Autistic teen's abstract paintings wow collectors

As an autistic teen, Niam Jain doesn't speak much. But ever since the 13-year-old picked up a paintbrush last summer, he's found a way to express himself. The art world is listening.

Technique of mixing and layering colours compared to style of a 'successful mid-career painter'

Niam Jain, 13, an abstract artist with autism, stands beside an unnamed painting, one of his biggest. He worked on this piece for almost six months. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

As an autistic teen, Niam Jain doesn't speak much. But ever since the 13-year-old  picked up a paintbrush last summer, he's found a way to express himself, and the art world is listening.

"I think he's replaced speech," says his mother, Nina Jain. "He can express it any way he wants."

Niam, who lives in Toronto, has autism spectrum disorder, a social communication disorder. Diagnosed at age two, he has minimal speech and comprehension and uses technology to communicate. Niam is in special education class and loves school. 

Last summer Nina Jain bought her son some art supplies to give him something to do.

She never thought it would lead to a passion and a burgeoning career, but soon after she posted Niam's first paintings online, the offers to purchase them started pouring in.
Nina Jain, Niam’s mother, is thrilled her son has embraced painting, and she says he has become calmer and more confident since he started. She believes it’s given him a voice to communicate what he feels and what he sees. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

Some offers were from family and friends. But most came from sharp-eyed collectors like Andrew Cumming, who has spent decades amassing the works of new and established artists.

Cumming even designed his new home to resemble a gallery so that he can showcase his prized works. Among them are two of Niam's first paintings.

He has sold 46 paintings

Niam has already sold 46 paintings across Canada and the U.S. He's made nearly $20,000, and the demand keeps growing.

A Calgary gallery owner spotted his work online and was blown away by the mastery of Niam's technique of mixing and layering colours.

"I don't know how he can do this because this is actually the work of a kind of successful mid-career painter," says Marco Rosada, who owns KontemporaryArt.

"It's hard to find a painter that is so brave and put on a canvas and blend together such difficult colours."

Rosada has been appraising art and representing emerging artists in Europe for decades and now wants to showcase Niam's work abroad. Niam's art is what captured his attention. The fact he's only 13 and autistic is almost incidental, Rosada says.
Art collector Andrew Cumming bought two of Niam’s paintings including Green Waterfalls, one of his early works. Cumming says Niam’s style of layering and texture reminds him of mid- or late-career abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

"There is an entity in contact with him that is dripping down this channel all the information he needs in order to communicate with others because there is no other explanation."

By accident or divine design, Niam's mom says, life has changed very quickly and the best part is how it's transforming her son.

'As a parent you worry'

"I love it," she says. "Most of all when you have a child with autism, who has the degree of autism that Niam has, you know he's not going to be independent and as a parent you worry. What's going to happen when I'm not here? Who's going to take care of him?

"Now that I know he has paintings and he loves to do what he does, he has a reason to get up in the morning and that's really, really important."

Morning and night, whenever inspiration strikes, Niam can be found in his studio, sometimes painting for hours at a time, on more than one canvas at a time.

For this accidental artist, there's no way of knowing what his next creation will be or what will inspire him next. The future is a blank canvas for his imagination.

Teen with Autism Becomes Art Sensation

6 years ago
Duration 7:24
Thirteen year-old Niam Jain can't speak. He's autistic. But he's learned to communicate through painting. And art experts are blown away.


Ioanna Roumeliotis

Senior Reporter

Ioanna Roumeliotis is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC News, The National. She is based in Toronto and covers a wide range of topics for news and current affairs, with a focus on the people behind the issues. Send ideas to Ioanna.Roumeliotis@cbc.ca