Networked out? Autism and ‘real time’ in professional practice.

May 22, 2017 § 6 Comments

Socorro LorcaIt’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. 

SO networking.

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.


Autistic resilience: talking up competence.

February 25, 2017 § 18 Comments

Version 2

(Work in progress on the theme of resilience, © Sonia Bouè 2017)

This week has been rocky. I want to talk about anxiety.

Anxieties collide sometimes don’t they? Stuff can accumulate and escalate. World events, a health glitch, a seriously upset neurotypical (NT) friend.

(For the sake of clarity. I should stress here that my friend was not upset with me but rather shared their distress with me).

For an autistic person this can rapidly begin to feel ‘disproportionately’ dark.

What I mean is that for autistics the confluence of events within a short time frame is often what proves disorientating, and I’m trying to analyse the cause. I think that probably some of our anxieties are related to what I think of as imperfect information in the moment. I find this a useful phrase when applied to autistic styles of perception in a neurologically  biased  world. It’s the difference between playing poker or chess – in the former the cards are concealed during play and in the latter the whole state of play is visible throughout. In an NT world we’re playing poker.

I’ve added ‘in the moment’ to my sentence signalling the potential to disentangle events in time.  We are not incapable and we are not helpless – with enough space (and/or support) to do so we can process life’s social and emotional  vicissitudes in our own ways.

Autistics process sensory data and social interaction in a multiplicity of different ways from the majority neuro-normative population. This (logically) creates a very different bank of information from which to draw inference and make decisions for autistics. The world hooks up differently around another set of priorities.

But its even more complicated for us than just this – as this majority population is (of course) made up of individuals. Result? A mountain of permutations of ‘missing’ data for autistics to deal with in ‘real time’.

A literal mountain, which I’m going to call Mount Blank. Yes.

And it really is a BLANK until processing kicks in. This can feel like a dense fog laced with school girl dread. But I find that it’s often possible to simply push the feeling away and move on. We can be resilient like that. Perhaps we underestimate just how hard we’re working everyday to keep afloat in a world which does not support our divergent neurologies – and it is this effort which exhausts us.

But back to Mount Blank. Standing at the bottom can make you feel terribly small (echoes of my school days again). Perhaps this is why a series of unfortunate events within a short space of time have the potential to crush the soul – you are a child again. As the mountain of imperfect information grows it can feel as though you’re shrinking before it.

World events overshadow all out lives at present, but I think that for autistics it’s often the ‘micro’ incidents which stack up without us realising their impact.

And the causes of our confusion are not sensory or perceptual alone, they also lie in never knowing if people are saying what they mean – rather than just being polite, trotting out platitudes or worse. These habits of neurotypical obsfucation add to the scale of Mount Blank. Worse still (I might add) is being versed in this culture as an autistic. Oh the tangles! As you venture your polite falsies (as I’ll call them) and tie yourself in lying little knots.

And because no-one quite tells social ‘truths’, when things go wrong or just feel wrong (in the moment) there’s a  tendency to self-blame. Which is especially debilitating. I think this is the point at which self-compassion must intervene. Imperfect information flows from the majority game of choice and not the individual. Withdrawing from play (taking time for processing) and/or researching* the other player’s hand (many ways to do this including talking things over with an autistic and/or NT friend) are strategies  I would consider next time I hit Mount Blank.

But unpicking and thus identifying this pattern* has got to be one hell of a route to resisting it’s effects. Resilience is often knowledge plus practice.

The road to resilience is all about talking up competence – and this begins with me.

*autistic strengths

Landscapes of Resistance #Resist

February 7, 2017 § 2 Comments


Work in progress in my studio.

(This configuration is almost accidental and will change – the hanging doll at this stage has no clear meaning)

How to deal with the political emergency in the so-called United States of America?

I’m working on a funding proposal which means I’m online a LOT. Application is online, I also need to liaise with my collaborator – and then there is pinball brain. The brain I’ve written about before.

And so I click.

