Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as a toddler, Hanzhen learnt to recognise words by illustrating everyday objects with the help of his architect parents. It wasn’t long before his parents discovered that their son was able to sketch whatever he saw in incredible detail. This autistic savant* from Malaysia has since won an award and several commissions for his work. Hanzhen shares his aspirations and passion for art with travel360.com.
*Autistic savant refers to individuals with autism who have extraordinary skills not exhibited by most persons. There are many forms of savant abilities. The most common forms involve mathematical calculations, memory feats, as well as artistic and musical abilities.
NOTE: Hanzhen’s answers are followed by notes by his parents, Yap Yew Peng and Yvonne Yap.
How old were you when you began sketching?
Hanzhen: I began drawing in a sketchbook when I was about 11 years old and later, moved on to sketching on art paper.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen didn’t speak until he was about three and a half years old and even then, he couldn’t express himself clearly. We discovered he responded to visuals, and so, we began sketching objects around the house, relating each sketch to a word to help him remember everyday items. At first they were just simple thumbnail sketches but slowly, Hanzhen insisted on adding details. This ‘vocabulary’ training became a routine with Hanzhen sketching several objects a day. When he ran out of things around the house, he began sketching things he saw outside.
Did drawing come naturally to you?
Hanzhen: Mom taught me how to draw trees and all the things in the garden. I practised drawing in the sketchbook with Pa. We drew all the things in the house. Then, I began drawing people, family and things I saw in books – my favourites were pictures from Sesame Street’s Big Bird’s Story Time.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: As architects, we always had sketches lying around the house and Hanzhen was used to seeing them. However, Hanzhen himself is gifted with a visual memory that allows him to draw with amazing accuracy. For example, we found he could sketch pictures from a book he had read a year prior with accurate detail. Also, he could draw a scene, flip the page over and continue the drawing without referring to the already completed side, and both pages would match perfectly!
Do you have to think about what you’re going to draw?
Hanzhen: I draw everything I see. For buildings, I start from the left. If not, my right hand will be dirty and all black!
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: He has excellent attention to detail, seeing things in his own way. From the way he draws, he appears not to have a preconceived idea how an object would appear in the end. He sees things that we do not see like half shadows of objects he sketches. Basically, he draws what he sees.
What goes on in your mind when you sketch?
Hanzhen: I think about the many details. I think about my series and my collections.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen has overcome many of the challenges of an autistic person (e.g. difficulties in maintaining eye contact and basic communication skills). He is now able to lead a life rather similar to a ‘normal’ person. However, he is still obsessed with repetitive behaviours and routines. It does appear like the obsessive compulsive trait is more prominent than other aspects of his autism. Completing a series of drawings replete with a numbering list (he keeps very detailed records) gives him much pleasure and satisfaction.
What is your favourite subject to draw?
Hanzhen: Buildings, because I like buildings! My favourite is Cheng Hoon Teng (Chinese temple in Melaka, Malaysia). It’s beautiful.
How long does it take you to produce a sketch?
Hanzhen: A dog – easy, 30 minutes; a rhino – a day; Cheng Hoon Teng temple – one week; Johor Bahru skyline – one and a half weeks.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen remembers exactly how long he took to draw each of his drawings, and that’s a mammoth task, considering he has a total of 391 drawings!
Do you have other talents as well?
Hanzhen: I like to play the piano. I’m also good at mathematics and remembering calendar dates.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen can play more than 10 songs continuously on the piano without the need to refer to music scores. He also has a good memory when it comes to calendar dates and days. When given any date in the past or in the future, he would be able to tell what day of the week it is.
Do you see yourself as different from your peers?
Hanzhen: Yes, I am different from my friends.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen has been told he’s autistic but he is not able to grasp why he is different. However, even before he was told, he appeared to be conscious of being different. Often, when in public or during functions, we see him looking at his brother for cues on how to act.
Do you face challenges at school?
Hanzhen: It is difficult when I don’t know something. Sometimes, I call (telephone) Mom for help.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen started school in 2005 with age-group peers in a mainstream private school that has an international section. He is now in Year 9 of the international school. The school’s greatest gift is the support and acceptance given to him by his circle of friends and teachers. They have looked beyond disability and are able to recognise individual talents. His academic performance is varied. While languages are tough for him, mathematics is a ‘language’ he understands and is at ease with, thus earning him respect from his classmates, despite his quirky social skills.
How would you describe yourself?
Hanzhen: I am 16 years old. I am an artist and a student.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Many autistic individuals excel in pastimes they enjoy as they like the routine. As they say, practice makes perfect. Hanzhen sketches and plays the piano every day without fail. He enjoys the routine and frets when he can’t follow it.
How does it feel to have your art recognised?
Hanzhen: It feels nice…and (I feel) clever.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Although Hanzhen is not very good at expressing himself, he brims with pride when he is praised for his work. Hanzhen’s sketch of Cheng Hoon Teng was among the winning entries in the 2013 Asia ParaArt Tokyo competition. His artworks have been exhibited in his hometown of Johor Bahru (Malaysia), Singapore and Tokyo, Japan. He has also recently completed commissions for the Consul-General of Singapore in Johor Bahru and Double Tree by Hilton, Johor Bahru.
Who is your role model?
Hanzhen: Stephen Wiltshire (autistic savant and artist). He draws skylines.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Hanzhen had the opportunity to watch Wiltshire draw the Singapore skyline when the artist was in the city state in July.
Do you see yourself as a role model for autistic children?
Hanzhen: Yes, follow me to draw and play the piano. It’s easy.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: While Hanzhen’s answer is honest, autism is a spectrum disorder and its severity varies greatly. However, statistically, it is believed that 10 per cent of all autistic kids will turn out to be a savant in one way or another.
What is your ambition?
Hanzhen: I would like to go to university, become an artist and go places.
Yap Yew Peng & Yvonne Yap: Upon completing his O-levels, Hanzhen hopes to get a placement at the reputable Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore to further his art education at the tertiary level.
To learn more about hanzhen and to view an online gallery of his work, visit www.hanzhen.org