuum and figure are the same size, because the vacuum is industrial-sized. The yellow diagonal lines on the vacuum bag are another characteristic of Gray's art, derived from a favorite book.


Gray Stanback drawing

Welcome to Spring Band, August 1998. The figures, the banjo players on the left, the cymbal player on the right, and the trumpet player in the center, are part of a band playing to celebrate the beginning of spring. The scene is portrayed through the band conductor's point of view. He is standing on a stool so that he is looking down on the band--the tip of his baton is the very small line on the bottom near the left corner. The trumpet player is bigger because he is closer than the others to the band instructor. The trumpet is drawn using foreshortening, emphasizing the inside of the instrument as if it is jumping out at the instructor. What looks like a random curvy line on the banjo player are the arms of another person standing directly behind him, being occluded, teaching him how to play the song.


Gray Stanback drawing

Pine Woodpecker Making Grub Traps, November 1999. Notice the detail used to create the feather-texture of the bird. Gray's accurate drawing of the bird reflects his knowledge and interest in living things.


Gray Stanback drawing

Looking at Baby Lauren from outside the hospital nursery, November 1999. Derived from a picture in Lady Bug Magazine, Gray draws this real-life event with details from a picture of Baby Jesus' manger scene--note the shelter and crib for the baby. This drawing is executed from the viewpoint of an outside observer--perspective is used to show distance (smaller objects are farther away) and the objects facing the inside of the nursery are portrayed from behind. This drawing also extends into imaginary space--the stairs on the left continuing off the page.


Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.

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