I was delighted to be invited to be part of an Autograph panel last night, to talk about neurodiverse art collectives. It was an event organised around the brilliant Sharif Persaud’s exhibition at Autograph called Have You Ever Had.
The following is a transcript of a 5 minute response to two questions posed to the panellists.
These are both really deep and complex questions. I will deal with them in order – though they do overlap a great deal.
I want to talk mainly about the importance of language , so I’d like to provide a link to my 2019 NUNO Project which gives full details about my approach and research findings.
How can collective approaches support the artistic practices of neurodiverse people?
When we work collectively across neurological types we can open up a dialogue and also challenge hidden assumptions. Collaborating allows us to consider what any artist might need to support their practice, and how can we level up when we need something different from the currently assumed norm, because we’re all dependent on support, but this is rarely acknowledged in the arts.
I think we can be effective in understanding what we need and how to support one another across neurologies by focusing on social biases.
It really is worth saying ( as I often do) that there’s no such thing as a neurodiverse individual, while we can be neurodiverse collectively. The term is often misused because we’re all still learning how to talk about neurological difference. However, it’s important to try to use language as clearly as we can, even though it’s in flux and our understanding is changing all the time. It’s important because understanding and owning that we’re neurodiverse collectively helps to de-centre a dominant and extremely narrow perspective on what it means to be a cognitively valid, ‘functioning’, and effective human being.
So, neurodiverse means all of us. It refers to the wonderful and possibly infinite variety of neurological profiles among the human population. It’s just that very many people never have to think about what kind of brain functioning they have because society has been organised around their needs. This always feels weird to me because I have to think about it all the time! I’ve found people of the neuro-majority actually appreciate understanding themselves more, and gaining insight into their own cognitive functioning when they work with me.
We also need opportunities to experience and acknowledge that when we work across neurological types (as a neurodiverse collective like Project Art Works, for example) we all win. It is often assumed that all the gains are one way, when we are all enriched, and (in many ways) dependencies can occur across the board. This was one of the the very powerful points of learning on the NUNO Project. Talking about any need arising on a project as access can really open your eyes to how much we all require accommodations to take part in a group endeavour, often at different times and for different reasons.
So I think our focus in working together across neurological types must be on removing barriers regardless of neurotype. I think that is very levelling. Once you adopt this lens you start to gain clarity, I’ve found. My modus operandi on the NUNO project was that wherever there was a barrier – no matter what that barrier might be – for absolutely anyone on the project, it had to be dismantled before we could move forward as a group. It took knowledge, skill, focus and attention, which makes it important to have a diverse pool of talent and experience to draw on. This to me defines a collective, where each member is valued and can participate in ways which are meaningful and enabling, all brought about by a shared sense of purpose.
I want to conclude in responding to this first question by sharing some words from an ND artist, supported by NUNO, about what it meant to them to be fully accommodated. They described the project as both a life raft and a warm hug after years of exclusion and alienation.
How can supporting marginalised artists make a difference to individuals and communities?
Gaining genuinely supportive opportunities can be transformational for us. The multiple barriers we face can’t really be gone into in a forum like this, but it’s worth saying that working holistically with us can make a huge difference. This is because often the barriers can be many-layered and complex. Such work requires bespoke, responsive and relational methods I’ve found, often building trust and establishing preferred communication styles have to come first. Making the work itself can often be an area of greatest strength and a powerful motivation in our lives. Dismantling all the obstacles to making is key.
Many artists will have been denied the opportunity for professional development, despite having a very rich and often well honed practices like Sharif’s. If you don’t have access to higher production values how can you produce ‘quality’ work in conventional terms. How can you scale up works or reach audiences at all, for example, if you have neurologically based challenges in the areas of spatial awareness or communication? It won’t mean you’re not talented, it will just mean you need help with those things to realise your vision. Having an effective network of collaborators who can help identify what you need and organise that help with you can be vital to progression.
However, in my view, it’s not just a case of giving us a leg-up so we can succeed in conventional terms and fit in with a system that is fundamentally ill-fitting and will remain so without change. Think of all the effort involved in trying to swim against the tide, and in supporting us within systems that are stacked against us, because they’re not made for us.
