Malaysia autistic teen sees image 'like a camera', draws amazing sketches

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - A lot of us can doodle but when Yap Hanzhen sketches, people take notice.

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

Yap is a fledgling young artist who sketches using a 3B pencil. His interest lies in sketching still-life objects and animals; from the way he draws, he appears to not have a pre-conceived idea of how the 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," says Yap, with the help of his mother, Yvonne Yap Yok Wan, in an-email interview.

Adds Yvonne: "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 three-and-a-half years!"

Yap creates confident lines, drawing exactly what he sees in a quirky manner, usually applying minor shading to distinguish planes, depths and shadows. (Check out some of his works here.)

His sketches of iconic animals and insects, such as cats, dogs, butterflies and elephants, have caught the attention of an international boutique house - Velvet Series. Discussions are under way for commissioned works.

Some of his sketches are currently being exhibited at the JB-Tokyo ParaArt Exchange 2015, Doubletree by Hilton, Johor Baru. The exhibition is a collaboration with ParaArt of Nippon Charity Kyokai Foundation in Tokyo, Japan, and also features works by other disabled artists.

Yap finds sketching buildings especially gratifying and has published a book entitled Johor Bahru, My City, My Heritage, which showcases historical buildings in the southern city.

On what he likes to draw best, Yap says: "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 re-do it to perfection. My perfect sketch is of Arulmigu temple!"

Yap was diagnosed with autism at age two. He had no speech and was put through vigorous intervention programmes to learn basic skills. All along, he was a visual learner and could memorise what he saw.

"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 experience.

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

Both architects, Yvonne 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 to archive his works. That was in August 2011. To date, he has held 26 exhibitions in various locations around Johor Baru, Malacca, Singapore, Tokyo, Japan, and Incheon, South Korea.

Approximately one in 10 persons with autism spectrum disorder have savant skills. Yap's savant-like skills extend to playing the piano and mathematics. He also has a good memory for calendar dates. When given any random date in the past or the future, he is able to tell what day of the week it is.

Yvonne says: "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 liking for certain types of drawings.

"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 historical 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 7 at an international school with age-group peers. Academically, he excels in certain subjects, such as mathematics and accounting, but he 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," says Yvonne.

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 says.

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