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Images: details from the artwork of Raj Singh Tattal.


Sikh-Briton Artist Raj Singh Tattal:
How He Turned a Diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome To Advantage





At the age of 38, artist Raj Singh Tattal was unemployed and depressed.

Then he received a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome and everything changed.

Raj -- also known as the "Pen-Tacular-Artist" -- now finally understands his obsessive tendency to draw pictures for hours on end. It is a common symptom of the autism spectrum disorder.

He has learned to let the condition drive his creativity, and this year he has four exhibitions lined up in his hometown, London.

Raj talks about his obsessions, support networks and being part of the Sikh community.

Q   How does Asperger's Syndrome affect you?

  I'm very obsessive. Where other people might take a month, each of my drawings takes four days. I'm very reclusive as well - I probably spend 95% of the time by myself.

I don't really like change. I haven't been out of London for 12 years, I have multiple pairs of the same trainers and I've eaten baked beans every day for 20 years.

Some of this stuff sounds quite trivial, but over time it starts annoying people around you.

When I'm at home I don't sit with my family in the living room and have only started eating downstairs to try and make an effort. People used to think I was depressed because I was in my room but actually I was depressed when I had to leave it.

I started drinking over the years to try and fit in with people and have had friends in the past, but at the moment I have zero friends. I don't drink, I just draw - and I am the happiest I've ever been.

Q   How has your life changed since the diagnosis?

A   Once I got diagnosed, I decided to change my lifestyle.

Rather than use my obsessive nature on silly things like games or films, I decided to focus on drawing.

Q   Drawing used to be a passion, but you hadn't drawn for 11 years until your diagnosis. Why?

  I have such an obsessive nature that when I draw, I don't just do it now and then, I put in ridiculous hours.

That's not very good for looking for work or trying to work, so I had to stop.

When I started again, I decided to go full force. I've been practising drawing for 14 months in my room.

I knew the standard I wanted to get to and now that I'm there, I'm happy to show my work to people.

  What are your drawings like?

A   They are all black and white, graphite and charcoal drawings. I don't do one particular subject. I've done a lot of comic-based drawings and I'm doing some artwork on emotions, people in distress. It's not because I'm a morbid person but because I've gone through a really dark space. I relate to the sad ones.

  What's it like being a Sikh on the spectrum?

  I've been going to my support group for a year and I've only ever met one other Asian person. That's not because Asian people don't have Asperger's Syndrome, it's because Asian people tend to cover it up. It's not something they really talk about. If I was from a white English family, people would have picked up my symptoms very young because I was a typical Asperger's kid.

I'm now slowly telling my relatives - who I don't even know because I'm so reclusive. I've started talking to them over Facebook because I want to make an effort now.

Q   What do you gain by going to a support group?

A   I've always hated myself, because I'm a pretty intelligent guy -- I managed to get myself a degree -- but after so many problems, I started to think that I was a failure. People make you feel like you're a bad person because you can't do certain things.

Going (to the support group), you see people who are similar to you and you realise that they're really good people. It makes you look at yourself in a different way.

I would recommend anybody who's on the spectrum -- or even thinks they are -- just to turn up. Even if you are depressed, it is nice and comforting to speak to other people who can give you advice and help you out.

Q   Why did you give a present to your local gurdwara?

A   When you start a new career, you normally give a gift. The present is a drawing of the Tenth Master, Guru Gobind Singh Ji. He has the heart of a saint and the body of a warrior and I've always aspired to be like that.



February 18, 2014





Conversation about this article

1: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, USA), February 18, 2014, 9:45 AM.

Bravo, Raj! You are awesome. I love the detailed expressions. Where can we see more of your work? Perhaps you would like to start a support group for Asian kids with autism? You will be a great hero to many a kid out there.

2: Jagbir Singh Khalsa (Birmingham, United Kingdom), February 18, 2014, 10:38 AM.

I congratulate Raj ji from the bottom of my heart. Having suffered from a mental illness myself - even if not as life-changing as his - I am now advocating the treatment and different approach to mental illnesses in the Asian community, which is still stuck in their cultural imprint. It is a sad fact that people with mental illnesses are still being treated as "the village fool", who you keep out of society. It is a sad fact that the majority of Asians in Western Society are being treated so badly that they succumb to their various forms of depression and even commit suicide. A very inhumane attitude, which is additionally very much against the teachings of our revered Gurus.

3: Manpreet Singh (Canton, Michigan, USA), February 18, 2014, 11:04 AM.

Chardi Kalaa .. Har Maidan Fateh!

4: Baldev  (Bradford, United Kingdom), February 18, 2014, 11:39 AM.

This story has hit all the major UK news outlets! The drawing of the Sikh Military men is quite powerful. However, I am a bit uneasy about the depiction of Sikh 'religious' themes and especially the depiction of our Gurus, although the reference to their awesomeness like Guru Gobind Singh 'having the heart of a saint and the body of a warrior' was a great description by Raj Singh to use such powerful words where ordinary Sikhs would perhaps only mention close family members in such a manner. So, well done, Raj Singh, for telling your story about the power of the human brain and mind and its extraordinary ability to do things which are beyond belief!

5: Harcharan SIngh (Singapore), February 19, 2014, 2:44 AM.

Wow! What marvellous paintings? Can we buy them? They are so detailed. I am keen on your work as I love and appreciate art, artists and their creations. In fact I would like a book about you and your work and experiences. Where can I get more?

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How He Turned a Diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome To Advantage"

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