Can being born on the autism spectrum really give you an unfair advantage in life? This question is a tad trite for despite the initial handicaps of the condition, for about one hundred people worldwide, this seems to be the case, at least in some aspects. Autism seem to enable some people with it to engage parts of the brain not accessible to people without the condition. Stephen Wiltshire is an autistic savant architectural artist, known for his ability to draw landscapes from memory after seeing it just once. His work has gained worldwide popularity and acclaim.
Born in London, England, to Caribbean parents in 1974, Stephen Wiltshire grew up in Little Venice, Maida Vale, London. Wiltshire was mute when young, and he was diagnosed with autism at the age of three; the year his father died in a motorbike accident.
Wiltshire was sent to Queensmill School in London at the age of five, and he soon expressed interest in drawing. His early illustrations depicted animals and cars. He is still extremely interested in American cars and is said to have an encyclopedic knowledge of them.
Around the age of seven, Wiltshire became fascinated with sketching landmark London buildings. After seeing a book of photos showing the devastation wrought by earthquakes, he began to create detailed architectural drawings of imaginary cityscapes. His instructors at Queensmill School recognized his love of drawing as a channel to make him talk; his instructors would take away his art supplies thus forcing him to learn to ask for them. At first he just made sounds but eventually uttered his first word—”paper.” He would be nine years old before he learned to speak fully, thanks to his teachers’ encouragement of his drawing.
Soon people outside the school started noticing Stephen’s gift and aged eight he landed his first commission—a sketch of Salisbury Cathedral for the former Prime Minister Edward Heath. When he was ten, Wiltshire drew a sequence of drawings of London landmarks, one for each letter, that he called a “London Alphabet.“
He also draws fictional scenes, for example, St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by flames.
In 2010, Wiltshire’s panorama of Hamilton donated to raise funds for and awareness of Autism Spectrum Australia (Aspect) fetched over $22,000 at the Bermuda National Gallery.
Wiltshire’s 250-foot long panoramic memory drawing of New York is now displayed on a giant billboard at John F. Kennedy International Airport. It is a part of a global advertising campaign for the Swiss bank UBS that carries the theme “We will not rest”, according to The New York Times.
In July 2014, Wiltshire drew an aerial panorama of the Singapore skyline from memory after a brief helicopter ride, taking five days to complete the 1 x 4m artwork. The artwork was presented to President Tony Tan as the Singapore Press Holding (SPH)’s gift to the nation in celebration of Singapore’s 50th birthday in 2015, and will be displayed at Singapore City Gallery, visitor center of the country’s urban planning authority, Urban Redevelopment Authority.
Wiltshire has received many accolades and honors for his art, and since 2006, has operated his permanent gallery in the Royal Opera Arcade, Pall Mall, London.