May 22, 2017 § 1 Comment
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.
April 28, 2017 § 3 Comments
The Museum for Object Research
– a project born out of an autistic practice.
– Press Release/ Phase 1
The Museum for Object Research has been granted Arts Council funding for research and development.
The Museum for Object Research (MfOR) launched on a-n blogs in 2014 as an innovative online forum for object artists to share resources and develop a network of like minded practitioners. MfOR quickly sparked the interest and enthusiasm of a core group of professional artists who form a unique community around object work as practice.
Objects as cultural signifiers and material memory comprise the artistic focus of the Museum’s work.
The MfOR blog was originated by artist Sonia Boué, who also leads the Museum’s pioneering initiative to create a template for her work as an autistic arts professional. Artist and educator, Elena Thomas is MfOR’s project co-lead and key to the development of MfOR in its current form.
MfOR is an inclusive collaboration, whose work on autistic leadership seeks to develop best practice outcomes.
We seek partners committed to inclusion and diversity for dialogue, venue spaces, and conference participation. We are keen to explore areas of intersection with other minority groups.
The culmination of this initial phase will be our Arts Council funding bid for MfOR – Phase 2. Exhibition, day conference, artists talks, workshops, publications and a project film are included in our plans.
MfOR is based in Birmingham, Oxford and online.
Sonia Boué – project lead/ artist
Elena Thomas – project lead/ artist
Simon Meddings – design
Sarah Mossop – curation
Laura Rhodes – film/ photography
Dr Jacqueline Taylor – research/ conference planning/artist
Kate Murdoch – artist researcher
Sonia is an autistic multiform artist, creative project developer and manager whose recent work includes a film collaboration with Tate Britain.
Her practice encompasses paint, assemblage, video and performance. Objects form the springboard for the many branches of her work, which is concerned with themes of exile and displacement, with particular reference to family history and the Spanish Civil War. A background in Art History and Art Therapy informs her practice.
Born in Birmingham to an exiled Spanish Republican, she grew up between cultures. Family visits to Spain during the final decade of the Franco dictatorship form the bedrock of her practice as she continues to unpack her grandmother’s handbag.
Her writing on autism can be found on, The Other Side
Elena Thomas is a multiform artist and songwriter, creative project developer and manager. She has exhibited nationally and internationally. Her work comprises textiles, installation, performance and song.
Her object inspired practice encompasses touch, both physical & emotional, and the traces of influence of one person on another that are implicit in the objects and garments left behind. Imagined narratives are manifested in the stitching and the songs.
She has collaborated with producer and songwriter Dan Whitehouse on her recent Arts Council Funded Nine Women project.
Her blog writing on Threads forms a large part of her reflective practice and can be found at elenathomas.co.uk
(NB this project is about autistic leadership and contributing artists are not autistic)
April 20, 2017 § 5 Comments
Yes, we do have power. My post is not a simplification of wider more intractable structural power imbalances which work against autistics, but rather seeks to address a specific area in which power may be regained.
Society tends to ignore the contribution of autistic workers – both employed and potential workers (for many of us it is said are unemployed largely due to the myriad complications of ableism in our lives). Visible autistics are often cast either as recipients of charity in the workplace or as tech trojans, maths professors and sundry geeks.
There’s also a galling new trend to laud autistic workers (with the help of stereotypes) as work-horses. Honest as the work day is long! Give them a repetitive job and they’re happy! Accuracy means productivity! Wink, wink! Employ an autistic!
I’m very glad people are getting work, don’t get me wrong, but we have a long way to go because so much of this is predicated on neuro-normative thinking – but I better stick to what I know and talk about my own case.
I believe that many of us probably form an invisible workforce, whose skills can’t easily be replaced by others in the market place – because they are not autistic. We are both employees and freelancers – some of whom may also create opportunity or employment for others. Our brains work differently and often originally – we can gain recognition but also do so for others by association, or more darkly though imitation and appropriation. Subtle use of autistic smarts by neuro-normatives is a thing in the creative sector – conscious or not – and it has to stop. We often do not receive recognition or added value for what we bring to the job, in my experience. Neurotypicals can be slow to grasp the deep benefits autistics bring to work, and overlook them as the players they are or could be. Cultural deafness to autistic smarts, and lack of access to the rules of the game are often to blame. This is what must become transparent.
