December 31, 2018 § 4 Comments
Reflections on autistic project design and leadership at the half way mark #NUNO
A random memory. Cabello de angel – sugary threads tucked inside the belly of an ensaïmada. Angel hair wrapped in the lightest sweet doughy spiral of my childhood.
I shower and reflect on the year about to pass. I think of angel hair. I feel its curious texture between my teeth once more as the white marble staircase to my grandmother’s flat flashes before my minds eye.
Under the influence of steam I’ve visited the bewigged cake shop owner on the street below and am racing up the stairs with my treat. I’m probably seven years old. In my memory of her this kindly woman resembled a mature Betty Davis, but underneath her wig (I was told) she was completely hairless. In my imagination I saw her wig-less at her counter one time but this is surely fantasy.
Cabello de angel means that I’m both nostalgic and happy. Angel hair is all about rewards.
The family have been enjoying a peaceful Christmas, and in the gaps between viewing ancient Kodak slides on the viewfinder I gave my mother, and seeing off the remains of the Christmas pud, I’ve been evaluating my Arts Council England project.
A non sequiter I know.
The evaluation had landed in the online portal 10 days beforehand, and I’d only happened on it by accident as there had been no notification. Not a good look to miss this particular deadline. The second part of our funding depends on it.
So my boxing day was interesting. I spent the day in a blur playing catch up.
Managing a complex project can feel like a big ask sometimes due to the combined challenges of autism, dyslexia and dyscalculia. It can be scary for example when your brain goes walkabout and you know meanwhile that the pesky checklist of vital project tasks won’t tick itself. I like the phrase buffering which I’ve come to trust as a necessary period of processing. It describes perfectly those periods of time when I simply can’t focus on the ‘right’ details. In such a state it’s honestly better to watch an entire series on Netflix than try.
But when the stars align there is nothing to match what can be achieved by the converse state of hyper-focus.
It seems there must be other states too. States in which we try and fumble. Ones in which we ‘do our best’. I often find it hard to remember these in-between places as being anywhere near useful, and yet they must be because I don’t think that I’ve oscillated between the super functional and resting states in a constant loop from July to December. My main impression has been of grafting and trying – without the luxury of time and space to either buffer or hyper-focus in my preferred manner.
So it’s surprising to me that we’ve achieved so much as I write about it for the Arts Council.
My project is about making a difference and it is doing just that thing in pleasingly measurable and incremental ways. The angel hair for the artists on this project is not for me to share in any great detail, but for some of us it has been transformational. The opportunity to work autistically has allowed for important developments to occur, the most obvious being our (potentially) day after Brexit exhibition opening!
Other effects will be longer lasting and relate to vital relationships and networks forming (and consolidating), and further opportunities of work alongside present employment – which will lead to profiles being raised and reputations made. These are the staff of working lives but the stuff some autistic artists have been long denied due to specific challenges in the area of social semantics among others.
So despite the sweat at times – or more likely because of it – we have some really important half-time outcomes to feel good about. I want to be very un-British and blow our project trumpets loudly!
I want to be clear that this is what happens when you begin to work in autistic ways. This is what happens when we are free to design our own projects. This is what happens when we lead.
So my New Year resolution is very different this year. For 2019 I promise not to change a thing.
August 29, 2018 § 4 Comments
Photo by Hugh Pryor. Image of Naomi Morris, Neither Use Nor Ornament, Research Residency. © Hugh Pryor, 2018
Unmasking has become a hot topic for some autistics recently. In reality it is (and always has been) a daily negotiation.
What I want to say in this post is that, while (it must always be acknowledged) some of us don’t have the luxury of choice about masking, others are dancing a daily (if not hourly) delicate dance with their masks.
Some have (quite rightly I think) questioned the term masking – here meaning a survival strategy adopted by autistic people. The social carapace, role playing, performing neurotypicality, faking it – are all terms which can be used to describe what we do at any given time, mainly (in my case) unconsciously (until diagnosis that is).
And before we go any further – ‘faking it’ here goes beyond ‘normal’ usage.
One fascinating consequence of my identification as an autistic person is that I can now tell when I’m launching into social adaptations that go beyond the me I’m more comfortable with. There must be shades of masking, gradations if you will. Some late diagnosed autistic writers I’ve encountered (via blogging) write about the difficulty in knowing where the line is between the adaptations they’ve learned and the ‘authentic self’. Articulate and deeply intelligent beings they often conclude that there is no such line.
The ‘authentic self ‘as a concept is flawed. Perhaps what we can best say is that we are deeply influenced (as all other humans are) by our nurture – except that in the case of autistics the nurture has so often been the wrong fit. We want – in important ways to return to nature, to our natural selves. The problem is locating the self in an alien milieu. This search compounded by the ‘loss of self’ implied by masking (in my view).
My own experience is that second guessing what others want from you – as a blanket survival strategy – leads to immense confusion in the area of identity. I’m glad to leave this aspect of masking behind me.
That is not to say that I don’t mask – of course I do – my professional life depends on it (despite my also being ‘out’ as a professional), and in reconstructing my personal life (post diagnosis) I am often immensely grateful for the many masks in my repertoire. I am infinitely more comfortable and honest as I move through my days, and as I observe myself slip on a mask. But this doesn’t mean I have it made. I don’t.
