May 30, 2017 § 13 Comments
I began thinking about this post through a personal reflection on the contribution of deep connective thought to innovation within my own projects. My focus (naturally) is this style of thinking within the autistic mind and how it might connect to mainstream culture, yet remain unrecognised as autistic in origin.
The obvious follow on from these musings is that there exists a parallel history to mainstream narratives, one of hidden talent and industry which has powered (and continues to power) just about every area of human endeavour. If our net is cast wider to include the entire gamut of neurodivergent minds, we can arrive at the following statements.
Traces of neurodivergent brain activity form a powerful (yet unspoken) web around the globe and across the ages. This web in past and present times supports all areas of human thought. If we turn this round 180 degrees, it can be argued that there will likely be no area of human thought in which neurodivergent brains are not in some way major contributors.
Steve Silberman traces aspects of this history in Neurotribes – what I present here is a flow of thought from personal experience.
Continuing this train of thought I’m struck by the equal knowledge that enforced conformity permeates modern human societies through a bewilderingly comprehensive array of systems beginning with school, in which neurodivergent minds have been assaulted or abandoned (I speak from experience).
In the area of autistic life – the one I know and will therefore stick to – the hidden nature of our toil has been due to ignorance and stigma. I’m certain this applies to most neurodivergences, but will park this larger topic here (with keys in the ignition) for all those other self-advocates to take for a spin.
Autism as a narrowly defined bundle of ‘impairments’ (seen through neuro-normative lenses) allows no possibility of contribution, let alone a fundamental role for such minds in supporting a mainstream culture. As we say in the UK – that is a bit pants.
But hope is on the horizon. The notion that autistics can be all things, because there are visibly so many ways of being autistic, has (at long last) the potential to flourish with the dawn of the neurodiversity paradigm. More of us are ‘coming out’.
I thank each and every one of these incredible pioneers, because they (you) have allowed an opening up of what it means to be autistic, and therefore how to begin the job of navigating and negotiating space for ourselves.
More elbow room – and the all important validation of public funding – is fostering a growing sense of entitlement (yes – a difficult word) within my soul. I feel entitled to a space in this neurotypically dominated world – and it is impossible to understate what a powerful shift this represents. For more than half a century, my journey through life has never felt truly worthy – a life lived as a failed neurotypical is a hard act to sustain with dignity or joy. Now I sense my basic human worth on this planet less fleetingly and more securely – as the incredibly diverse and rich community to which I belong grows around me, and I focus on the allistic friends who can genuinely value and celebrate my difference with me.
In a professional sense I begin to understand that this space I wish to carve for myself should accurately reflect my input, rather than involve continuing misjudgment on neurotypical terms.
What this does in practice, is allow me to begin to say difficult things. My gratitude to the Arts Council for funding my research is without bounds. Yet my research is uncovering issues buried deep within this organisation’s funding structure which are inherently ableist in assumption and unsurprisingly so. Cognitive dissonance is to be expected as this is pioneering work – Arts Council gives with the hand that holds present knowledge about access for disability, but withholds with the hand that isn’t there yet on autism.
Deep connective thinking will be needed to join it all up in my evaluation document. In recent days I’ve begun to recognise the bot like ways of my brain which is capable of mining and sweeping through certain kinds of information in a highly systematic way. Who knew! I struggle deeply with what is called executive function and am dyspraxic.
My handwriting is crap, I’ll fall off a bicycle, I can’t remember what I had for lunch – but I’m finding I can radically restructure a project, with the combined powers of hyper focus and ‘unusual logic’, in the space of a few days.
I’m living the truth that deep connective thinking can be one of the benefits and joys of the autistic brain – and that we lend this truth (this power) to the workplace. I’m of the firm conviction that we in fact often work harder and longer – because we can (hyper focus) and because we have to – but this tricksy notion deserves a post of it’s own.*
But it doesn’t take much of a stretch to multiply my own example by the many other autistic minds at work (and those barred from work through structural and overt ableism). Take that multiplication back through time and you begin to sense the web I began this post with.
