Art workshops and autism

The MMFA announces results of a promising study on the perception of works of art by people with autism

Participating in an art workshop appears to influence the way people on the autism spectrum perceive a work of art. This was the finding of a study conducted at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) by neurobiologist Bruno Wicker.

The aim of the research project, which was launched in September 2017, was to explore the cognitive and emotional mechanisms that come into play in the perception of works of art – in this case, paintings – in people with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome and in neurotypical people. The study’s participants took part in visits to observe and share ideas on works in the Museum’s collection, as well as in art workshops.

… people with ASD have a different way of perceiving information in an artistic context.

The study found that the two above mentioned groups looked at works very differently. While neurotypical people have a very similar way of looking at a painting (focusing on figurative and social elements, such as a face, for example), researcher Bruno Wicker observed highly variable centres of interest among participants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These results underscore the fact that people with ASD have a different way of perceiving information in an artistic context.

Even more interesting, the analyses showed significant changes in looking behaviour among people with ASD before and after they participated in the observation and creative workshops at the Museum. The findings suggest that the workshop influenced their perception of works of art. This could be the result of integrating information learned beforehand in the workshops that influence the processing of perceptual information (top-down processes).

Encouraging outlook

It is often reported that the ability of people with ASD for expression and visual understanding differs from that of neurotypical people. Their way of perceiving the world and decoding emotions can trigger anxiety and affect their social relationships. The results of the study indicate that art workshops have potential benefits for their empathetic and socio-emotional capabilities.

“The study shows that these sessions at the Museum had an impact on the way participants perceive paintings. The findings encourage us to promote the implementation of creative workshops and motivate us to do another study to explore other artistic media such as sculpture,” said Bruno Wicker, a researcher with the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives du CNRS (France) and guest researcher with the psychology department at the Université de Montréal (UdeM).

“Through the Museum’s program The Art of Being Unique, which offers activities designed for neurodiverse people, many of whom are on the autism spectrum, we have long seen that art activities play a role in reinforcing their ability to interpret and express emotions. The findings of Mr. Wicker’s preliminary study confirm the potential of this program, which is vital to the participants’ well-being,” added Thomas Bastien, the MMFA’s Director of Education and Wellness.

About the study

This study into the perception of works of art by people on the autism spectrum was conducted by Bruno Wicker, a researcher with the CNRS cognitive neurosciences laboratory and visiting researcher with the UdM’s psychology department, in collaboration with the MMFA. Eighty people aged 18 to 49, comprising two groups of neurotypical adults and people with ASD took part in 10 visits and workshops at the MMFA, led by a museum mediator. The researcher measured the main feelings sparked by looking at a work of art — before and after the workshops — using the Eye Tribe system, which records the participants’ eye movements and pupil dilation. Emotional responses (heart rate and electrodermal resistance) were also compared. The promising findings of this study, which was conducted between September 2017 and November 2018, will be the subject of an upcoming publication.

About Bruno Wicker

Bruno Wicker holds a doctorate in human biology (neuroscience option) and is a research with the cognitive neurosciences lab at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France. He is also a visiting professor with the UdM’s psychology department. Since 2001, he has focused his research on identifying the brain bases for socio-emotional behaviours and their dysfunctions in autism and Asperger’s syndrome. He chairs the scientific committee of the John Bost Foundation and is a scientific advisor with the Autism & Asperger Clinic of Montreal.

The MMFA: new ground for research

The Museum relies on research projects to validate the real benefits of art and make improvements to its programs. In 2019, more than 10 studies relating to health and well-being will make it possible to evaluate and improve many of the pilot projects developed by the Museum in partnership with art therapists, healthcare professionals and academic researchers. The MMFA is now a bona fide research laboratory that aims to scientifically assess the impact of art on health. And the studies to date prove it: art is good for you!

Image: Mikaël Theimer (MKL)

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Boasting more than 1.3 million visitors annually, the MMFA is one of Canada’s most visited museums and the eighth-most visited museum in North America. The Museum’s original temporary exhibitions combine various artistic disciplines – fine arts, music, film, fashion and design – and are exported around the world. Its rich encyclopedic collection, distributed among five pavilions, includes international art, world cultures, decorative arts and design, and Quebec and Canadian art. For more information, consult the Website

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