Eileen Miller: The Girl Who Spoke with Pictures
Prodigious ability in any form has always drawn our attention, let alone in someone with the social and communication deficits accompanying autism. However, as fascinating as savants may be, as much as we may be drawn to the unusual, the abnormal, and rare, that is not what this book is about. The Girl Who Spoke with Pictures, by Eileen Miller, is about an autistic woman with a considerable talent in art. But any reader will quickly realize that this book is not just a partial biography of the early life of an autistic savant or an exhibition of this young woman’s work simply to showcase her ability. Kim Miller’s work, and ultimately this book, is about communication. The reader soon realizes that the author/mother is not writing this book to brag; instead it is the story of how an autistic person has trained her considerable artistic talent to be her voice and how that has allowed her an alternate avenue to connect with the world and the people around her in ways that words and gestures could not.
In an impressive fashion, Eileen Miller has provided a detailed and thought provoking anecdotal history of her daughter’s life, interweaving 92 of her daughter’s drawings and paintings into the text to illustrate the presented themes. She has also dated each illustration with Kim’s age to show a considerable narrative of the development of this young woman’s artistic skill from ages 3 1/2 onwards. Undoubtedly, the reader will be struck not only by Kim’s talent but by the revelation of her insightfulness through her artwork, that someone with such challenges in communication can express herself so fluidly and succinctly with line, form, and shadow.
The author also takes the opportunity not only to relate her daughter’s talent in visual communication, but to teach the reader more about the condition that defines Kim’s life and has affected their family both positively and negatively. She not only uses and defines terms such as “stimming” (p. 26) and “perseverating” (p. 51) for the reader, but also gives examples of helpful parenting methods when raising an autistic child: “One of the strategies for cutting down on [Kim’s] auditory hypersensitivity is to be aware and to limit the amount of sound at home… There is no way to block out every disturbing noise; however, we don’t have to subject her to noise needlessly” (pp. 43–44). Despite the fact that Miller reviews some of the methods which have helped improve her daughter’s and her family’s qualities of life, she also stresses that every autistic person is unique and individual, and while one person, such as Kim for example, may struggle with extreme auditory sensitivity, every autistic person’s strengths and weaknesses are particular to him or her alone.
Eileen Miller’s views about her daughter’s autism are refreshing in an age when media representations of autism tend to be saturated with negativity and desperation. While Miller doesn’t ignore or sugar-coat her daughter’s day-to-day struggles, she instead presents a respectful picture of an autistic person whose life is meaningful precisely as it is, differences included. In this regard, the author allows the compassion and logic of her opinions to pervade the text, rather than attempting to construct factual arguments.
The message of this book is one most readers could appreciate, whether they are professionals, laypeople, caregivers of autistic people, autistic people themselves, artists, or just interested parties. This is not a book-bound exhibition in which Miller has chosen to showcase her daughter’s talent. Miller shows us that, through art, her daughter Kim has better connected with the world. The book illustrates that, even though an autistic person may not appear to react in a social situation in a way most people would expect or understand that he or she is not necessarily reacting internally. Kim’s art has allowed the reader a window into her thoughts which her outward demeanor would have otherwise rarely revealed. And it is for this reason that this book is a worthwhile read for anyone who wishes to understand more about cognition in autism.
While the story and the message of this book are unique and impressive, at times the themes of the book are disorganized. While each chapter is headed with its own topic and contains multiple subtopics, the content strays from the headings occasionally and is not always presented in chronological order. In addition, while the story is well worth the read, the style of writing, while insightful, is average. And it is inevitably disappointing to read a book which contains artwork but which fails to list specifics about each work, such as the media used and the canvas size.
However, these criticisms aside, the story of Kim Miller’s young life as told by her mother, Eileen Miller, will undoubtedly offer insight to anyone wishing to learn more about the inner workings of autism. In an age when biographies abound and bookstore shelves are weighted down daily with yet another person’s personal story, this book is just one more. But it is a worthwhile account because the face of autism, as both Millers would undoubtedly say, is made up of many faces. And while it is the goal of most clinicians and researchers to generalize aspects of symptomatology in order to treat a broader range of people, it is far too easy to forget the unique qualities of every person that defy categorization. The Girl Who Spoke with Pictures is a biography that reminds us of the human individuality in autism.