I take huge strength from this notion – and I want us all to feel entitled in the best sense of the word.
If nothing else this is what I wish to pass down to my children.
So here’s to us all!
*This observation is partly founded on the knowledge that we are in many cases asked to work against our neurologies to conform, and that we work overtime to survive hostile sensory environments.
May 28, 2017 § 2 Comments
I’m tempted to leave this video right here without any words.
Who needs words when embodiment is so infinitely more expressive? It’s at such moments that I remind myself that words can only translate experience.
Yet the need to translate is there. Even for myself. I need to process what this powerful embodiment means. Writing helps. But I am minded that my words will exclude some friends and colleagues, while my video does not. I’m increasingly aware of mutism and people who can’t access literacy, as I move forward in my professional life. This matters greatly to me. The arts should not be for verbal and text based cultures alone.
As my Arts Council funded research progresses I’m going deeper into my practice roots, and I’m beyond fortunate to be invited to participate in some research group meetings in the US with my autistic colleagues at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley.
This is a joyful connection of parallel and intertwined experience, and a stepping in (via the magic of FaceTime) to a space where all is shared and understood without the need for translations. We get it. We get each other. This is nothing like inhabiting neurotypical spaces.
I even love autistic group FaceTime in this space, unlike my experience of group Skype calls with neurotypical colleagues which felt more like communicating through a tunnel. There is much food for thought in how to approach such professional meetings with my team in future.
One point of comparison is the way in which neurotypical culture seems to demand a more choreographed approach to connection, which is stressful because you have to follow, keep track and co-ordinate responses. This is all about timings.
Imagine something more free flow in the autistic equivalent – where a gentle game of tag allows each participant to follow their own train of thought aloud, to find out where we intersect. This in turn allows a vantage point on the whole (a totality of shared experience) from which our combined pattern recognition skills can happily forage and fruitfully explode. Such beneficial explosions are what make our programmes and our projects function – they fire our understanding and create new pathways for us.
Nothing could be more exciting.
This has prompted me to dig deep into my back catalogue of video work, and hook up some of my earlier neurological explorations. These early experiments are now emerging as the valuable research material I need to help me conceptualise and express my autistic professional methodologies.
I did not know then that I was laying down the foundations for future professional development. The autistic psyche is wise – but can only be allowed to be so when given free range. This is my learning. This is what I most want to share.
May 22, 2017 § 6 Comments
It’s time to talk networking and how it can work against autistic art professionals in particular. I won’t talk beyond my own experience but I hope what I say can apply more widely.
From the outside I appear relatively networked in. I have public funding, and I’m a member of an artists’ studios – I have in the past participated in group shows and events from time to time. I also have incredible collaborators and artists working with me on a group project. As I grow into my autistic self and gather congruence in my life I’m making professional relationships which feel safe and sustaining.
But in a wider sense I struggle with networking in ‘real time’.
Professionally speaking, I fall into the category of ’emerging artist’. I’m not really sure what comes next – possibly being an ‘established’ artist. These are subtlties that barely register with me as an autistic person.
But I do know that generally speaking networking is a significant factor in gaining visibility and access to opportunity and the elusive commodity of gallery space to show work in. I’m less bothered about status but more about finding square footage and audiences.
The practice of a certain kind of networking demands being out in neurotypical spaces – often way out of comfort zone. The majority of professional networking spaces can feel out of reach for many autistic artists, though we’re a varied bunch and some us will be more extrovert and confident in public spaces. Nonetheless we are a group for whom accommodations for networking could open up a whole new world. For now it’s a case of suck it up buttercup.
I’ve been inspired in some of my more recent thinking about this by excellent guidance issued by Shape Arts, for Global Access Awareness Day, 2017.
Access becomes an issue the more we must inhabit neurotypical spaces for professional development and visibility. The more one must perform neurotypicality the more disadvantaged, and ultimately networked out we can become. Physical environments can also be too hostile to our sensory integrity, and we lose out doubly.