Working across neurologies is an opportunity to learn from each other and find ways to break out of the narrow frameworks that have been created for developing and platforming artistic practice more generally. We can all benefit from trying new ways to think about our work, develop projects, make work, share process and exhibit works. I’m currently experimenting with all of this in my new project called Neurophototherapy. I think we need new templates for what constitutes practice, if we’re going to learn to value and understand works beyond a narrow spectrum of lived experience. I think this will need to involve a greater emphasis on the value of the creative process, and creating opportunities for genuine neurodiverse collaboration in all areas of the Arts. This can only serve to enrich us all.
So I’m mulling things over. At this point in the global pandemic almost everything looks different, and I’m really beginning to sense that the Arts are opening up to neurodivergent creatives in ways that were previously unimaginable.
For the first time, I’m actually seeing a systematic pattern of my neurodivergent friends and colleagues consistently gaining opportunity! The ground has definitely shifted via Covid-19 in unexpected ways. Sometimes I have to remind myself what a lone voice I was when I began advocating only 5 or so years ago. Okay, a handful of us were making noise, but now we’re literally EVERYWHERE!
I’m endlessly heartened by all the projects and initiatives I encounter, and when organisations demonstrate that they are truly listening! Amen, to that.
This is not to say that our work is done, it’s actually just beginning. So while I don’t have much time for blogging I’m quietly taking stock. I feel utterly blessed in my own work, and in having the opportunity to continue researching what it means to be an artist like me in a ‘neurotypical’ art world. This is also a work in progress but there is one thing I know, it’s important to hold onto your authenticity in every aspect of your work. This includes sitting with uncomfortable feelings and not forcing things when they don’t feel right.
There are still so very many regards in which sector practices need to change. What I hope is that in breaking through (in some respects) we can deepen the conversation about what we need and also what we can contribute in terms of understanding creative practice.
I look forward to having time and space to write more.
(This photograph was taken during my commission by Aidan Moesby for the Thresholds Online Exhibition at MIMA, but doesn’t form part of the final selection for my photographic series Safe as Houses.)
How does it feel to be an artist who’s output is misunderstood and therefore mis-framed and often overlooked in mainstream arts?
I’m certain autistic artists are not alone in feeling this. The so-called mainstream is a highly competitive, not to say fickle, world. There are trends and any artist can feel marginalised by falling outside current directions. Relevance can be a hugely problematic criteria for selection, for instance, but my blog post isn’t about this.
My post has nothing to do with sour grapes either, though the above image was recently ‘not selected’ for an open call. I never thought it would be. I’m more than aware that the autistic rapture contained within it quite possibly doesn’t translate. The vastness of space I discern in such a close shot may well not register in minds that don’t share my sensory world. So be it.
Yesterday someone told me that statistics are increasingly showing the prevalence of autistic people is nothing like what was thought, and that a recent presentation from the University of Birmingham quoted 1 in 54 in 2020.
I expect at some future point in time generations will look back at our ignorance in wonder, yet autistic people must and do live now.
This takes me back to my initial question about swimming against a perceptual tide. A phenomenon which places a significant number of us at great disadvantage not only because we face so many socially embedded barriers, but because our art (and what it signifies to us) is invisible. This may be simply expressed as ‘not cool’ or ‘edgy’ as understood in neurotypical culture.
This is frustrating and soul destroying. Often we’re expected to be savants, outsider artists or in need of art therapy. Sometimes we’re consumed for our exoticism; our AMAZING perceptual words glamorised for neurotypical tastes. To be seen we must bare our psyches or be exceptional and inspiring. We can be forgiven for suspecting that if we don’t tick any of the above boxes we better just disappear. If we can’t thrill you we’re not worth the attention span, sort of thing.
In my sector support work I meet a lot of autistics and other neurodivergent creatives. I’m hearing from arts organisations that neurodivergent artists are forming 50-80% of those seeking professional support offered through programmes and mentoring schemes.
Progress in our understanding of autism and neurodivergence at the level of lived experience is allowing us to identify ourselves in ever greater number. At grass roots level this is a literal tidal wave. My inbox is stuffed with enquires, and daily I encounter more creatives who’s profiles are multifariously atypical.
