Jonathan Lerman's parents didn't expect much of an emotional reaction from him when his
grandfather died five years ago. Not that he wasn't old enough to understand the loss he was 10 years
old but because he is affected by autism.
Since the age of 2, Jonathan has exhibited little capacity to express his feelings. But when Jonathan
began rapidly drawing a passionate portrait of himself crying shortly after his grandfather's death, his
parents were astounded.
Jonathan's mother, Caren Lerman, recalls the experience as remarkable. For years, she had dealt with
a child unable to verbally communicate or relate to others hallmark symptoms of the often-frustrating
neurodevelopmental disorder. Now, she was seeing in vivid detail the pain her son was experiencing.
Since Jonathan's first experience with charcoal, he has continued to use his art as an avenue for self-expression.
Quickly recognized with ability to create strong, emotional portraits that border on caricature, Jonathan
stands alone among recognized artists with autism in that his work is focused on faces faces filled
with emotion. As shown in the recently published book "Jonathan Lerman: Drawings by an Artist with Autism,"
his drawings, whether in charcoal or pastel, typically portray highly asymmetrical faces with startling
An example of Jonathan's work can now be found at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute's new facilities. The
institute, devoted to the study of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, has assembled a significant
collection of artwork created by 36 children and adults. The majority of the artists, ranging in ages
from 5 years old to 86 years old, have autism or Asperger's syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism.
A few of the artists have learning disabilities, including severe dyslexia or attention deficithyperactivity
disorder. Some of the artists, like Jonathan, have been identified as being in the rare category of autistic
savants, where they demonstrate an exceptional level skill and understanding in a particular area in
this case, art.
The 63 pieces of art pencil drawings, charcoal, watercolors and oil paintings are on permanent display
in the recently opened M.I.N.D. Institute buildings. A number of the pieces are also featured on the M.I.N.D.
Institute Web site at www.mindinstitute.org.
Jonathan's charcoal drawing in the M.I.N.D. exhibit portrays a woman's face half of which seems fraught
with worry, the other half of which reveals dark shadows beneath an eye and evidence of fatigue. She is
clutching a small boy tightly between both hands. One can't help but wonder if this is how Jonathan sees
his mother, caught up in all of her concerns in caring for him.
"Art is a beautiful form of communication and for many individuals with autism who live in utter isolation
from the rest of the world, it is one of the few ways that they are able to be brilliantly expressive,"
said Robert Hendren, executive director of the M.I.N.D. Institute. "The pieces on display are positive
reminders of the potential for people with this disorder."
Autism is a complex and severe developmental disorder that affects a persons ability to communicate,
form relationships with others and respond appropriately to their environment. Children typically do not
engage in social play or games with their peers. Those affected may also avoid making eye contact and
lack the ability to read faces for signs of emotion or other cues, making it all the more impressive to
see how Jonathan's portraits convey so much emotional detail.
For Jonathan's parents, his art has finally given them a window into his soul and what's happening inside