I still get caught out. I still find certain situations overwhelming. I am still humiliated.
All I mean to do here really is observe some changes, and reflect the difficulties inherent in the actions both of masking and unmasking.
And this is pertinent to my professional life too.
Central to my work as an artist and creative project lead is the idea of being ‘out’ as an autistic. My own creative work as such is not about autism, but I am committed to championing autistic arts professionalism (as I see it) within my sector (freelance visual arts practice). The autistic artists who currently work alongside me form part of an experimental project in which we seek to challenge preconceived notions about autistic artists. We are not savant, we are not outsiders, we are professional people doing a great job. (Unfortunately this will be news to many!)
This would seem (on the surface) to be a wholly professional matter. Except that of course it isn’t because it involves our unmasking – that delicate and infinitely unstable (because it is constantly shifting) negotiation of the self. This is so utterly personal!
Imagine the masks we use as a cache of theatre props and costumes or a child’s dressing-up box. Imagine having to constantly judge each new situation in your day and rummage through the box for the right thing to wear. Imagine tuning in to the voices to find the right voice to use. Imagine studying the gestures to match them perfectly. Blend in, blend in – don’t show yourself as you truly are because you won’t be accepted! And all without consciously understanding what is happening or why (before diagnosis).
For some of us this process will have become entangled in our creative work. Performers especially so, I imagine.
For the artists I mentor I usually suggest tuning in to the inner voice. This is to avoid a tendency to fragment and mask in the face of outside influences. Locating a calm and loving inner voice can be a real challenge however.
This is why I’m currently loving the idea of quiet reflection – the practice of creating spaces in the day for the chatter to die down. Observe the masks, observe the self, practice with and strengthen these muscles of observation (if you can).
Recently I’ve had cause to think about this key element of the incredibly powerful and exciting Neither Use Nor Ornament project. I can’t assume anything about where we will all be with our masking at any given moment. And that’s a wonderful dynamic to work with when you think about it. What better example of nuance in presenting autism could I dream of than the now you see us and now you don’t reality of our lives.
In writing this I realise that so much of the anxiety of unmasking is in the reception we receive – and that’s the bit we fear most because it can be dangerous (and or humiliating) for us and that is unpredictable. SO privileged am I in my unmasking today that I often forget the deep deep root of my social conditioning in the playgrounds and playing fields of school. I forget that for many autistics, especially where other minority status’ intersect, unmaking is unsafe and not an option. I plan to work much harder to remember – and to coordinate the project with this at the forefront of my mind.
If we wobble in our resolve it won’t be through cowardice – if we chose to mask in specific situations there’ll be no judgement at all.
I emerge from blogging today with a new image for the project – that of a beautiful sparkly multifaceted gem. Not all surfaces catch the light at the same time. Let this be our motto.
November 17, 2017 § 2 Comments
We are a “lost generation”, who are finding themselves. We’re adult autistics, diagnosed later in life, and we are all pioneers!
The truth of this hits me everyday as I find new people to marvel at, and so many new voices emerging from the shadows of invisible neurological difference.
Yet, being first is both exciting and difficult. The birth of my project The Museum for Object Research is a perfect example. We have struggled to come into being – but we have arrived at last!
We’ve grown from being a small WordPress blog (now deactivated) into a website to be proud of. So please do check us out at www.museumforobjectresearch.com We have migrated to a new host, to accommodate all the wonderful content we have gathered during our recent Arts Council funded research & development period.
Currently, we are still listed on WordPress, but you won’t find our blog posts on the WordPress Reader when we publish new content, so do make a visit, you can now subscribe and explore our exciting new features, including the, Autistic Voices, section. We also feature our new autistic initiative, WEBworks.
Objects can can have a very particular resonance for autistic people. I am no exception. my connection to objects is joyful, and at times playful. It can also be deeply serious. I’m interested above all in objects as a language which transcends the need for words in creating meaning for us.
You can tell I’m excited, right? Right! So do pop in to see what all the fuss is about.
We’re also looking for content – in particular for the, Autistic Voices, section – where the focus is on autistic relatedness to objects.
If you would like to contribute a post contact me here.
October 13, 2017 § Leave a comment
This is quite a specialised blog post. I’ve been excited to find a slide show presentation from 2014 on a memory stick (autistically I burrow backwards and rely often on chance encounters with the past – the trick is to leave a trail…)
Like Hansel and Gretel before me I left some breadcrumbs, but still I’m rather awestruck that I could have missed working my way back to this somewhat seminal moment in the evolution of a project called The Museum for Object Research.
It’s a singular slide show. Many of the references will be obscure. It relates to my father’s two earliest plays – one unpublished and the other published in the Castilian language in small number and now out of print. Many of the references would be known only to the conference delegates of 2014 (familiar with the history of Spanish exile). Other references perhaps only I, or a handful of other people would understand. This doesn’t really matter. It’s the conceptual framework for my object work that matters – this is the exciting nature of my find!
July 29, 2017 § 7 Comments
(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.