There is chaos on the canvas: dominated by a deep blue, daubed with a hint of red and pink and large swathes of yellow, through which the nose of a dark dolphin jumps up from a colourful sea. ‘The Dolphin’, a part of Riots, an exhibition at Art Houz, Chennai, of paintings by students of Footprints, a school for children with autism and other learning difficulties, reflects 16-year-old Naveen’s obsession with animals and bold strokes.

Autism spectrum disorder is a group of complex disorders of the brain, characterised by varying difficulties in social interaction and communication, and repetitive behaviour. The spectrum includes people with average intellectual capabilities to those with severe disabilities that hamper independent living.

Vignesh, 15, peers shyly from the corner of his eyes, and clumsily shakes my hand when introduced. He walks to the painting behind him and points to ‘Lily Pond’, a canvas layered with shades of green and a dash of fuchsia revealing two fully formed lilies.

That is all I can get from a peek inside the mind of budding ‘outsider’ artists like Vignesh and Naveen.

No formal training The term ‘outsider art’, coined in 1972 by Roger Cardinal, is synonymous with Jean Dubuffet’s art brut. It is an all-encompassing term for art created by people without formal training, with mental illnesses or other neurological disorders, and also by those on the margins of society. For instance, the Outsider Art Fair 2015 in New York showcased works by Indian tribal artists.

Cut off from mainstream art circles, exhibitions and shows, the genius of outsider artists surfaces rarely, often too late, and posthumously. For art by children at Footprints to see the light of day, even in smaller exhibitions at established art galleries, is a feat.

Naveen’s mother Malathi Srinivasan, co-founder of Footprints, says, “From the first time he saw animals in picture books, he was utterly obsessed with them. He would run his hands over the pictures as if he could feel the animals.” When looking at his painting of elephants, you too can almost feel the texture of the skin in the layers of grey and purple that cover the painting. In yet another painting called ‘Cascade’, you wonder if the blue strokes on top are of the river flowing down or the water rising to the sky.

“Naveen started painting when he was seven. He started with join-the-dots, but now he is his own master. Initially we had to show him pictures, but now, it comes from him,” says Usha Ravishankar, co-founder of Footprints and Naveen’s tutor. His concept of colour scheme, lines and depth is unique and speaks a language of its own.

Discovering themselves Footprints aims to help students cope with mainstream academics but Usha says discovering the talent of their students has led them on a different path.

Even as Naveen was discovering himself, another student Muthukumaran, 16, became interested in art. She recalls, “He used to watch Naveen paint. When we gave him some paint and brushes, he started to shed tears of joy!” Of the 135 paintings shown, 40 were by Naveen and 30 by Muthukumaran.

I ask Malathi and Usha if they are interested in taking original work to larger audiences. They acknowledge that the exhibition is a step towards that direction but Usha quickly adds: “A public exhibition of art by our students has nothing to do with what the public thinks about it. It has everything to do with what the child and parents feel about it.”