Jan 19, 2015

    Autistic teen's amazing sketches draw attention


    A LOT of us can doodle, but when Yap Hanzhen sketches, people take notice.

    His precise attention to detail, measurement and shading is eye-catching. What makes him even more special is that he is only 16 and an autistic savant.

    Hanzhen is a fledgling artist who sketches using a 3B pencil. His interest lies in sketching still life and animals.

    When he draws, he does not seem to have a pre-conceived idea of how an object would appear in the end. He sees objects in incredible detail and interprets them in an ornate fashion.

    "The image stays in my mind for 10 hours... no, six hours... (sometimes) 24 hours," said Hanzhen with the help of his mother, Yvonne Yap Yok Wan, in an e-mail interview.

    Added Mrs Yap: "We believe he sees the image as a whole, like a camera. That probably explains how he can draw with such speed, consistency and quantity. He has drawn a total of 407 sketches in 31/2 years!"

    Hanzhen creates confident lines, drawing exactly what he sees in a quirky manner, usually applying minor shading to distinguish planes, depths and shadows. His sketches of animals and insects - such as cats, dogs, butterflies and elephants - have caught the attention of international boutique house Velvet Series. Discussions are under way for commissioned works.

    Some of his sketches were shown at the JB-Tokyo ParaArt Exchange 2015 exhibition in Johor Baru, which ended yesterday.

    Hanzhen finds sketching buildings especially gratifying and has published a book titled Johor Bahru, My City, My Heritage, which showcases historic buildings in the southern city.

    On what he likes to draw best, he said: "I choose the ones I like the most. I like Sydney Town Hall because I like the clock. It has a lot of details.

    "It takes me six days to sketch difficult ones and three days for easy ones. If I think it's incorrect, I erase a little bit and redo it to perfection. My perfect sketch is of Arulmigu temple!"

    Hanzhen was diagnosed with autism at two. He could not speak and was put through vigorous intervention programmes to learn basic skills. He has always been a visual learner, being able to memorise what he sees.

    "Technically, we were not told Hanzhen was autistic. We discovered it ourselves from books and Internet research. We even had to convince doctors, family members and friends that it is not hearing impairment or poor parenting," said his mother.

    "After accepting the diagnosis, we quickly got our act together and started teaching him basic communication skills."

    Both architects, Mrs Yap and her husband Yap Yew Peng taught their son speech and reading by pairing every word with a thumbnail sketch. Together, they drew everything around the house. As his vocabulary and reading skills improved, his speech progressed.

    Instead of drawing in a sketchbook, they made him draw on art block sheets, with the intention of archiving his works. That was in August 2011.

    He has held 26 exhibitions in Johor Baru, Malacca, Singapore, Tokyo and Incheon.

    Approximately one in 10 people with autism spectrum disorder have savant skills. Hanzhen's savant-like skills extend to playing the piano and maths.

    He also has a good memory when it comes to calendar dates. When given a random date in the past or future, he is able to tell what day of the week it is.

    "Hanzhen virtually grew up sitting next to me (after outgrowing his excessive crying). He sees a lot of what we do in the office. He also grew up with lots of our architectural sketches lying around the house. He does not say much, but occasionally expresses his liking for certain types of drawings," said Mrs Yap.

    "While having overcome many aspects of autism, Hanzhen is still rather obsessed with perfection. Fortunately, this trait has turned out to be an asset rather than a hindrance. He will persevere until he is satisfied with a sketch."

    The Yaps have extensive plans for the savant. His sketch of the historic Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca was one of the winning entries in the Asia ParaArt Tokyo 2013 competition, and earned him a spot in a travelling exhibition to various airport locations in Japan, together with other Asian artists.

    The teenager is presently in Year Seven at an international school with peers of the same age group. Academically, he excels in subjects such as maths and accounting, but is not so good with languages.

    "It isn't easy for him at school. Some amount of bullying for this age group is common. So far, he has coped pretty well," said Mrs Yap.

    What does the youngster aspire to be?

    "My ambition is to be an artist, a musician and a student. I do six hours of school work and six hours of drawing every day. I want to be better," he said.