In some sectors – we’ve gained a curious market value but this does not necessarily filter down to us. Inclusion in the arts is hot, for example. We are, in bald capitalistic terms, currency. Our presence in a organisation or on a project can be valuable in terms of funding (invisibly) because we are autistically good at what we do, and (visibly) because we help tick boxes. Boxes mean cash, and thus we are in the narrowest sense ‘tokens’. We may however be used as token autistics unless we watch our backs and realise our market value, and unless we also assert that our market value must be linked to accommodations. This is really the key to what I’m trying to say.
To hook all this together we need first to identify pattern and causation and call time on certain practices. The nothing about us without us motto works so well at every level of our engagement with co-workers and organisations. I have begun asking where the accommodation is, and doing so in open forums when there is no obvious alternative open to me. Social media is one good forum I’ve found for teasing out hidden code and asserting value.
This is not passive aggression – it is the use of accessible platforms for autistics. If the social codes and means by which they are passed on are hidden to us, we may have an option to use open channels when we judge it is safe for us to do so. By which I mean – minimal personal comeback and maximum gain in clarity.
In many cases I’ve been fortunate in finding true allies – but making visible and engaging in ‘clear-speak’ can be effective where commitment or understanding has been less obvious. In the arts at least, people must be seen to be accommodating – SEEN being the operative word.
I believe it is time to stop talking about inclusion or access in neuro-normative terms altogether, because we need less warm fuzz and more hard outcomes. We have to define this in our own terms. We can’t wait around to win the info war on autism to make a living. We need our jobs and our projects to pay us fairly and not kill us in the process. SO what can we do?
Well, we have some serious bargaining chips in certain environments when we find the means to assert that our skills create outcomes (autistic smarts make for invaluable contributions and demonstrably so). Similarly so when our presence as autistics brings in monetary value to organisations in terms of funding. This we bring to the table, thus we must gain at the table. I don’t want a place I can’t use or decode from – I want an accommodated seat where I can be acknowledged and equal.
I am learning not to be confused by the mere appearance of friendliness or put off by other people’s agendas. I’m late diagnosed, hell it’s time!
April 8, 2017 § 8 Comments
Photograph of Sonia Bouè’s Refugee Stack, 2015 by stardaffs.com
SO, something happened.
In collaboration with my trusted colleague Elena Thomas (artist, song-writer, performer and educator), I have asked Arts Council England to support me in creating a document to outline my needs in the workplace. They just said yes! This piece of paper (or more likely powerpoint, video, series of poems, and – oh yes a handy list!) will be my ramp into neurotypcial spaces as an autistic arts professional.
All workspaces are the wrong neurotype for me. All of them. No invisible ramps exist for invisible conditions that I know of. So we have to start talking up visibility and making change happen.
Alongside the challenges of my autistic difference in an often hostile world, I have co-morbid conditions which present me with further obstacles to access. A restricted diet due to functional gut disorder, severe contact dermatitis, and Raynaud syndrome are on the daily menu. I must manage my energies and environments with the greatest of care, and commonly found canteen fare, air con and synthetically perfumed environments can act as enemy agents sending me into a spiral of ill health.
I need control over working conditions but as a freelance this is often a difficult and sometimes impossible challenge. My professional template will be designed to turn this around. A personal breakthrough in managing my conditions has been to gain a diagnosis of autism – at which I learnt that they come with the territory. They’re not autism per se but they come as an attachment and form part of the package.
What this does (in practice) is to bring this trio of troublemakers to heel. I click my fingers to round them up, and we become one. Autistic + co-morbids is the deal with me. I require detailed and specific accommodations in a complex and fast paced milieu – ie the arts!
But of course it is autism – and the myriad disadvantages faced in a neurotypical working context I hope to tackle head on. This is no add-on or postscript to my project. It is the core of my project. If I am to lead and create opportunity for others (my project brings employment among other benefits) then my team must come with me and I feel so lucky knowing that they will. Too long have autistics tagged along or even had their work exploited. Together we may just create a pioneering model.
I feel empowered and grateful – at last I have a way of gaining some leverage and intend to share my learning with other autistic artists who may also benefit.
