How artist and doctor Jonny Acheson uses art therapy for Parkinson’s disease

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I was reminded of the popular adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” when a Parkinson Secrets blog post popped up on my Twitter feed. Titled “How LEGO Became a Tool for Teaching Parkinson’s Disease: A Father-Daughter Journey,” the post includes an interview with Dr. Jonny Acheson, who is the artist and co-author of the blog.

Acheson, an emergency medicine doctor at the University Hospitals of Leicester in the UK, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2016. When her daughter pointed out the similarities between Lego minifigures and people with Parkinson’s disease, Acheson began drawing Lego people with symptoms of Parkinson’s.

When I saw the images included in the blog post, I thought they were awesome. Sometimes I feel like a Lego girl, and it reminded me that I’m not alone.

(Courtesy of Jonny Acheson Art)

To learn more about Acheson and his art, I reached out and spoke to him via email and Zoom. I found him to be an inspiration. Here are excerpts from our conversations, lightly edited for clarity.

LD: How did you get started in the art of Parkinson’s disease?

JA: I always drew as a child and a bit during my medical studies, but I found that when I started working in the hospital, the long hours meant that I no longer had the time. However, two years after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, I lifted my pencil and notepad again.

Initially, I drew the story of the diagnosis through my daughter’s eyes, which in hindsight has been a coping mechanism. Following this, I decided to draw educational art around the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, both motor and non-motor, and some medication side effects. To do this I took the letters in the word of a particular symptom and attempted to draw a comic strip around it describing what it might do for someone who doesn’t feel what it is. living every day with Parkinson’s disease.

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How do you think art benefits people with Parkinson’s disease?

Art has been very beneficial to me in my journey with Parkinson’s disease. It gave me an outlet that was not only creative, but also educational. I find it relaxing. It helps me to concentrate and I am able to concentrate better and for longer.

In my mind, I was more creative when I took a higher dose of dopamine agonist. The ideas just flowed. I was doing a sketch, and the idea for the next one was there. I completed the collection of 32 described symptoms of Parkinson’s disease in about four months. I sold them for Parkinson’s charities, but now they can be downloaded for free from my website.

I have also drawn satirical cartoons on emergency medicine and produced the Royal College of Emergency Medicine calendar in 2019 and 2020. However, over time I realized that drawing on Parkinson’s disease and medicine emergency while living with one and working with the other was not healthy.

Now I am on a lower dose of an agonist. Ideas are still circulating, but in a more normal way. I now draw mostly for fun, including blog illustrations for [Parkinson Secrets blog co-authors] Dr Michael Okun and Dr Indu Subramanian, animal art and child animal art.

My symptoms were initially on the left side and didn’t impact my art at all as I am right handed. However, recently I’ve noticed that the lines aren’t as straight or as smooth when I run out. Therefore, I draw when I know I will be on it.

What is your favorite track?

My favorite piece is the non-sexist, non-racial, educational symptom figure. It incorporates both invisible motor and non-motor symptoms as well as medication side effects. I like it because not only does it offer an alternative to [1886] image of an older man leaning forward with advanced Parkinson’s disease, this is an image that anyone with Parkinson’s disease can relate to when looking at it. They might just see something in it for themselves.

art therapy for Parkinson's disease |  Parkinson's News Today |  A side by side comparison of Jonny Acheson's modern Parkinson's figure and a Parkinson's figure drawn in 1886. Acheson's figure depicts a body with various symptoms of Parkinson's written on it.  The older Parkinson's figure depicts an older man leaning slightly forward.

Jonny Acheson’s figure of Parkinson, left, and Sir William Richard Gowers’ 1886 figure of Parkinson, right. (Courtesy of Jonny Acheson Art)

Another favorite piece is similar to the symptom figure [and] was published in the latest MDT book [“Parkinson’s Disease: A Multidisciplinary Guide to Management”] on Parkinson’s care. It incorporates management strategies for living well with Parkinson’s as much as possible every day.

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While these drawings are Acheson’s favorite pieces, two of his videos are the work that touched me the most. He uses a series of simple images to create a story he never intended to tell — the story of his Parkinson’s through the eyes of his children. The videos, which can be viewed here and here, are heartwarming and educational for all ages, but especially for the children in our lives.

I encourage you to see more of Acheson’s artwork on his website and share it to promote awareness of Parkinson’s disease.


To note: News about Parkinson’s disease today is strictly a disease news and information site. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to replace professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of anything you read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of News about Parkinson’s disease today or its parent company, BioNews, and aim to spark discussion about issues relating to Parkinson’s disease.

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