For the autistic artist whose social vocabulary includes camouflaging neurology there exists a painful dilemma; to get out there and mingle, with all the attendant drain on functional capacity, or defend against it and experience the consequences of remaining networked out in a real and important ways.
Networking is a sometimes I can but more often I just can’t thing. There can be such lovely and genuine people out there, but what I experience is a bewilderingly fast paced array of possible introductions in a vertiginous sea of knowing faces. And they all seem to know something I don’t.
Art circles can be intensely cliquey and competitive too. I can sense this faster than the average person takes to breathe in and out again. I have to be here and play power games? Ugh no.
I recently turned down a very high level networking opportunity indeed, for self-protection. Alienation is bad enough – who wants it with knobs on?!
I do know some autistic artists who would make the opposite call and suffer, and I know ones who wouldn’t make it inside the building. Either way – they’re all heroic to me. I know what guts it takes to handle this kind of stress.
Each of us has to make that call, and I usually bail, preferring instead to focus on what I can do, and what works for me. I guess this is the point I’m trying to make. Exploring helpful means of being there so that opportunity is not lost, and/or initiating and inhabiting new kinds of networks of opportunity. Working the systems to autistic advantage to locate alternative sites of influence.
I’ve recently tried asking for help with access in an informal yet significant space – my own studios – where networking involves pub meetings. But what would such accommodations look like?
An online forum I suggest, wondering how many other artists with access needs who miss out on these meetings would potentially benefit from such a thing? Associate artists who live out of the city, artists with small children, artists who also have a disability (invisible or not)…anyone who can’t make it to the pub that night…
We do have a space online but it’s pretty dead. So if that’s the space – how to animate it and is that down to me? Should it be? Or should the people who inhabit ‘real time’ feedback online?
I found it both hurtful and significant that of the 40 or so people in the email chain I made my request to, only one eventually responded.
No-one opens those emails a separate friend told me – and immediately I understood that outing myself to a group comprising of plenty of unknowns had been a non-risk. Hah! Talk about an anti-climax!
But these are serious questions – which I think all art organisations should be asking themselves in 2017. What are you doing to be inclusive (especially those with public funding and/or charity status’ to protect) – how are you excluding disabled people through basic assumption? Autistic professionals may be one of the last frontiers for such awareness – but accommodate us and you accommodate many others with access needs, I would argue.
When met with a request for help with access it will be because the person who needs it has been brave and taken a risk – because in this socially risk averse society it takes guts to do this. But unless we say so the playing field is not going to level on it’s own.
May 5, 2017 § 3 Comments
Well I’m very glad to have sorted this conundrum out over the last few days.
I guess you could say my artist website has suffered from jet lag since my diagnosis of autism in March 2016. I processed my evolving identity as an autistic person through this blog, which has always felt more dynamic to be honest. My website is a little bit ‘best behaviour’ and Sunday dresses – which I guess is it’s function, to show me at the top of my game.
It has a showcase feel about it, whereas blogging is earthy and of the moment, but I’ve come to think that I really don’t need a dinosaur of parked features which rebukes me from afar. My blog has raced on, and at times got away with me, but it’s always been about nourishing identity.
It’s a wonderful thing then to have worked it out.
Part of the issue is with the website platform (clunky though familiar) but truly the professional dilemma has been that my work predated my diagnosis, and that I’m known for a specialism which ostensibly is not related to my autistic identity.
The issues have been twofold:
- How to talk about autism within a unrelated context.
- How to talk about autism without detracting from my topic area.
What this boiled down to was working out how to front load my identity without obscuring my specialist subject. Without achieving this balance I had begun to lack congruence and hence also the growing irrelevance of my website.
And so this half way house wouldn’t wash. Or certainly not for long. I had ended up feeling compromised by, and demoralised with my Sunday dress.
This process of enlightenment has been eased by gaining funding for my own professional development as an autistic artist – I can’t overstate how incredibly affirming this has been. It’s opened up autism and access as a new and complementary area of specialism within my practice, and armed me with the confidence I need to focus on becoming more congruent in my self presentation across platforms.
