My artist freelancer’s guide to online networking. #COVID19

March 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

Woman with short dark hair wearing collaged tomato glasses and yellow rubber gloves grips a camera.

New Tools for Life © Sonia Boué 2020

My top tips for surviving and thriving online.

We’re all at sea with this coronavirus pandemic, and for freelancers in the UK it’s also been a body blow to learn that  (the the time of writing this) our Government has failed to support our incomes in line with employees. With so much creative industry work cancelled (for the foreseeable future) we’re entitled to feel hung-out-to-dry.

We know that world health matters most, but meanwhile we need to make a living, and find ways to “stay calm and carry on” from home.

It’s wonderful to see so many rapid responses to this crisis. A-N have created guidance and information for artists, Disability Arts Online have responded by creating new commissions, and Mathew Burrows recently launched the Artist Support Pledge. It’s all good. We will refashion our working lives.

But in all the uncertainty, there’s one blinding truth. Abled freelance creatives who’ve taken mobility for granted can no longer do so. We don’t know for how long, or in what ways the coronavirus will impact our future working norms. With self-isolation our new reality, and lockdown round the corner, we will all experience the same level of dependancy on the online world for communication.

So I want to say, welcome! This is where we (the variously-identifying stay-at-home freelance veterans) hang out and do our business. We know that you’ve enjoyed these spaces too, and found them a useful support to life and work. But this is a whole new level of habitation.

You’ll quickly connect to this next level but it can be overwhelming. I’ve spent 10 years building a career online, and this is what I’ve learnt about how to avoid the pitfalls and thrive.

  1. Ignore social hierarchies that shame online interaction. It’s not shameful to be seen to be a regular online user.
  2. We can break through social isolation by daily sharing. Regular sharing builds networks.
  3. Sharing and responding is important. You don’t have to respond to everything. Promote the voices you believe in without expectation. It’s not a given that they will like or share your content in return.
  4. Sharing quality content is key. This includes process and context for your work, as well as finished works. Visual artists especially, the quality of your images is important.
  5. Sharing is also the work. Online is also the work. You’re constantly building.
  6. The pace of online connection is different. It can feel and be instant at times, but deeper connections take more time and patience.
  7. Share for you, not for likes. You’ll find your own level. It has to feel good and useful to be right for you.
  8. Don’t worry if no one engages with a post. This isn’t failure. There’s an avalanche of information to process online. It’s not personal.
  9. Only tag contacts into posts if it’s likely to be useful/relevant/interesting to them. Repeatedly tagging contacts can be off-putting.
  10. Boundaries can get blurred. Remember online sharing is publishing and subject to publishing law.
  11. ‘Oversharing’ can be a hazard of spending more time online. This is what the Direct Message (DM) function was made for.
  12. People respond more to positive messages. It’s okay to share negatives, but a consistently negative message can be off-putting.
  13. Be true to the core of your creative practice online. Don’t try to be all things to all people, but do link what you do to others, and to what’s topical, when relevant.
  14. Using hashtags is an important networking tool. Researching relevant hashtags is time well spent.
  15. In 2020, filtering, muting and blocking options have become an essential part of the online freelance toolkit. It is your right to inhabit and work in a positive and  conducive environment. This is now also useful information for safeguarding your mental health online regarding coronavirus anxiety. You don’t need to stay away, you can filter trigger words on some platforms.
  16. Online platforms can be overwhelming. It can take time to find out what works for you. Follow the people and organisations that interest you, but with multiple contacts it’s wise to use filters. Enabling notifications for key contacts is also a great tool for keeping in touch.
  17. A watched kettle never boils. Follower numbers are the same. Network for the joys and benefits of connection and your numbers will grow themselves.
  18. Adopt what works for you, you don’t have to do it all.

 

www.soniaboue.co.uk

Instagram @s_boue

Twitter @SoniaBoue

 

Get networked in! Autism and systemic ableism in the arts.

