This week I’ve had cause to think again about the question of autism as a label. My default position is to feel autism as an identity. For me this is joyful and unassailable. Try to wrest it off me at your peril.
My team and I are in the final run up to the Neither Use Nor Ornament exhibition, otherwise known as #NUNOproject. Our work has been to create an equal platform for two artists networks, one identifying as neurodivergent and the other as neurotypical. I’ve had to adapt the project as we’ve gone along, due to artists’ highly understandable sensitivity about ableism. It would be an understatement to say, we’re not there yet, re public perceptions about autism. You can read about this in a newly published, curated collection of blog posts on our lovely Museum for Object Research website.
In terms of the project this is something I’m still brain-wrangling. My priority has been to create optimal conditions of access and benefit to the artists involved, but if we’ve been funded on an autism ticket what does ditching labels mean in terms of delivering what we promised? We are, after all, committed to challenging public perception.
I am painfully aware of my disabilities at times. I am seriously compromised by dyslexia and dyscalculia, and this project has often pitched me against myself as project manager. I never felt so aware of my limitations in this regard – for me the rules of spelling and grammar are seriously disabling in ways I can barely explain. I will NEVER learn them, or be able to see on a page where my errors lie. In my world view, insistence on them is traumatic and oppressive. I will always fail to meet their standard, and can’t fully grasp why they matter. Computer says no.
Acquiring help is the obvious answer, but nonetheless, alone I cannot do the job. Don’t even get me started on numbers. The word nemesis doesn’t cover it.
Don’t doubt the shaming or exclusion involved in specific learning disability, nor the impact on a person’s life. I am seriously compromised when navigating new or complex travel systems, for example, which can render me as helpless as a baby, and entirely reliant on the kindness of strangers. And forgive me if you do identify as dyslexic or dyscalculic, what I am about to say is entirely personal to me as I do feel that autism is perceived differently. I understand that others might not agree.
However, foolish I may feel (or may have felt historically) I know at least that I am unlikely to be othered for my seeming ineptitude. I will generally be meet with sympathy, and usually kindness. Invariably, I meet someone wonderful who takes me under their wing and who goes the extra 500 yards to see me on my way.
Autism is different. Out yourself as autistic and you’ve got a whole new ball game going on. This is why I have yet to out myself to strangers in extremis, though I have been close to it several times since my diagnosis. A meltdown on public transport has only been averted by my time honoured strategy of asking someone to help me filter and decode the information I need by explaining simply that I can’t work it out. I have never explained yet that I’m overloaded, or so desperate that I want to throw myself down on the platform. And no it’s not a tantrum, now we’ve got here.
So what happens when you out yourself to a whole network, and an entire community all at once? What happens when every person who works on your project (from your exhibition poster printer to your booklet designer) knows you’re autistic? Every person who visits the OVADA gallery during our show will likely read the poster, which says I’m autistic, including the current Lord Mayor of Oxford.
Next week I will go on BBC Radio Oxford to talk about my project and my autism. I hope that copy about my project and my autism will appear in the Oxford Times next week too.
I have thoroughly outed myself in new and diverse ways. Okay, I’ve been writing about my autism for three years online, but people in my neighbourhood will now look at me anew, and I will soon know what it is I have done in creating #NUNOproject on the most personal of levels. Every person in my professional network will know I am autistic – and this will surely impact my future work in ways that are unknowable to me.
I recognise that in some profound and irreversible way I’ve unmasked myself, and that yet in doing so I’ve hardly faltered, feeling that it is worth it for my community and for the future I want for my children. But it’s not all about altruism and social change.
I’m an autistic person who embraces my disability as identity (not all of us do), and finds the ‘label’ liberating. The more I push through the better my life gets. I only struggle when confronted face to face with people who are patronising, angry, or want to deny my struggles. I chose to paddle away as quickly as possible. I’m too old to spend my time engaged in this kind of nonsense. I’ve spent too much of my life confused and wrong-footed. But I have the luxury of choice because I am a freelance professional, and of an age where the tendency to please others rapidly diminishes.
I feel there is something ineffably powerful in gaining congruence – though I see this as privilege, because so many humans are forced to be other than themselves to fit in. Once tasted, congruence is so good it’s almost addictive.
I remarked the other day that I now no longer think about my autism so very much. It’s not the first thing on my mind when I wake up, and I no longer have to pinch myself. This too is privilege, and a sign that my life is presently aligning with my needs.
A powerful predictor of our resilience lies in the responses to our autism in those around us. I’ve benefited hugely from the love of my family and the bonds formed both online and IRL with my autistic community.
I want more of this for more of us, but I will be telling Arts Council England that our relationships with autism are complicated. We need to build choices about masking into opportunity, and allow for the impact of a lifetime of ableism on an individual to create fluctuations in confidence about unmasking. Unmasking can be wholly situational and should not be treated as a static goal, in my view. We also need to be aware that ableism can make a label out of identity. Finally, I will pose the following question in my evaluation; how ethical is it to encourage artists to unmask for their art?
My future vision, conjured by this blog post, is to create an art project as a sanctuary for artists, as a space for recovery and renewal, without the pressure to perform an identity or assume a label to earn the privilege. Watch this space!
Goodbye for now, but hope to see you at our opening event!
If you can’t make it, we look forward to seeing you online, and you can catch all our content here.