Turning up for work #autism

July 29, 2017 § 7 Comments

 

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#3 in the Orphaned Identities series

(A photograph from my Orphaned Identities series.) 

I was recently commissioned by the Arts Council, to undertake a case study of my practice as an autistic arts professional, in order  to design a series of access measures – which may also be of benefit to others. I’m learning a great deal, some of which I share here in the hope that it will contribute to the conversation about access at work.

I research at the coalface of freelance work and in conversation with other autistic professionals. Patterns are emerging at this midway point in my funded work.

This study has thrown up something important. Namely that there can be a real difference in perceptions about what ‘turning up for work’ means when collaborating as a freelance.

In my own case I’m learning that my standards are high – perhaps usually so. Also that I need to be in direct control of my work flow, especially when a project is complex, and in circumstances where I have high responsibility for outcomes.

This doesn’t present a problem in projects with clearly defined roles with discrete responsibilities where a standard of expectation is reliably matched.  Through An Artist’s Eye was a perfect example of when this works well.

Autism is a professional asset. If you work with us you’ll often find meticulously organised people getting results, and meeting deadlines absolutely on time.

This is because we can often see the job that has to be done with great clarity. Myself, I work methodically paying attention to the parts, with an aerial view of the whole constantly in mind. Holding this level of focus is joyful and important to me. An athlete fresh off the blocks I’m running in full flow.

This is my rhythm and my method. And it works. This is so because my work and my being are as one.

So my commitment is absolute whether the work is a hard won commission with public funds, or a personal project like Orphaned Identities. I’m on it 100%.

I’m beginning to understand that a well designed project (autistically speaking) has controllable elements and can be worked through directly and systematically using flow, and also hyper focus whenever needed. While a poorly designed one has too greater reliance on third parties who may be remote, unavailable or seemingly ‘unreliable’ from an autistic perspective.

Such obstacles can seriously disrupt autistic flow on creative projects. And this represents disablement in action. Disrupting autistic thinking in a workspace, with the need for constant negotiation of terms (for example) or through distance and serial delays, has the effect of derailing purpose, and furthermore overloading functional capacity – and there’s absolutely no need for this with some careful thought to design with respect for access.

Chasing the tail of a consistently unavailable colleague (for example) can be extraordinarily stressful, not to say aversive.  Such practices are perhaps commonplace in freelancing – but can have an effect not unlike ‘trolling’ on an autistic person. The toxicity of poor design in the workplace for autistics can’t really be overstated.

Matching commitment can also be an issue, and there’s an element of luck, which has nothing to do with neurology. ‘Discipline’ can sometimes be lacking in freelance environments, which can present a minefield of wrong-footing.

Building strategies for survival is essential. And when I say survival I mean it in the truest of senses – not in the breezy way it’s used in magazine style journalism. A real dilemma that we face is that our non-autistic colleagues may not absorb the seriousness of socially disabling bias’ at work because we’re often so conscientious.

This raises the issue of training for our non-autistic colleagues. In conversation with my fellow professionals there emerges a powerful consensus among us that training must be autistic led if it is to be of actual benefit to autistic people – who after all should be the natural recipients of positive change.

As an individual in a freelance setting – my growing feeling is that designing my own access measures is essential to create the best fit for me, but that autistic led training for colleagues could be an excellent complimentary addition in future.

Currently this is all still very much a work in progress – but I’m immensely grateful to my autistic colleagues for their invaluable input into my thinking. Being able to situate our practices within community is a consummate survival strategy in itself. This is why the future direction of my research in this area will focus on networks.

The issues I raise are common to a growing network of autistic professionals – currently we suffer the demands to mask our ‘condition’ due to socially embedded expectations at work. This is seriously disabling and real access challenge in freelance situations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Something just happened: professional development in an autistic art practice.

April 8, 2017 § 8 Comments

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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?

  1. Teaming up with professional and trusted neurotypical allies has been key to this process.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 soniaboue@yahoo.co.uk for more details.

Why you shouldn’t identify with autistic people. Try some empathy instead.

September 1, 2016 § 13 Comments

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This is about when neurotypical (NT) people over-identify with an area of autistic struggle. If you’re autistic you’ll know exactly what I mean, if you’re NT – I’m not being rude but – I could be talking about you.

Why complain you ask? Identification is surely good?

Well…no actually, I don’t think it always is. In fact, this is something which can get in the way of autistic people being heard properly and fairly accommodated.

Many autistic people experience this over-identification. Often NT people begin to think that they themselves could be ‘a little bit’ autistic, with a matching and equal array of challenges.

It is a natural human response but it must be curbed when it comes to neurological difference.

This is not empathy. In fact this blocks empathy. Such NT responses are acutely demoralising for autistic people because they minimise our struggle.

And today my heart sank a little because…

Yesterday’s blog post about autistic artists and the inherent difficulties within professional structures and systems – including Arts Council England funding application processes – is already attracting the ‘me too’ response.

Autism poses unique challenges, which are not faced by NT people. This truth has to be absorbed more widely.

More specifically, if NT artists find the professional structures of the art world hostile and difficult to navigate, that sensation should be magnified twenty fold to understand the barriers to autistic professional progression.

A core challenge of autism resides in the specific area of social pragmatics, which just so happens to underpin every aspect of managing a career in the arts. Strengths in social communication are pretty much key.

This is why – of late – I consistently use the term autistic, rather than the terms neurodiverse/nerurodivergent in my blogs, because I believe specificity can be helpful in certain contexts. We are part of a larger group who are not ‘typical’, or rather which makes up a neuro-minority for whom existing societal practices and structures are disabling.