Not wanting to be pigeon holed and dismissed is a valid concern for any autistic, but being professionally out – I feel – is a state of mind no one can mess with. If I know who I am I can communicate this to others more easily.
Sure, there will be those who won’t get it – so be it. Maybe in time they will.
But I must own that this is a privilege. I can’t be sacked as a freelance, though I might lose opportunities and audiences.
SO, I risk becoming a specimen of a certain kind of patronising anthropological interest I’ve come to loathe. Humpf.
There’s just no price tag on congruence
If you can be this thing, then I think it’s truly important to do it. There are many ways in which you can assert both an autistic identity and a professional status.
It’s a process and I’m not judging – but the more we do this and more we self-define the more powerful we become. Don’t wait for someone to pigeon hole you is what I say. Get there first and stick it to the wo/man &/or gender fluid person.
May 1, 2017 § 2 Comments
No easy subject, dealing as it does with the wilful and systematic murder of disabled children by the Nazi regime – I left the intimate subterranean Jermyn Street Theatre for a matinee performance speechless and shaking, but in a good and important way. We should be shaking, and vowing over our own dead bodies that this should never happen again.
Meticulously researched, this two act play features the little known yet toweringly impressive historical figure of Bishop Von Galen whose opposition to the programme, through his published sermons, led to Nazi house arrest (1941-1945). Unwin also conjures a small and perfectly formed cast of fictional characters in the suitably claustrophobic setting of a Nazi appropriated clinic office, in which all the action is set.
Through each character we examine our own morality (and potential for activism) in the face of a seemingly absolute and violent oppression. As we witness an ailing and morally compromised Dr Franz at work, on what outshines any bad day at the office you could possibly imagine, we see a man in turmoil as he signs off innocent lives under the slimy and thuggish Nazi administrator Eric. By the end of the play Dr. Franz’s catholic maid Martha has made a journey towards the realisation that disabled children’s lives are of equal value to those she has previously viewed as being more ‘normal’, and thus she redeems the ultimately doomed Franz, inspiring a late resistance in him.
But the heart of the action centres on the intercessions of two passionate and imposing forces for good – Elizabetta, mother of a child victim called Stefan (whose nascent incandescence ignites in Act 2), and the Bishop himself whose dialogue with Dr Franz reflects the care with which Stephen Unwin has researched this material and considered the arguments of the time.
As well he might – for much of the research for this labour of love is a lived experience as the father of an intellectually disabled young man called Joey.
And here is where I make my disclaimer. Stephen Unwin is my friend, and his son Joey has – without us ever meeting – stolen my heart. This is neither pity nor perversion. I see in Joey (through his photographs) a beautiful and irresistible soul. And what I see in Joey – as an autistic woman – is a reflection of my own lived experience in a joyful yet often fragmented sensory world. I sense Joey’s intelligence as other and irrefutably valid, and he has an incredible smile.
This is the dynamic which powers the play – as you realise a father’s love animates Elizabetta and howls a tortured FUCK YOU! to the Nazi regime – just before Bishop Von Galen prepares to enter the stage.
Stephen sent me a copy of the play to read just before Christmas and so I knew what to expect in terms of dialogue and action, yet viewing it on the stage was quite overwhelming for me. The performances of Lucy Speed and David Yelland in particular, as Elizabetta and Bishop Von Galen stood out in a terrific cast. The set is beautifully designed and the theatre is a delight, but this play deserves to be seen on a greater scale.
By coincidence, Stephen sat behind me in this tiny theatre setting, and just before the action began he showed me another gorgeous picture of Joey on his phone. How chilling then to hear Elizabetta describe her boy Stefan, and act out his epileptic seizures. This (albeit fictional) child victim of Aktion T4 would have been Joey had Joey lived under the Nazi regime. There were thousands of Joeys, and by 1941 when the play is set more than 5,000 children like Joey had been killed.
This is a powerful and important work, and a love letter to Joey. Its message is universal and timeless. I do hope you get a chance to see it.
But if you live far away from London you can buy a copy of the play on Amazon.