April 15, 2018 § 10 Comments

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Mrs Pepperpot to the Rescue

 

My name is Sonia Boué and I’m an autistic artist. I’ve had a lot of luck in my career lately –  which has largely come about using my own autistic methods and working with two truly wonderful mentors. On the face of it I look pretty networked in, but most of my opportunities have come from sharing my work and ideas online. At the end of each project I have to start from scratch, and I have no idea how to ‘use my contacts’ or network neurotypically. The sheer scale of the social labour involved in networking neurotypically is beyond me.  This is why I have created a new kind of network called WEBworks, which is autistic in conception and in all it’s various manifestations. It’s for autistic artists and has a focus on professional development and creating access to opportunity. It’s a small pilot project – manageable and yet ambitious. It’s about empowering us all to become more visible and gain parity in the arts.

People are probably attracted to my work because of the intense autistic focus I am able to give to it – my attention is directed at what I do and not who I know.

So it’s been a jolt, and a hugely painful experience to be told by someone from Arts Council England at a recent conference (in a room full of professionals) to just “get networked in.”

Invisible disability is a box you can tick on a funding form to indicate who might benefit from your project, but it remains invisible in terms of just who might be present in a room full of professional people all grappling with the diminishing funding pot in the arts.

Autistic people are invisible as players. We’re so invisible that I’ve unearthed a major inequity in the funding requirements for those like me who aspire to be players. You see, I need big funding for my project, which includes support for WEBworks. Under present funding rules I need to prove why I can’t compete on a level playing field to match fund my project – and make the case that disabled people should not have to match fund their own access needs (and in my case that of my autistic colleagues). Perhaps no-one has thought of this, because no-one like me has ever applied to be a player?

(NB. I have been told ACE rules don’t demand that we match our access costs, and that exemptions exist within the present system – but this is simply not reflected in the mixed messages ACE give to it’s funding interface users).

When I found myself quite by accident at an ACE funding surgery in my local area and brought up the possible problems with match funding for disabled people in general – I was told this would have to be proved. If you just have a foot missing we wouldn’t be convinced.

I let this ableist comment go at the time, but made a mental note – this person needs training – and I  (and all my autistic colleagues) hold much of the the missing knowledge.

A missing foot (if you will call it thus) could imply almost any level of impact in a person’s life (invisible disability such as PTSD, chronic pain, fatigue…we just don’t know and shouldn’t assume) which could affect their ability to raise the signifiant sums of match funding required if they are also not networked in. We’re not talking peanuts, we’re talking resource rich networks from whom signifiant favours can be drawn into a project – for which you have to be resource rich yourself to earn them (in ways I, and those like me just can’t be).

I shouldn’t really be blogging. I have my Arts Council application to finish, but this is way too important not to bring to light.

You see something profoundly (if unwittingly) ableist just happened to me, so aspects of Arts Council England’s disabling funding system have literally fallen into place.

I  tried to speak about access in the system at a recent arts conference where Arts Council representatives were present.

For context, I rarely go to arts conferences because I find them inaccessible and they often don’t tend to speak to my experience.  I don’t generally go about with a large ‘A’ stuck to my forehead, or a, hey, I’m autistic! t-shirt on either. In fairness not many people knew my status (though I did make a point of telling everyone I spoke to). If I go again – as I now feel I must – I will break all my own sartorial rules and wear the t-shirt (with flashing lights if needs be).

But when I raised what I consider to be a very real problem of access I have myself encountered and blogged about on the a-n blog site, I was just not taken seriously by the Arts Council representative. In the time it’s taken me to cut and paste this link I’ve received a comment from another artist. I know I was speaking for many.

“Yes, yes, YES! Keep going! I didn’t know there were diversity officers. Thank you for writing about this.”

Yet when I did speak up I was assured that everyone could have access to this particular service – just like that!

One person who heads a National Portfolio Organisation agreed. We have a regular meeting where you can talk to an Arts Council relationship manager (people who hold key information and can help with an application process)  – as though I should perhaps have known about it.

Like the Alf Prøysen character in the illustration above, I immediately shrank to the size of a pepperpot! But something made me go on (I’m autistically stubborn and all about justice).

But you have to be networked in to have this access, I pointed out, without stopping to reflect that this might seem rude. I was contradicting someone who had (oh, to hell with it) contradicted me. As I look back on it now – they were essentially making my point for me.

Well, get networked in! the Arts Council rep replied, as though this were the easiest (and most equitable) thing in the world. That appeared to be the end of my ‘non-point’. I was to join the NPO groups’ monthly meetings, job done.

