AND YOU THOUGHT THE CHARACTER Dustin Hoffman played in Rain Man was amazing just because he could calculate the number of spilled toothpicks in the blink of an eye. Consider London-born Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant who can draw or paint any building from memory alter looking at it for just a few minutes. Numerals have no meaning to him, but somehow he manages to get the number of floors or windows or columns exactly right. He has an artistic insight not normally associated with autism. And he is only 17.

Still not impressed? Try this: He can do it without looking at the paper he's drawing on. "I remember one particular occasion," says his art teacher, Chris Marris. "I was watching him, and I thought, 'The pen's going around the paper on its own. He's not looking at it. It's like some unseen force driving it along.' "

In fact Stephen would much rather look at cars than buildings. Especially American cars, But don't ask him which cars, because he'll tell you. A recent verbal catalog included 42 favorites: "A 1972 Chevrolet Impala four-door salon coupe and convertible, Buick Electra, Chrysler New Yorker..." There is one other oddity here: Stephen is terrified of traffic. He has yet to learn how to cross the street alone.

Conversations with Stephen can be a little one-sided. He tends to be a walking list. His favorite subjects—other than cars—are 20th-century earthquakes, building demolitions and television, including movies. "I watched a Burt Reynolds film yesterday, B.L. Stryker," he says. "I like the Superman favorites, late '70s and into the '80s. I like Police Academy." He has seen Rain Man four times and sometimes recites entire scenes verbatim while drawing. He may identify with Hoffman's character; on the other hand he may simply identify with Hoffman. They met in London while the actor was performing in The Merchant of Venice.

Stephen is a phenomenon in Britain, where the press has dubbed him "Child Picasso" and "Rain Boy." Three books of his drawings have been published there; the last, Floating Cities, was No. 1 on the London Times best-seller list earlier this year. Now Stephen is making a return visit to America, which he first saw in 1988, and Floating Cities is being published in the U.S. early next year. He will start touring the country this summer, eventually visiting eight cities. "America is his favorite place," says his literary agent and mother hen, Margaret Hewson. "All that soaring verticality. He absolutely adores it. He calls it 'the great brand new.' "

Stephen is the son of poor immigrants from the Caribbean. When he was 3, his father, Colvin, was killed motorcycling. The following year Stephen—withdrawn, mute and prone to temper tantrums—was diagnosed as autistic. He was taken to London's Queensmill School, a special school for children with what educators call complex needs.

Instead of isolating him with other autistic children, Headmistress Lorraine Cole followed her usual practice and assigned him to a small group of relatively normal students. That helped, but over the years the key to unlocking Stephen proved to be art class. He started drawing everything in sight and by the age of 9 began talking. "I thought his work was absolutely outstanding," Chris Marris says. "Here was a 7-year-old drawing things like St. Paul's Cathedral. We would visit these places, and he'd come back and draw amazing things from memory."

And what he does can truly be regarded as art. "He's not like a Xerox," says the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks (the model for the character played by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings), who has taken an interest in Stephen's case. "He gives you an idea about what things are like, sometimes adding to them in his own way. It's uncanny how he can bring out the essence of something which is new to him."

Because Stephen has a mental age of about 10, his earnings are in a trust administered by his mother, Geneva, and his former headmistress. "The aim is to make Stephen as autonomous as possible," Margaret Hewson says. "He will always need looking after. I don't think he could ever live independently."

So his future is secure except for one question: Might he someday stop using his superskills, something that happens occasionally with autistic savants? Those around him don't think so. "I was told his talent would probably disappear when he reached puberty," says Hewson. "But we've passed all that, and his drawings have become very sophisticated, very mature." So have his interests. He hasn't discovered girls yet. But he sure would like a car—even if he has trouble crossing the street to get to it.

JOE TREEN
JOHN WRIGHT in London

  • Contributors:
  • John Wright.