So how did I get my funding – how did I make this opportunity happen?
- Teaming up with professional and trusted neurotypical allies has been key to this process.
- I have now spent two years of my professional life learning my way around the lower tier Arts Council England Grants for the Arts funding application process.
- Through the combined autistic skills of hyper focus and hyper connective thought I can create effective, coherent and strategic funding bids.
So in addition to my own work, I’m now in a position to offer a consultancy service. I can help to analyse and structure a proposal for a GFTA bid (currently at £15,000 and below, and in the near future for higher tier awards) for individual artists and small organisations. My skills are not limited to autistic/ neurodivergent artists & organisations but this is a specialism.
My services can be hired at an hourly rate, and I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.
March 17, 2017 § 13 Comments
I’m grabbing at thin air. My words plucked from a cloud in which a soup of experiences swill.
It’s true of all my writing that until start to pin my words to the page it’s as good as alphabet soup. Such is the autistic mind (in my case).
Contentious terminology was the subject of my last piece called When only autism will do, for which my favourite comment was a thank you for my badassery! This pleased me more than I can say.
So I’m back again at the coalface – or the cola face (as I just typed before correcting myself). Oh how I would like to be at the cola face right now – with my face in a cola. But I digress.
What I’m grappling with is self-definition but it’s all a bit drifty and hazy (the shifting sands of autism, to switch the metaphor).
But anyway – here I go (and the usual rule applies that I speak for myself).
I’m at an early stage of a late-life diagnosis which probably makes a quite a difference in terms of perspective. If I fall down in what I’m trying to say, I hope my kind readers will help pick me up, rather than throw rotting fruit. Which is kind of where I’m going with this.
Yesterday I bought chips from the chip shop round the corner from my studios. Kaz, the charming chip shop owner (and as it happens extremely talented photographer) was feeling it. It being the weight of world events. He sprinkled some wisdom along with the salt and vinegar. I’m getting old, he said (we’re roughly the same age). I’ve been mistaken all my life – and I’m praying for us to save ourselves from ourselves (referring again to global matters). I nodded, and left with a warm feeling (emanating from the chips probably) and the final golden nugget; the only thing that truly matters and can save us is love.
And swoosh! Into the sunlit street I bounced, past traffic and trees heavy with pink blossom, clutching the warm package of potato love!
I assume Kaz means self-love is important too. I hope so because I reckon it is.
But it is love in a wider sense (this is old fashioned I know) which I’m finding so missing lately. It’s been replaced by the kind of static you get from a nylon nightie pulled roughly over your head. Shocking and hateful – or rather hate filled human expressions are what we find reflected in so many media outlets that there are days when you don’t know where to look. Not enough love it seems.
Amidst all this static I find myself with a daunting task – staying afloat and making sense of it all as a newbie autistic. I’d really like to find some clarity about who I am post diagnosis (haha! even my diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome is contentious).
So I’m making a list I can hold onto, and if it helps anyone else in my situation I’m more than happy to share.
- I identify as autistic rather than Asperger’s.
- Question: can I be seen, heard, understood and respected as an autistic person by others?
- Insight: 2 seems tricky especially as I don’t fully understand me myself yet.
- Identity appears to shift in varying and wider contexts than my own four walls.
- The necessity of passing seems to affect 4.
- Neurodivergent (ND) as a term has both advantages and disadvantages.
- I’ve decided I like the bluntness of the word autistic better. I like the clarity and ‘shock’ value it brings. I vehemently dislike aspie and autie.
- I can be badass.
- BUT please – if I forget my manners give me a nudge!
- Note to self. A bag of chips is only ever two blocks away.
- Further note to self. Try not to drown in world events.
- Because even numbers feel right.
March 10, 2017 § 25 Comments
Yes, yes, yes…okay, okay. Alright. I boil washed another jumper! It’s becoming a thing – a metaphorical thing.
This post is about access and exclusion.
It’s about a stripy jumper made out of scratchy wool that doesn’t fit. Like that awful Xmas gift (that keeps on itching) – you really don’t want it but you have to say thank you.
And if you say thank you very much for all your kindness but…(insert any variant on a polite – er…it doesn’t quite fit me) be prepared for trouble and even abuse.