I felt the room close in on me. I had both humiliated myself and been silenced.

In the break that followed, there was no processing time. One kind person offered to send details of the NPO group meetings, and another told me they too had struggled to get access to a relationship manager.

Then darkness – a film presentation to end the day. An unexpected event. Tears rolled suddenly down my face. Have you noticed how obvious tear wiping can be – so much rustling and grabbing for tissues, and elbows wiggling as you surreptitiously dab at your eyes. I let them roll.

But why tears? People had been nice to me, and the moment had passed.

I cried because the film was just so beautiful. Broken lives were being made whole again through the arts. I cried because I had been disabled by taking a risk and speaking out. The profound silencing of autistic people is historic and deeply painful within each one of us.

I want to talk to all the regional directors of Arts Council England. I want to talk to the director. I would like to tell them about our struggle, and the bias of their systems.

I want them to know how art redeems every aspect of my life and keeps me connected.  That I and others like me have so much to give – that we can be players if the playing field is levelled. What’s more we bring authenticity to the table. Truth is that Arts Council need us as much as we need it.

I’m not networked in, I will probably never be so in a recognisably neurotypical way. I rely on people to ‘get’ me and meet me half way. What interests me is how to make the system open and fair.

I want people at the very top of the organisation I apply to funding for to know how hard it was for me to stay in the room at this conference. How hard I have to work to be present, and what it took for me to raise my voice.  So here goes.

One of the presentations just goes on and on. Everyone in the room is loving it I think, but the stage lighting sends an never-ending series of blows across my retina. I’m sitting too close to the stage. And the voices won’t stop. So many voices.

I’m caught by surprise. This shouldn’t happen now – the conference is in its opening stages and I have all day to manage. I struggle to find a strategy or any kind of relief. I begin to wriggle in my chair conscious that I mustn’t do this too much or someone will notice. Surely it will stop soon I think, so I try to hang on. But no, it just carries on and on.

I dig into my bag for the the soft tangle brush I sometimes use to rub across my palms to regulate the build-up tension, but by now I’m honestly near screaming point – the option of screaming occurs to me but I fully understand this would break an unbreakable rule. I realise after the event that the voices were too loud – the mics were set at the wrong level for someone with my sensory issues sitting so close to the front of this theatre space – I received information from the sound system which others can filter out. I’m desperate but rooted to my chair. The brush is as effective as a wet sponge. I dig it into my palms but it may as well be in my bag for all the good it does me. The voices just won’t stop – I close my eyes but not for long. Drawing attention to myself is the last thing I want to do. As the presentation draws to close I suddenly remember to pinch my skin under my sleeve and I step out of the storm.

The lighting shifts again and we’re brought back into a room I can regulate myself in more easily. I can appear ‘normal’. There is no visible sign of my distress or the energy it took for me to survive this level of unexpected sensory onslaught. I’ll know in future to sit at the back with easy access to an exit.

I want everyone at Arts Council England to know that telling anyone who begins a conversation by saying that they have struggled with access  (in any context and for any reason) to get networked in, is simply not equitable. And I’m sorry, but for invisible disability it’s like telling a wheelchair user to grow a leg.

If you listen bottom up to authentic voices you’ll also discover why not everyone can just speak to a relationship manager.

It’s time for social currency (and who’s got it) to rise up the Arts Council diversity agenda.

An Arts Council award can be a profoundly life changing event in the professional life of an artist. This is what I want for all the artists who are involved in WEBworks.

In fact, I might just attach this blog post to my application. Why not – it sums up the need for my project perfectly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The unmasking #autism

December 23, 2017 § 8 Comments

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A post in which I write about late autism diagnosis and masking. I speak only for myself (as ever). Some autistics are not able to mask, and others may not unmask in the ways I describe. 

I’m more than a little wary of making an analogy between the unmasking process in adult autism, and addiction. It’s not the same thing at all – and yet the demands to perform neurotypicality are both toxic and habitual (by societal demand).

The journey of becoming more myself (as an autistic person) is one of awareness and self-discipline. A diagnosis of autism has meant I’ve had to identify the deep run socialisation that goes counter to my neurology. This essentially means learning to stop using the camouflage strategies that have helped me survive in the social world.

