Soon I will be asking the artists on the Arts Council England (ACE) funded Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) project, how was it for you?
I have to do this as part of my evaluation process, but I’m also genuinely curious. This has been a unique project in which I have explored what it means to lead autistically (in my case).
I won’t have got things ‘right’ in all cases, but we made it to the finishing post of our exhibition opening in quite some style. I’m anxious to hear if and how my leadership has made a difference to the artist’s experiences of participation – and if this has further impacted their lives.
What I can tell you is what this project has done for me, by investing in my participation as a ‘player’ at a more senior level in my profession. In doing so I make the case for more of this for more of us. Autistic arts professionals are currently lacking such opportunity for progression – not only as artists but also as artist organisers. This needs to change.
It’s really very simple. In enabling me – through funding – to lead a significant project like NUNO, ACE have helped me to shift from a state of aversion to one of enthusiasm. Autistic aversion (in my case), I see now, was clearly fostered by a lifetime of exclusion. Not understanding neurotypical social code is perhaps where an autistic person begins in life, due to fundamental perceptual differences. What is less understood perhaps is the continued impact of this as a mechanism of our exclusion across a lifetime. Or indeed, what might happen in terms of ‘social appetite’ if the dynamic of exclusion were somehow ameliorated by genuine inclusion at any given point in time. It’s all so obvious once you’ve lived through it, but how many of us get this chance?
I feel we should be more aware that for some autistics social exclusion and a resulting aversion is a dynamic predicated on social bias, which once in play generates a serious barrier to our ability to decode social situations over a lifetime. Through such a dynamic myriad points of learning are lost, by which I mean two-way learning.
So what impact on the possibility of ‘social learning’ across neurologies can genuine inclusion make? I pose the question thinking that I know the answer. I think the impact can be highly significant because of the quality of my own experience in my shift from aversion to enthusiasm. Suddenly, elements of shared social spaces stack up. I am exposed to learning and foster learning in others. This is a two-way conversation.
I’m careful to mention the other side of the neurological coin in terms of learning (so-called neurotypicality). I’ve found that leading as an autistic person enables learning to flow in all directions. Neurotypical learning around me is probably the bit I can’t see, but which I reckon has made a whole heap of difference to how I am received and therefore to how I feel. I know that I am lucky in this regard – it can go so badly wrong when people can’t listen well. I’ve built up to this moment and have chosen my shared social spaces very carefully.
Being a ‘player’ has been vital to this process in which I now find myself wanting to engage with people and places in new and unexpected ways. I still crave a duvet day when life gets too busy, and I don’t love crowded events or small talk. I haven’t stopped being autistic – that not a thing, and I wouldn’t want it to be. What I’m talking about is appetite. The vital waters of my professional life no longer feel cold and uninviting. What NUNO has created – through it’s emphasis on people and relationships – is a warm hug.
Social anxiety and social sensitivity are often seen as negatives, but what if they have fostered a deep sense of responsibility and generated a high level of care for the people on my project? I myself know that they most definitely have. What also, if by some mechanism unknown to me – other than sharing my neurological status and leading autistically – I have been treated more carefully in return? I feel this must be true.
What if seizing the opportunity to lead autistically and to design my project as accessibly as possible has led to something really fundamental? I look forward to gathering more evidence for this exciting notion in the weeks to come.
Currently, we lack models for what is needed to challenge the stranglehold neurotypicality has had on our culture. The dynamic it creates for autistic people is, in my view, toxic. So I very much hope that in time NUNO may provide one such needed template for others to riff with.