Yet we need to signal clearly exactly what our challenges consist of and I would like to try to articulate this the simplest terms regarding a defining and core aspect of our struggle.

The extreme emphasis on, and burden of social communication within an artist’s professional life creates a gross inequality for autistic artists, which operates across the board and at all levels.

I believe that if more NTs can manage the job of empathising with this – rather than imaging that they share in this singular predicament  – we will have made progress.

Every glimmer of genuine empathy really does help us move towards action and change.

 

 

 

Autism; invisibility & being.

August 31, 2016 § 3 Comments

It’s been a rum two days.

First, a hateful article in a UK newspaper, which I’m not going to quote or link to. Defamatory language about autistic people can and should be challenged, but traffic denied.

I refuse to amplify ignorant, stereotyping voices, and the suspicion that it was click bait all along settles in.

Second, I find some very old comments on a news feature on my art blog site which relate to my video of February 2016 in which I critique Arts Council England’s funding application process for neurodivergent artists.

Comments which would make any sentient heart bleed.

“I have accepted a residency in Iceland but I don’t think I’ll be able to go because the task of finding funding appears to be beyond me. 

I am also neurodivergent. I can’t seem to forward any of my projects because I just can’t overcome my disabilities effectively enough or find the help I need. Today I am literally just sitting crying because I can’t see a way forward…”

And suddenly I find my tolerance at a low ebb. I can’t sit back and say and do nothing. So I begin to Tweet – to various relevant bodies even though we are way after hours in the UK. These are tiny public acts, liable to be missed, and I’m suddenly also sickened by the imposed invisibility of so many of my fellow autistic art professionals. It’s time to get back on my soapbox and make some noise.

 

Dead Squirrel: a poetic adventure

August 18, 2016 § 19 Comments

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Photographs of the ‘dead squirrel.’

I’m trying something new. It’s linked to professional development funding from Arts Council England and my work as an artist.

I’m learning about writing poetry and exploring how to share this process and the eventual fruits of my studies in a professional context. My main interest is discovering how to combine visual imagery and poetry for exhibition or publishing. I’m interested in feedback from readers too. So far I’ve had my first professional crit on a poem, which is not quite ready yet. This one has been picked over by the most savage critics of all – my teenage kids.

See what you think and please comment (I don’t mind honesty but I would appreciate kindness).

For this poem (inspired by finding such a redolent object outside my house) I’m grateful to artist David Dipré for his comment on Instagram that my photograph of it looked like a dead squirrel. Something about this ignited my interest in writing about it.

Please share if you can I would love to get lots of feedback (gulp) signed the new risk-taking, boundary pushing  moi. xx

Dead Squirrel.
(On waking at 4 am).

A blared duet.
No radio broadcast.
Just the lives of…

I don’t know who.

Rage is an alarm call.
And then…
Fucking run!
punctuates the night.

The urban domestic
as sharp as shrapnel.

I crouch and pad down the stairs,
to slip a key in the lock.

But they do fucking run.
And now silence!

Sleep all done,
I limp to bed,
and ignite my screen.

Later on, a pavement find,
dished up for afters.

Their tryst trophy:
a dead squirrel.

Well…a Parka hood,
lying face down.

©Sonia Boué 2016

Autism, Art and Focus.

June 10, 2016 § 2 Comments

Photo on 10-06-2016 at 11.53

This is me in my double sized studio. I look tired but I’m happy. This week I took on more space for a few months, so that I can more easily complete an Arts Council funded project.

Today I spent 11 hours working in the space without noticing.

The project is absorbing and challenging. I think about it as I go to sleep – often resolving painting problems in my minds eye. I come up with potential solutions and new ideas. I wake before dawn, keen to get on.

This is how it is when inspiration strikes and autistic focus comes in to play.

 

 

 

Making it through.

May 6, 2016 § 7 Comments

Photo on 05-05-2016 at 14.01

My last post was about waiting for Arts Council England (ACE) to make a decision on my project. Funding from public money in the arts is limited and brings a great responsibility to the recipient. So I feel incredibly fortunate to have been awarded funding under the Grants for the Arts scheme, and will give my all to this work. The ability to maintain a sustained focus and perfectionism are real assets in my job. They are also what enabled me to put three months into the project development and application – though I could not have made it through without my network of helping hands. Trusted neurotypicals, who were willing to share their insights and skills with me to navigate the NT world.

Autistic artists face multiple barriers in applying for this kind of award. These became apparent to me during the application process, and I have begun to write some survival notes for other artists in my art blog. Yesterday this particular blog post was shared on Twitter by the Arts Council itself – it feels as though my message about the inequities faced by neurodiverse artists is beginning to filter through.

ACE have a wonderful helpline for those who can access the telephone and you can also email. There are generous access measures in place if you can find them and they happen to take the form you can get along with. I felt encouraged at every turn by the people interface at ACE. But difficulties remain in accessing the access for many of us (a frustrating tautology), and further barriers created by the clunky new online portal called Grantium. A more detailed analysis of what is so very wrong with this template for neurodiverse artists will be a longer and more technical matter than befits a blog post – and possibly the work of consultation with ACE if they’re willing.

These are major issues for neurodiverse artists, but could be improved without great difficulty I feel. From my days of social policy study I reckon these to be “at a stroke” changes, meaning that they require only  policy shifts and administrative nods to implement. SO it is important to bring them home to source, as I’m certain ACE are committed to access and equality and that these obstacles are systemic and unwitting.

The larger more insidious inequities are those of the social world which are embedded in arts opportunity on every scale and form. This will take a great deal of unpicking to arrive at an adequate description of what is so very disadvantageous for autistic artists in particular. I’m ready for the long haul.

 

 

 

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