Tuning in to others, adapting and moulding ourselves to their perceived needs is indeed survival mode behaviour, which has been called masking. You can imagine how tiring it is to maintain this over time, and why recovery periods are needed. The concentration and adrenalin needed to get through certain situations can be tantamount to sitting an exam.

One especially heinous side effect is that you can lose all sense of yourself. It seems that imitation lies at the core of this adaptive behaviour, and inhabiting other personas can (in my experience) leave you feeling hungover and disorientated for days to come.

But what happens when you begin to unpick this learned behaviour? What happens when you stop shape-shifting because you’ve understood how much it’s harming you?

This is a gradual process (in my view) which also ebbs and flows. There are still many occasions where masking is required. I still slip it on unconsciously at times, but with a growing sense of awareness.

I’m learning all about giving up masking right now, as I’m full tilt on a project and simply can’t combine this level of focus with successful masking. My project burns away at the waxy candle ends of my mind at 3am most days. I have a tight deadline, and I need to apply new skills. I revel in every moment of it.

Sure I’m in a tight spot and I don’t enjoy the insomnia, but I’m stretching my mind and can wallow in the glory that is hyper-focus!

It just means I can’t pay much attention to social niceties, and so I’ve gone monosyllabic. Social media stretches like chewing gum before my eyes. I’ve started to cancel appointments.

Yet I find that I like myself more and am increasingly more content.

Who knew that a smily face or hand clapping emojis could be such incredibly satisfying shorthand? Bless their makers, for they say everything you need when you don’t have the time or resources to mask. I find, for example, that I most enjoy leaving a one word comment these days or a quick social nod with a like.

It makes me feel solid and good.

Concision is a new find in my social lexicon. Just say less!

This perhaps should not come as lightbulb discovery so late in life, but when you’re socialised to be a pleaser you tend to provide substantial amounts of social glue.

But unmasking means changing habits and changing thought patterns too. Unmasking means I can begin to find my own contours and stay me shaped for longer. This makes it easier to locate myself if I have to mask. I can recover more quickly too.

There are still major obstacles to overcome, but this is new. This is revolutionary!

 

 

Organising the butterfly brain. #Autism #ExecutiveFunction #CreativePractice

November 29, 2017 § 6 Comments

 

 

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Work by Sonia Boué – 2015 Exilio exhibition. Photo by Chris Evans

Rare is the artist who can focus on their creative practice alone. My own professional life has become so varied that I myself struggle to balance the work that pays with my studio practice. Creative project development, managing the projects I create, my consultancy work, and mentoring, are all incredibly engrossing, rewarding and (I have to say it) time consuming.

It’s been a struggle to keep my own creative practice going as I’ve pushed forward all the other aspects of being a socially engaged artist-activist-facilitator, since my autism diagnosis in 2016.

I can’t complain (because I love it) but I do now need to ‘get organised’ – a term which ordinarily is an anathema to my brain.

Butterfly brains like mine don’t ‘organise’ in the conventional sense. No. Brains like mine like to organise through flow. And yet, I recognise that my in some ways super-efficient tendency to tackle work demands on an immediate – it’s in front of my nose so I’ll do it now – basis is not always going to get me into the studio early enough, or necessarily help me strategise  longer term (beyond this being my strategy, as it were).

In fact, the truth is that unless I ignore my inbox entirely, or deactivate Twitter, I may not leave the house before midmorning some days. Some urgency will grab my attention – I can get sucked down a rabbit hole of questionable use (though I maintain this is how I research, and that my best finds come about when I’m browsing), or throw myself into a fresh piece of consultancy that means I’m still in PJs when the post arrives (these days around 2pm). And then there are the inevitable meetings, meetings and more meetings – from which I must decompress.

OK, that quick-fire attention to new work leads is a plus, and can really pay off, as nothing impresses potential clients more than speed of attention to their needs – which in my case is genuine, I really do care. We autistics have to play to our strengths in the workplace after all. But could I prioritise my studio time in other ways?

Obviously social media can be a big ‘drain’ on one’s time – except for the fact that it can also act as a quite wonderful addition to the autistic freelancer’s workspace. Water cooler chat, professional networking, and a gymnasium for the ‘overactive’ mind – it’s all pretty positive when you frame it like this. I often tell the artists I mentor that some of my best opportunities have been created online, by hanging out, dawdling a while and putting great content out there as a calling card.

