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News from the Hoffmann Foundation Autism charity London - Hoffmann Foundation

Portrait of an artist as a young Asperger’s boy

Written on 19th November 2013 by Hoffmann Staff

Jim O'Shea, last year’s art exhibition winner, was asked to give a talk at this year’s competition. Below is a short statement from Jim about the experience, along with the insert from a booklet he has created to show the processes he went through to create his portrait. 

( If you would like a full copy of Jim's Booklet, which include pictures and Diagrams, then please e-mail: )





"Ian Wilson asked me to talk about my painting, something I will find difficult to do. How do I begin, I had thought the painting spoke for itself. So I produced a booklet linking words with the imagery to explain about the painting, it turns out this is as obscure as the painting, everything in that booklet was carefully chosen and carefully placed, I approached the booklet in the exact same way I approached the painting, the way I approach everything in life!


It was a naive painting, a painting I was driven to do, an expression of self, the extracts in the booklet, they are not just words/extracts, and these are words that helped me immensely, helped me understand something about myself that I had always experienced but did not recognise let alone understand and a lot of what I have read and heard from others has made sense of the main difficulties I continue experience. So the words in the booklet are much more than just quotes, to me they have become some of the building blocks of my understanding of myself and hopefully they give you a small window into my world and a window into the world of others on the autistic spectrum.


I extracted a quote from something I read about ‘the big picture’ as this helped me understand something about myself as an Asperger’s person and this is expressed in the painting, it is this obsessional attention to the detail and how this built the big picture in a way that creates predictability and structure, the portrait of me as a child is placed centrally, because this is what he was always striving to do in life, to be surrounded by predictability and structure, and he uses his mind to do this [the black & gold symbol]. I included images on the construction of this geometric pattern to show to what lengths I went to ensure every last detail was correct, I approach everything in this manner. Why do I do this? I do it because it reduces my anxiety [the orange area, Cadmium yellow to anyone who needs me to be more precise and correct].


I included the bit about Alexithymia, as the painting is very unspontaneous, very controlled, in the painting I am portraying some very powerful emotional expressions and yet they lie buried deep behind that child’s face in his mind, unknown to others, but they are being expressed in a very safe way.


For a long period of my life I thought I had no feelings because I did not express any feelings, I was 35 years old by the time I realised I did have feelings but I still struggle to express them. if anything, I feel too much or that is how it feels to me. The quote on perfectionism captures my childhood so well, a constant feeling of I was never good enough, no matter how hard I tried, and this feeling is the birthplace of low self-esteem, a sense of no self-worth and self-doubt. This has dogged me all my life, if only one intervention were to be made for an autistic child, I would hope it would be, to promote self-esteem, give the child a sense of their own self-worth and that they have a sense of themselves as valid in their own right, as a human being.


The extract ‘when something is out of place, the spatial order shifts’, my portrait is placed so that my forehead [mind] is at the very centre of the pattern because this is the datum point where I build the web of predictability and structure in my mind, to have moved the face a millimetre in any direction would have upset the spatial order, aesthetically I could not have put this face anywhere else, to me symmetry is everything. I feel this painting also expresses what Donna Williams wrote ‘the experience of self as protected, contained, untouchable’ and the price you pay for this sense of security, which is a loneliness and disconnection with others. This boy’s eyes are what he used, to watch the outside world, And, all he is, is a passive compliant observer of life, but what does he feel as he becomes an adult, but ‘this experience of self’ that Donna Williams describes so clearly, and to whom I am so indebted amongst others, for showing me where I am and the tentative beginnings of having a sense of self identity, and of who I am.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank Ian Wilson for all his hard work and dedication in bringing about this exhibition yet again for another year, To Robert Waite for his energy and enthusiasm. Also to the Hoffamnn Foundation for existing and to their psychology department for allowing me to be." (Jim O'Shea) 



Being on the autistic spectrum involves what is known as ‘weak central coherence’ – a difficulty with seeing and making sense of the ‘big picture’. If you can understand life in terms of the big picture, then the small details are less important, and closure is only seen as necessary for things that fall into the ‘big picture’ category. But if you can only make sense of the world by seeing the details and building up from them to eventually see the big picture, then the details are incredibly important, because they are the building blocks on which understanding is formed. If you are confused by a detail, then you are confused overall.

Emotionally dumb: an overview of Alexithymia


‘For the alexithymic mind the intellectual imagination is available, but spontaneous emotional imagination appears inoperable. By specialising in controlled imagining the individual does not have to deal with images which evoke sudden strong emotions whereas in spontaneous imagination such emotions cannot be avoided and therefore threaten the individual’s ability to cope. The deficit in spontaneity may point to a need to avoid such threats to the sense of self’ given that many people with ASD have a tendency towards perfectionism and are extremely honest, they often blame themselves for their inability to conform [Smith-Myles and Adreon, 2001], trying extremely hard to change what they cannot change:  the core of their being. [Sinclair, 1993]



‘Jim needs to have order and routine in his life as this ensures environmental predictability, when something is out of place the spatial order shifts and with this safety and security are compromised’. The experience of self as protected, contained, untouchable, was, a Buddhist-like- state No longer is it the Buddhist sanctuary. It is now something which holds you back, cuts you off, in spite of, and even because of your own intense drive to join the world. [Donna Williams]



"In a world under glass you can watch the world pass and none can touch you. You think your safe, but the wind can blow cold in the depths of your soul, where you think that nothing can hurt you, till it’s too late." [Donna Williams]



This experience of self, self the prisoner is a moody, despairing, often resentful, bitter sense of self. It is one that becomes angry at the world for being there, and for being shown the carrot it can never reach, the dream it can never hold. The world becomes a place of the privileged who are free to move and be flexible, to respond without façade or strategy and you cannot but feel resentment for their lack of appreciation of what they have and how easily they have and hold it. [Donna Williams]


This Islamic geometric pattern holds a fascination for me, ever since I first saw it, I wanted to draw it, but could not figure out how it was constructed, I eventually figured out a way to draw it just by looking at over hours and days looking for the underlying pattern, In the ‘self-portrait’ it symbolises my mind.

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