And so I see, and see. I read and read. Acres of online print – the Tweets, the links, the lot. I’ve used up my free reads on The Nation and the New York Times, I’m following dozens of US journalists. My need to keep up is voracious.

I question my motives. Is this obsession. Yes. But it is also work for me.

I am understanding at first hand what fascism looks like and how it grows. It’s a crash course in this digital age, and the unresolved hows and whys of European history in the 1930s and 40s are suddenly revealed.

A generation is waking up though we don’t sleep. We’re getting it.

And as I click I see also that resistance is rising. My work is a vigil – like all my other vigils. I am watching. Waiting for justice.

As an artist I do what I can. I march. I make. I write and publish these thoughts.

My laptop and my studio form the sites of my resistance.

Yesterday I made a start with some sketches on improvised boards.

Today I bought 12 canvases for a new installation to be shown in May. I have my work cut out to produce a series which will be called Landscapes of Resistance.

It may not seem much. But it’s all I have.

The float: that feeling of “detachment…” #autism

January 18, 2017 § 7 Comments

img_0872I am floating. This is so very pleasant, though I know I need to feel sharper to get through my day – float is what it is. The float brings with it anxiety. Anxiety of the – I shouldn’t be doing this – kind.

Times like these are when my body takes over. I’m working. Working in my studio – spending long hours getting back to my art practice after a long break. This is where I pick up the threads.

I’m also viewing the world (through my fingers) as it shifts towards uncertainty. Trump has Putin standing on his neck says Paul Auster on Channel 4 News. Nothing brings home our global predicament more powerfully than this image. I let it drip feed into my brain to avoid too much panic.

But these are not the only lanes in the superhighway of mental activity and agitation.

I’m also processing autism. My autism.

I learn so much everyday. Mainly a growing awareness of the radical nature of autistic difference from the neuro-normative.  It’s so profound, so vast. This way of being is immensely free.

I see many, many occasions, so many circumstances in which neuro-normative culture insists on conformity, and fails to conceive of the vastness outside of it’s parameters.

This makes it hard to see our way through the preconceptions.

This makes it easy to feel constantly in the wrong. (Anxiety provoking in itself)

So the trick as I see it is to float and banish that anxiety. The float isn’t what’s wrong. So embrace the float. Survey the vastness in this region of perception and sense it’s utter correctness for our brains. These are our spaces. Akin to flow.

Inhabit this zone and you begin to feel energised.

You can’t fill this space or harness it – it is simply immense.

I learn it’s a mistake to call this disconnection.

Float is the highest connection I have ever known.

The casual cymbal and the traffic cop #autism

December 8, 2016 § 14 Comments


It’s been interesting lately. Autistic truths rain down on me and I make progress in my understanding of a fundamental difference – it’s the day-to-day truths that crystallise and move in.

I am at a concert alone because my husband is ill. My strategy to arrive just in time mainly works. I gain a seat at the back (I won’t see my daughter – competition for seats is a ruthless elbow grazer and not for me  – but I am near the door). At the last moment I see someone I know, and we talk briefly before she finds a seat. This is okay.

Half familiar faces blur around me. I’m not sure whether to nod, but our eyes don’t meet – so I guess not. I glance at my phone, send a message, and feel the comforting spine of the book  I prepared earlier. It takes a minute to notice that the noise is extraordinary. The acoustics in this elegant and lofty church are too good . The babble of voices casually cymbal  – in every pew people are talking. For me this is waiting.

But the lighting is gentle  and the air is warm,  yet still I wrap my legs in a tight knot. How did I never register such tension before? It’s a classic me pose and my hips feel brittle and worn – as thought they might snap.

A man stands before us to make an announcement. He does not understand about voice projection. His underwater mumbling tickles my funny bone and I exchange amused glances with a young woman I realise I do know across the aisle. I’m now in deep peril. Uncontrollable laughter (silent shoulder shakes) could seize me, and so I gulp hard and look at my feet feeling lucky that the woman sitting next to me shows no social interest in me. This is all so random. I sit at the shore it seems.