Progress in the sector feels slow when you’re at the coal face. It feels especially slow for the late diagnosed creatives who’ve been held back for a lifetime, and are only just finding their way. We may seem old (and thus irrelevant to some ) but we are young diagnostically speaking.
We’re also tired of not seeing ourselves reflected and of being overlooked because we can’t be seen.
I’ve long sat on the fence about whether our cultural output is distinct, because we are yet to be adequately surveyed or critiqued by those who know what they’re looking at. But this is much needed and our work is currently not being framed as usefully to us as it could be, in my view. We are not freaks, amateurs, or outsiders to ourselves. Conversely neurotypical culture quite often feels irrelevant, and not interesting to US. I feel such insights should be the starting point for vital conversations across neuro-types.
My considered feeling is that the sector needs to catch up before we face another major crisis of conscience about the damage done to a minority group. We’re an emergent culture facing huge challenges in organising concertedly, but the evidence about our lived experience and our growing numbers is compelling. There’s simply no excuse for sector thinking not to be ahead of the curve.
Yes, we have reached sector consciousness to an extent, but a sector which focuses on helping us fit the current professional mould is of limited value to us. What we need is opportunity shaped in our own image, and for that we need radical perceptual change.
(First published on The Other Side)
This post is about the sheer emotional labour of managing neurotypicals’ cognitive styles and preferences. This is heightened when autistics find themselves in a minority of one in almost any situation where our own cognitive styles and preferences are not yet understood. It is a serious issue due to the ongoing trauma of cultural suppression of autistic perception and sensibilities.
I rarely look back at old blog posts, so I may have written about this before. I feel I can’t be blamed for repeating myself, as it really doesn’t matter how many times we articulate our lived experiences we will always find ourselves outnumbered and misunderstood at some (usually unexpected) moment. It’s long been my belief that autism and so-called neurotypicality are like mirror worlds, sometimes a literal horror hall of distorted glass. We see each other’s faults and ‘superpowers’ through the lenses of often polar opposite lived experiences. For example, I am sometimes quite appalled at neurotypical behaviour, but rarely feel empowered or emboldened enough to say this out loud. This does not stop me believing in the inherent goodness of the majority of neurotypical humans. I just wish they could look outside their own experience as autistics are forced to do all the time.
I’m sure that many other humans belonging to minority groups will feel acutely the issue of number bearing down on them in their daily lives. Oppressions come in many forms when a majority culture doesn’t fit you or even attempt to fit you in. But autism is a singular disability and a unique difference – the ability to decode non autistic human behaviour is variable among us. Our social antenna are not the same. This makes us not lesser or greater, but it means that those of us who learn to get by to some degree in neurotypical spaces are probably relying on years of practice and an archive of memories. Our presence among you when we’re ‘passing’ is hard won. The battleground on which our skill has been honed is beyond painful. I need to tell you now that I bear the deepest of wounds to be so fluent in your company. When I transgress your norms it is quite possible that you have also transgressed mine. The injustice of this situation goes beyond simple annoyance.
When I acknowledge this truth my ‘resilience’ astounds me. The ability of autistic people to survive the emotional harms of (what I’m sure are unwitting) neurotypical oppressions is astonishing – though of course many of us don’t make it.
The influence of this majority culture can be so overwhelming and our enforced passing so habitual that navigating neurotypical spaces contains inherent risk for those who venture there. You never know when an emotional booby trap will plunge you downwards, or when the next psychological landmine will blow. Days can be lost in recovery. The blow is always familiar, you reel with incomprehension and lick your wound. Some time later comes the work of analysing events and rebuilding your inherent right to be alive.
Anyone living with trauma will recognise this process. It is visceral fight or flight territory. Cortisol surges wildly. The barbs are electric. We are always wrong until we can right ourselves again. If it sounds exhausting and a little dangerous, it is.
Passing for any group will always be fraught. Passing is an enforced state, a perilous training in avoiding bullying and worse. I would not have survived my secondary school (now demolished, thank god) without extreme passing/ code switching and other wildly self-injurious strategies.
