The artistry of a teenager
‘Hello Stephen,' said Dustin Hoffman. ‘What's your name?'
‘My name is Stephen Wiltshire,' Stephen replied. ‘I am aged 15 and I was born in 1974.' Dustin smile. ‘I bet you don't know when I was born?' ‘Fifties?' Forties?' Stephen asked. ‘Worse than that.' Stephen beamed, looked round the room, but didn't answer. ‘The 30s,' said Dustin. Stephen continued beaming. A conversation hardly worth mentioning, except that Stephen is autistic, and, until he was seven years old, virtually mute.
It was then that he started drawing buildings. After the merest glance, or sometimes hours later from memory, he has been able to reproduce what he has seen with spot-on accuracy and faultless perspective. He belongs to the small group of autistic savants who live in an often-tormented inner world of their own and have one exceptional highly developed talent. It was one of these extraordinary people whom Dustin Hoffman portrayed so brilliantly in his Oscar-winning performance in Rain Man – and we thought that while Dustin was in London where from June 1, he will be performing as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice), it would be a good opportunity for the two of them to get together.
Stephen's artistic ability has had a marked effect on his life. The more he draws, so far, the more he has come out of his shell. He has even been on drawing expeditions to New York and Parsi, the results of which can be seen in a book called Cities, to be published on June 1. There are not many teenage artists who have their drawings published, let alone have them accompanied by the following comment by Sir Hugh Casson, former president of the Royal Academy. ‘His sense of perspective seems to be faultless. I've never seen in all my competition drawing such a natural and extraordinary talent as this child seems to have.'
There are still fewer 15-year-olds whom possibly the world's greatest actor will go out of his was to meet. What a paradox it therefore is that Stephen, at the moment about the size of a ten-year-old, has no sense of traffic or money and cannot go out on his own: that he cannot form normal relationships or even be left at a friend's house, as his mood changes, although not as violent as they once were, can still be dramatic and immediate. As an autistic child he is totally unpredictable and could lose interest in drawing and life at any time.
I'll admit I was very nervous as we waited for Dustin to take a break in his rehearsals. You can't interview Stephen, even less carry on the sort of conversation you might with a normal 15-year-old.
Words still do not come easily to him and some days he hardly talks at all. Nor can he cope with abstract thought or analyse. You can ask ‘what?' but not ‘how?' or ‘why?' Like all autistic children Stephen is very literal and tends to reply to questions with monosyllables or lists.
But for the actor savant, the autistic savant proved no problem. While researching for Rain Man Dustin met over 50 autistic children and read in numerable books on the subject. He was self-effacing, sensitive and never patronising. He asked Stephen, ‘Do you like Michael Jackson?'
‘I like Kim Wilde, Fergal Sharkey and the Blow Monkeys. I heard the Blow Monkeys' new single, ‘This is Your Life.' I like that. I dance to it sometimes.'
To everyone's total astonishment Stephen suddenly burst into song with elaborate stage gestures, no doubt memorised from his favourite television programme, Top of the Pops, Dustin's expression moved from incredulity to thorough pleasure.
‘What key do you sing in?' he asked when Stephen finished. Stephen just beamed.
‘Have you seen Rain Man? Dustin asked.
‘I saw on TV that Dustin Hoffman won an Oscar award for Rain Man.'
‘But have you seen the movie?' Stephen just beamed. ‘You know, I cannot draw anything, Stephen,' Dustin said.
‘I used to draw when I was seven and at the age of ten, I started drawing buildings. I can trace things and I can copy from photographs. I went to Docklands twice. I went to New York and Paris,' said Stephen.
‘How do you draw so fast?' Stephen didn't answer.
If you look at Big Ben and you don't see it again, do you see it in your mind?' ‘In your mind?' ‘In your mind,' repeated Stephen.
‘Incredible,' said Dustin. ‘Incredible,' said Stephen. He often repeats, with the exact intonation, what you say to him, as if it is his way of bridging the vast chasm that exists between offering a list of facts and not comprehending what you are saying at all.