I am relieved when the choir files in, knowing that I will cry and no longer feeling shame. I have tissues and am prepared – learning to savour this trait and understanding that my tears are a bodily reaction. What I experience is a simple response to stimuli by a hyper sensorially alert nervous system. A system so calibrated that I am highly attuned to danger and emotion – this is the core of my difference and why I can’t shrug off the ‘ordinary’. These are assets as a mother and an artist – I can enjoy my tears. I’m grateful at last.

These voices are exquisite – many on the cusp of womanhood pierce my heart.

I hang in knowing that this will probably take an hour, maybe more (but not by much I hope). More than enough time to get distracted, notice a child playing with her muffler (oh the boredom at that age!) and her mother steadily marking homework with a red biro. Admirable multi-tasking. Discreet too. The kind of hands whose writing could probably stay neat on the deck of the Titanic. Momentarily I envy her, my mind playing over the myriad circumstances under which I lose coordination and descend into scrawl. Indecipherable letters but mine own, now revealed as part of the greater whole.

The other day I imagined the difficulty managing information flow (of all kinds including sensory) and coordinating responses in autism as the want of a traffic cop at an  intersection during rush hour.

But it’s always rush hour unless you make it stop. You make it stop by withdrawing to where you can control the flow.

It’s very simple.

But there’s more. I have not bargained for the ultimate neurotypical surprise. The interval! After 40 minutes things stop. What?

People it seems would prefer to have a break from the music they’ve come to hear to talk to one another some more, and drink from an assortment of hot and cold beverages of the type they can have at home! Good God! This is fantastically strange and eccentric.

It goes on. I am blessed. My daughter arrives knowing that I will be at sea, she thinks to come and give me a hug and takes time from the dressing room to swap notes on the hours we’ve spent apart. I tell of my astonishment – the ways of the socially needy! I whisper.

We smile and the room dissolves.

© Sonia Boué 2016

A racy blouse and a bottle of paracetamol #autism

October 3, 2016 § Leave a comment


These days I’m mostly running to chase my tail. My project has had it’s central London launch, and in a few days time we’ll host an introductory evening, and open our show.

First we have to install the exhibition.

It’s the culmination of months of work, with  each phase of the project bringing it’s own intensity. But this is off the scale bonkers.

So how do I cope as an autistic? Cognitive load. Overload. Load of stress. All the loads. You name it I go it.

I mainly put my head down and push through each task as it comes – having learned that I must in most cases find the short cut and deal quickly with practicalities so that tasks don’t back up.

I carve out time to focus quietly and on my own. Collaboration requires contact and communication – but I do the majority of the troubleshooting in my own head arriving at solutions I know I can manage. Sure, I accommodate my colleagues but they generally know how I like to work and are incredibly respectful. I try to make sure I consider their needs too.

Paracetamol has been my friend – I’ve had a LOT of headaches, and discern a pattern of build-up in tension. I now know it is my body’s expression of overload. A classic was the two day social hangover after our launch – and the fact that despite it’s obvious success, I just couldn’t locate any sense of satisfaction. My focus was on the social mistakes I made that evening & my brain’s insistence on playing them on a loop.

As the kind comments and reviews come in, I am suddenly reminded of the intense concentration in the room as we presented our work. I make the connection. People really did like it. Kind phrases return and I begin to settle into a more comfortable feeling – it’s not joyful (not yet) as there is too much work to be done and a whole lot of paracetamol to swallow. But I’m getting there – almost in one piece.

An interesting development – I seem to have an increased tolerance for wearing pattern. Or maybe it’s that knowing myself better I can more easily work out what I can manage. I actually kept that blouse on all day, and didn’t pack the usual spare black smock in case it all got too much for me.

What did go to pieces was my short speech – the room fragmented and I couldn’t do the looking back and forth at the audience and my prompt sheet. Overtaken by vertigo I mainly read off the page. A disappointment to me. Any tips for overcoming this my dear fellow autistics who find binocular focus a challenge? I’d like to read my piece for our following event without the hand wobbles!

You can read about the project Through An Artist’s Eye here.

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