I don’t want your pity, what I want is consideration. But what I know is that to get anywhere close to this I must lay myself bare, which represents more emotional labour.
Looking back over recent times I realise that I’ve found myself in a lot of new situations where I’ve had to work out what’s expected of me. This can take autistics a lot longer. One survival strategy is to observe, pick up clues, and seek the patterns. This comes so naturally to me I don’t even know I’m doing it. What I feel is anxiety, I know I don’t yet know what the dynamics in the room mean. They’re all fuzzy interference until I’ve observed them for long enough. The pressure to pass before this process is complete is almost intolerable. I can feel at my most klutzy.
With all this pressure to pass – usually as the lone autistic – I’ve been forgetting myself. I’ve been skirting round the booby traps and feeling almost immune. Passing confers great privileges. It can really take the edge off util it’s payback time.
So I write with a renewed sense of my identity as an autistic person who doesn’t want to spend her life passing, which is a bitter sweet moment. There’s a real rub to it, which is that ‘feeling more autistic’ is often a result of being more disabled. But until more progress is made in the wider world, anything else is a mirage.
The emotional labour involved in navigating non-autistic spaces has a huge impact on our life chances and our mental and physical health. We need to start building more honest bridges between us NOW.
What is good about my renewed sensitivity is that it will make me a better advocate, a role I’ve missed. It also prompts me to seek autistic spaces for new ventures. I’m tired of being the lone autistic in the room.
A recent collage exploring identity and the environment.
What a year to become an A-N Board Member!
As I look back over a year of Board Meetings and pre-lockdown events I’m beginning to understand the purpose of my being at the A-N Board table. For neurodivergents this kind of processing can take longer for many neurological/socially determined reasons. It’s been an honour with a huge learning curve for an autistic self-taught artist/advocate. I’m grass roots from head to toe so I will be honest, it’s been a big step up for me. It goes without saying that it’s a very different matter to log on to A-N as a member from taking responsibility for upholding the vision of the organisation. Needless to say, this process has also taken place with added pandemic, which saw our CEO Julie Lomax in lockdown in Australia for several months. Julie’s mentorship of my process has been essential to the penny drop of my Board Member role, and she hasn’t missed a beat.
Our Board meetings have transmogrified from Toynbee Studios to Zoom, and the habitual journey into London from Oxford has melted away. The rush to meet my fellow Board Members for coffee and sandwiches ahead of our meetings is a distant memory. Far stronger is my impression of inviting them into my carefully curated Zoom room where all my home comforts are a step away. The sensory relief is extraordinary, and the multimodal communication facilitated by Zoom has been a revelation. An unforeseen effect of the pandemic measures is that I can be more present and effective in meetings. Who knew that this was even possible? It’s only when the agony of sensory assault is absent that you can gauge its toll.
This won’t be a long blog post, but I did want to check in with my thoughts. In between meetings I’m a quiet Board Member, quieter still as I’ve modified my online interactions recently. The pandemic makes you sort your priorities, doesn’t it? I’m thinking more carefully about what I post and what I want to invite into my home via my screen.
This year is also A-N’s 40th anniversary and I’m now more conscious than ever of how each member makes history when we post our content on the A-N site. In these most challenging times A-N remains a constant voice putting artists first, and I’m especially proud to have been granted tenure at this moment. Watch out for our 40th anniversary content and the Artists Council’s Artists Make Change project for uplift. Artists matter is our mantra.
So what do I bring to the Board? What is the point of me? Increasingly I feel the point is simply to be me, by which I mean the unmasked version of myself. Ironically, this has been made more possible by remote working because I’m able to be more effective while freed from the burden of sensory stress. I feel my job is to be authentic in all my communications and speak and write this truth about sensory need, as I am now doing, for the sake of change in the present and for historic record too. I’ve come to treasure our Board Meetings. It is an extraordinary Board and our conversations feel vital and enriching. As I said, it’s an honour and it’s also a joy.
Of course I can’t represent all neurodivergent artists – that’s not the point of my position – but I’d love to hear from more of you about what matters to you. I’m also here to be a voice in A-N’s ear.
You can contact me via tweet or Twitter DM @SoniaBoue