None of this has been done strategically by the by – it’s just happened.

Hmm.

Equally, I’ve had some major fallow periods and this has been pretty amazing too. There have been times when ‘realtime’ (how I hate the term for it’s hierarchical connotations) has taken over (as in days of old) and there simply hasn’t been time for Twitter, Instagram, and the like. It’s been edifying in many ways, involved a lot of masking (not so good) and made me intensely productive in the studio. AHA!

You see this is it. The autistic mind in my experience finds regulation tricky, and how the butterfly brain loves to flit from email to blog post at will! I speak for myself, of course, but so so often it’s an all or nothing thing for me. I’m either ONLINE or I’m OFF. Time spent away makes the social media platforms seem glitchy and a bit like Teflon – my brain forgets how to connect. People move on, the platform ‘upgrades’ and it’s all shot. You have to work at it to get back to where you were as a presence in people’s online minds. Don’t get me started on how bad the non-chronological timeline can be for autistics. We need our networks dammit! Sometimes this is even life-support.

So the prospect of creating some kind of structure for my work beyond the reactive is intriguing – how will I regulate the switches involved and will I really be ‘more productive’? My suspicion is that I will be differently productive, my worry is that I will lose out on flow. The ultimate goal is to manage it all, hold onto to all the plates I’m juggling without going into overload.

It’s my deep suspicion that much of this will require fine calibration, and that like taking vitamins (which I’m also trying out) I will be prone to forgetfulness, and lose track of the various jars which will gather dust and simply litter up the place. New habits and routines can be hard to sustain – like the over eager resolution, destined to fizzle out before Christmas.

Wish me luck. I really, really don’t want my creative work to slide away. So that’s a major motivation. A studio practice is all about turning up, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in. After all – I should really practice what I preach to my dear mentees. Keep it going, find space for your work, carve out time!

 

Out of the Ashes – a talk for TORCH at Pitt Rivers Museum. #autism

November 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

Out of the Ashes – notes from the frontline of creative practice on the boundaries of visibility.

My talk for:

Untold Tales of Neurodivergence and Mental Health in Oxford, a panel hosted by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and Pitt Rivers Museum. Pod cast also available.

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Panel (left to right) Dan Holloway, Marie Tidball, Miranda Reilly, Sonia Boue & Philip Ross Bullock

My talk today is about navigating the rapids of freelance work as an autistic creative and the challenges of working collaboratively across neurologies. My recent research has been a personal journey but has included a consultative partnership in the US and many conversations with autistic professionals across the globe.

I have come to know of so many talented hidden voices, and, while my talk is about a singular process, so much of what I have to say has a wider application.

My contribution to the theme of ‘Hidden Beneath the Surface’ is a tale of struggle in which becoming visible is an ongoing process and at times a question mark. What I offer are some preliminary thoughts culled from a much longer draft report for Arts Council England.

Introduction

I am an autistic artist and creative project lead. I stand before you as a person in translation.

I form part of what has been termed the “lost generation” of individuals who are diagnosed late in life due to recent advances in knowledge about autism. In my work as a freelance professional, I need accommodations to access the same level of opportunity as that of my peers.

I am now coming to the close of a unique piece of work, a personal case study in the field of freelance project work funded by the Arts Council. The aim of this research is to design an enabling toolkit for my work as an autistic project lead, which I will also use to enable and mentor other neurodivergent artists.

The key to understanding this piece of work is that I have had to build my tool kit from scratch as my project has unfolded. This is the first time I have worked visibly as an autistic person and attempted to advocate for my needs in the workplace.

Freelance project work in the arts is often informal, characterised by highly individual working practices, and without clear structures. We need funding to create self-led projects from which to build sustainable artistic practices in line with our peers. Yet, without adjustments for the challenges involved, we can quickly become disabled in the freelance melee.

Our ideas are often powerful and original – funding us can be hugely beneficial and reap rich cultural rewards – but the barriers to our inclusion can be overwhelming. I have made it through the funding barriers, and yet my project proved disabling and needed major adjustments.