This matters because we’re not really talking Christmas gifts where there is less at stake in keeping schtum. Access is about basic equality, and yet ‘social tangle alert!’ It seems we must be grateful and find ways of asserting ourselves which do not upset anybody – unless you fancy a nice slap down that is.
Yes. It is ‘socially’ problematic for autistics to talk about access for many reasons, many of which flow from the fact that we are rarely in a position to lead the conversation.
Firstly we have an issue of system bias (viewing autistics from an non-autistic perspectives which can be erroneous and unhelpful), but also logic is not as strong a suit for non-autistics (diagnostically so).
What seems to matter more at times (judging from a recent negative experience) is that we are seen to be gratefully acquiescent and value effort above possible fit, and therefore not mention our inconvenient discomforts. And here we hit another potential rock. If non-autistics are highly invested in the process (as they must be often to continue with their work) they may feel that they have become ‘expert’, acquiring all manner of specialist knowledge – and they may also passionately believe that they know autism inside and out (and in their own ways they do). I don’t doubt that this can be genuine and I am indeed grateful for their interest and commitment.
Increasingly, (as awareness grows) non-autistics do now in some ways consult autistics about their access needs – and are seriously intent on advocating from primary sources. Okay – so what can go wrong?
It is both complex and simple. Two things; there are many autisms and autism (I’m very much afraid) can only be experienced from within. I can explain my autism to you, and you will understand it from your own neurological perspective. I wish this were otherwise but no.
SO even if the research is done – the resulting material still comes together from a non-autistic perspective and will be presented thus. This is the work of cultural interpretation and translation, subject to the usual problematics of error and potential tone deafness to the language of some autistic native speakers.
This could be justifiable at one time before the advent of the adult autistic self-advocacy movement, which daily gathers strength as a driver for social justice. But it no longer is in my view. Autistics can’t as a group be spoken for ‘because no one else will’. We are here literally crawling out of the woodwork of late diagnosis and we have some serious skills to share.
So when an ally does great ground work and volunteers their time – and even their soul time my appreciation is genuine. But don’t just consult us – let us ‘speak’ (in which ever modality that expression occurs). I say this because ‘speaking’ is not about talking always. And if we challenge you – please listen. Don’t swipe us down. We’ve taken a long time to open up and speaking out can be a huge deal despite appearances.
This week I have been subject to the accusation of condescension. My polite ask for high functioning and low functioning labels not to be used rejected. When I’ve said that autistics I know would prefer to speak for themselves I am told that this is all well and good but that many can’t ‘speak’, and therefore it is up to non-autistics to speak for them.
I had stumbled on perhaps the greatest chasm in the autism world at present – parents of autistics vs adult autistics. Hence perhaps the bitter bile that rose to the throat. I truly wish it didn’t have to be like this. How can we have a decent conversation if dissent leads so readily to insult.
I am a parent too. But I will (by some) of course be accused of having a child too high functioning to count. I am myself too high functioning to count perhaps? But think about who loses.
I refuse such demeaning terms. I refuse high functioning as much as low functioning – it’s opposite number. Low functioning is not a term to describe any person, child or adult in my view. I don’t even want to go there. Would you like it? I don’t go around calling my non-autistic friends high or low functioning normals. See what I mean?
My view is that autistics are complex beings like any other group. As a group our needs vary greatly but we share this characteristic with the rest of humanity. Dignity on all levels flows from supportive language from which to forge identity and define ourselves – this is a universal human need, I would argue. So I suggest that low functioning is a crap thing to hear about yourself, and I say so knowing how painful it was to have my cognitive profile outlined in terms of ‘deficits’ – and that part of my healing from this experience has been to reframe the language I use about myself.
My recent experience (provoked by an unwillingness to just pipe down) signals an increasing frustration with a silencing by other voices in my community. I am accused of thinking I ‘own’ this debate. No doubt I would also be accused of tone deafness to parent’s needs and those of autistics with support needs I don’t share. I don’t think my stance implies either – this isn’t a zero sum game. Adult autistic contributions benefit everyone.
And we as a group (and I as an individual) do want to lead, shape and inform society in it’s betterment of autistic lives. It is said by many and it is said increasingly often. Listen to autistic adults – we can help improve your child’s future world now, whatever their needs may be.