Autism as culture

Autism is both a neurological and cultural difference. We are a small minority with a unique social difference. We live in societies which expect and demand from us a social orientation and aptitudes which are quite other. This is pervasive and disabling in ways not easily recognised or understood by the majority.

But those who work with us don’t need to ‘get’ autism in its entirety – this is a big ask for our colleagues. Indeed, the demand to share personal information about ourselves to gain access is an issue in itself (Mia Mingus). In an ideal world, our needs should be accepted without question and active measures taken, but in reality, they are mired in social complexities, and we are currently forced to navigate access via the very social codes which can disable us.

Deconstructing the power imbalance

Aspects of my experience stand as a cautionary tale. The earliest iteration of my project floundered on the question of inclusion despite this being its primary goal.

The bare bones of my situation were that I had agreed to work collaboratively to shape a project around my needs. I had lent my creative idea, and my neurodivergence was the rationale for funding; but still my needs became submerged. So how did this happen?

Well, I think we need a wider understanding that effective inclusion is a two way street of adaptation, and that accommodating autistics requires the will to focus adequately and make significant and responsive behavioural changes towards us – especially in close collaborations across neuro-types.

And, while we may seem to speak the same language, our innate human difference as autistics can be greatly misconstrued, and our value as the very people who can generate ideas and employment can become easily obscured in practice.

There exists a certain ‘tone deafness’ to the nuance of our autistic being, which has been dubbed the ‘double empathy bind’ (Damian Milton).

Neurotypicals find it difficult to relate to and engage with autistic experience, and vice versa.

A mirror world exists in which the only difference between us is that of number. I promise you that many of the ‘flaws’ suggested by the deficit models of autism can be aimed at neurotypicals from an autistic perspective. This has perhaps been my profoundest piece of learning.

Project leadership and design

To lead a project, I need to work in ways which minimise my anxiety. Anxiety is a constant for many autistic people, and can become disabling.

High standards of professional practice can be extremely helpful in countering anxiety at work.

But my project had unwittingly placed too much reliance on a single means of access, and I was responsible for outcomes without being able to move the necessary cogs directly in an ambitious and complex piece of work.

This was hugely inefficient and anxiety provoking, and at times it seemed my project had been built on quicksand.

I’ve learned that enabling project design will include multiple and direct access routes, and allow for a hands on approach in all areas where outcomes matter, also that truly successful access must be written in at the point of design and not simply added on later. My toolkit and my thoughts about project design have begun to merge.

Social labour

In the informal freelance arts sector, there can be a high reliance on NT friendship codes and relationships.

Autistic access needs can be socially misunderstood due to prevailing norms and the emotional needs of others. It isn’t easy to find a way to tell your colleagues that the emotional labour they take for granted can be taxing enough to make you lose the power of speech later in your day. Invariably, people tend to feel that your needs don’t apply to them, because these norms are so powerfully dominant and immediate in our lives.

But it is beyond stressful to decipher and manage certain types of emotional demand embedded in social codes at work.

My mid term project hack was to establish rules for contact, and filter interactions by limiting contact time and channelling all communications to one email address.

These simple adjustments quietened down all noise which was not work related. Some forms of invisibility can be a very good thing.

Masking and trauma 

But generally we have to mask or otherwise camouflage autism in the workplace, and this is exhausting and destructive in the long term. It is this very issue my research seeks to address.

It is genuinely hard for colleagues to understand this, because autism can be invisible even when we try to explain ourselves, and such failures of communication can be genuinely traumatising.

Our struggles can be made clearer if we talk purely in terms of access and equivalences with other examples of disablement. The will or ability to adapt to our needs, however, lies in the hands of our colleagues and is not often in our power to influence via social means of negotiation. This is the nature of our vulnerability as freelancers.

Conclusions

As autistic professionals we face a bewildering tautology. In order to become visible, we must express our needs in translation. We share language and use the same words about a sometimes radically different set of experiences. We cannot thus assume a shared meaning or understanding. This is why it is vital to focus on the machinery of access – the nuts and bolts if you like.

Translating autism is a job in itself and no guarantee of successful communication, and though I am a huge believer in cultural advocacy in its many forms, I think it is unwise to expose ourselves to this labour in workplace negotiations.

Equality, I’ve come to think, should not require that we ‘overshare’ our vulnerability (so to speak). This can serve to accentuate the power imbalance in collaborations across neuro-types.

I think that smart project design will be the kind that fits so well you can barely see it. And for this, we need the liberty to design our projects around our neurological profiles, and present our toolkits as a matter of high professionalism. For this we need spaces to think and plan autistically, and to share and disseminate our learning, which is my intention.

My quest has taken me much deeper than expected but I think my learning is all the greater for it.

Visibility is not for everyone, because privacy really does matter and may be crucial for wellbeing, and the layers of our suppressions are multiple and complex. But I have found the urge to test these boundaries has brought the richest of rewards – that of personal and professional congruence. I am profoundly grateful to the Arts Council for this opportunity to develop my practice as an autistic creative.

In becoming visible, we encourage others to do the same. This creates momentum and so can lead to change. But, in doing so, we can be measured in what we share, and this too is our right.

 

Autistic leadership.

June 16, 2017 § 1 Comment

 

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I take the entire inspiration for this post from a conversation with my friends and colleagues at ACAT in Berkeley, Brent White, Tanya Coffield and Laura Harrison.

Autistic leadership is both pioneering and not new. Paradoxes are what we do well, and while cultural advances and moves towards social justice bring forth a new cohort of autistic people who seek to lead in their respective fields, autistics have been quietly leading since the dawn of time.

What?

Well, what we can say for sure is that autistics (including self-diagnosed) are now openly assuming leadership because we have to. The very justice we seek in social terms demands it and shapes it in a glorious (if somewhat gear crunching) symbiosis with the aforementioned cultural advancements. Though on all fronts we still have a long way to go.

And here is the rub, we recognise that autistic leadership is required, but we don’t yet know the shape and form it must take because we’re forging it right now on the anvils of our souls.

If that sounds melodramatic consider this; I’m often moved to use the canary in the cage analogy for my own work and those of other autistics I know. As a people we are vulnerable to environmental hazards – as leaders this can be magnified because we must process an extraordinary volume of fast flowing information and translate experience (both frankly energy-zapping in a way that can shut autistics right down) while carrying on responsibly as leadership demands.

We also carry trauma (a particular issue  for us all but often complicated by late diagnosis), and can be ‘trigger magnets’, not only regarding our own histories but also that of others in our care. How to hold it all, and survive overwhelm and overload are in many senses not only about developing models but also about intense personal growth (insight based investigations on a virtually doctorate level and of the kind your average allistic would probably have no need for in the workplace). The workload can be incredible and almost impossible to log let alone recompense.

Yet as I suggest above, our leadership is not new. Not. One. Bit. It has simply not been recognised for what it is, or it has perhaps rather been sidelined and appropriated into the mainstream. We have and often continue to lead quietly and even unknowingly, while others seem to make the noise and get the attention. I bet it was ever thus.

But the point is that as a people we shouldn’t be lead by those who don’t fully understand us (a wider societal and historical problem that the individual must wrestle with in the workplace), also that autistic leadership should be acknowledged for what it is – the generator of so much that is good for the whole population and not just autistic people.

Perhaps the main impediment to autistic leadership is not that we must design it in our own image from first principles (though this is true as all existing visible models are allistic) – it is rather that we are not yet believed in as leaders.

This is what has to change in a wider sense, so that we can be freed to make our leadership models and create the support networks to sustain them.

I read so often about executive function for autistics, and the devastating impact of exposure to what I am beginning to call environmental hazards (the sensory world and allistic – socially embedded – expectation). Some autistic readers may feel that ideas about leadership might as well be beamed from the moon for all it has to do with their autistic reality. I have those days too and it’s hard not to admit defeat.

So I acknowledge my privilege while asserting that this is a hard and lengthy struggle for us all. Also that leadership comes in so many forms and can be so varied in scale. Recognition of what we do, on what ever level this may be, could be the start.

Self recognition may have to come first. Seeing others could be the inspiration, which is why I make myself visible. This is certainly how I began my journey with a trip to see my friends and mentors Brent White and Tanya Coffield back in 2015.

This post is for you. xx

 

 

 

 

 

Autistic power in the workplace

April 20, 2017 § 7 Comments

Photo on 02-03-2017 at 15.35 #2

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!

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