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Unexpected item in baggage area!

On Saturday evening I travel to the US by Skype to talk about art and autism to a disability study group led by Sara Acevedo at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS). The very first question about the changes in my practice since my diagnosis for autism last year somehow arrive rather speedily at Grantium.

Perhaps it is because (as I have come somewhat irreverently to say) – I’m up the portal again.

Perhaps it’s because I spent at lot of time up and down the portal in 2016 (successfully I might add).

Or perhaps it is because I am talking to the group about the verbal fluency I’ve gained through the iPhone video function. This leads me to talking about the video I made about Arts Council funding application for neurodivergent artists, and on to Grantium.

On Friday I spent some time on my new application. I lost count of the number of phone calls I made to the helpline in the space of two-three hours. Mainly I was stuck a loop trying to allow access to another user – or registrant as they are termed on the form. This took 3 calls from me, 1 call and an email from the hopeful registrant (Elena Thomas). Said registrant and I exchanged at least a dozen emails between us trying to unpick and decipher the problem. Eventually we got through it.

A further call about access. I learn that I may not get to speak to a Relationship Manager this time round (cutbacks) and that I (an autistic, dyslexic, dyscalculic) must email to ask for help with my form.

It’s not until I spent the following 40 minutes trying to track down the right email address on the website that I twig. I was on the phone to someone who could have registered my need for access there and then – if the system allowed them to do so. I was also on the phone to someone who could give me the right email address.

I rang back. This has been my default position at each and every juncture. When in doubt ring the helpline – they are bloody brilliant (always helpful, warm and polite).

These calls enable me to circumvent the impossible maze of online verbiage that a thrice (autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia) neurodivergent brain simply cannot process. Never mind navigating and locating the information in the first place.

So I tell the assembled group at CIIS that the portal is not accessible for autistic people without a great deal of support and describe why. I praise the helpline – and then add that this is good for people who can access speech and use telephones. The room nods. They all know that in the world of disability this adds up to something quite patchy.

You can email – if you can locate the address. Good luck with that I want to howl, imagining the horrendous loop I went through earlier. If I couldn’t use the phone I would be completely screwed.


An a-n professional development bursary opportunity. I hesitate.

The form is easy – no Grantium this! It is beautifully clear and the text boxes open up as you fill them in. So there’s no rigid and obfuscating letter box slit format to squint at (demanding scroll, scroll to see sentences and meaning unfold or in some cases unravel). And we are talking words – not characters. It is short and doable. Amen.

But still – there is something about it I don’t understand. Like looking at a swimming pool with a view to jumping in when you can’t judge the depth and have never swum a stroke in your life.

A familiar sensation for an autistic person I think, and there should be a phrase for this. To draw a blank? Too commonplace. Vertiginous? Accurate but dealing only with effect.

A phrase conjuring the absence of something would be better. Words for when you can’t visualise something. When there is no mental image, no equivalent to draw on, no reference point. It’s a little dreamlike. The sensation that your reality has become subverted, or faintly absurd. Everything indicates that it should be obvious but it just isn’t.

We seem to be in the area of no, mental template available! I imagine this phrase spoken in a robotic voice like the one which blurts, unexpected item in baggage area, at the M&S self service checkout.

Somehow there is no map, no compass, and certainly no GPS. But there never is for the autistic person when dealing with hidden assumptions.

This translates as point of no entry. The door is not so much locked as missing.

All my life I have experienced this without knowing it had a name, or that the name was autism – or rather the effects of neuro-normative cultures on the autistic mind. It is the most usual sensation to find a no entry sign slapped on opportunity, from the most mundane to the highest forms. This is about a wider lack of fit and not a specific criticism of what is an excellent pro-forma in itself.

I’m simply unable to read the hidden social text embedded within most neuro-normative forms. Socially embedded codes are so very pervasive that the predominant neuro-culture is blind to their bias’.

The autistic mind is sometimes described as concrete and literal. I feel this is quite mistaken. It is simply that (in my case at least) I have to see and feel something to understand and gain knowledge, either this or to have had an equivalent experience to draw a parallel. Direct sources of information are best – drawing parallels is what we have to do so often but can be seriously hit and miss. A best guess on imperfect information.

One of the hardest things is knowing what’s expected when it isn’t spelt out. Professional development is assumed as a common term – when the neuro-normative versions of this are socially embedded and likely to be quite alien (to an autistic person).

The assumption is one of shared values and experiences so that it can be taken as read what is meant by professional development. But an autistic person is unlikely to intuit what this feels and looks like from a neuro-normative perspective without prior knowledge.

An autistic person really needs to be informed about what this covers, as they would almost certainly come at this question from an entirely different perspective.

Professional development as a concept in an art context needs to be broken down into its component parts if we’re to level the playing field for autistic artists. For this we need to unpick and then move beyond neuro-normative cultural assumptions and begin a conversation about professional development autism style.

In this instance I think a good place to start would be a far more comprehensive bullet point list of what can and can’t be covered by the a-n bursaries. Such a list would be nothing short of a ramp.

For my part I got lucky and found kindness and a translator. Twitter can be very useful. I still don’t know if I’m filling the form in right, but at least I’m having a go.

In general terms it needs to be acknowledged that access goes beyond the template itself (and this one is so good) to deeper issues of pervasive social bias for which autistic artists need additional support.

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(photo copied from The Guardian – A life in pictures feature)

John Berger died at 90 yesterday.

What can I possibly say of interest or relevance to add to the acres of words which will be written about him and his influence on his passing?

Exactly, so I won’t try.

Except to add an autistic perspective.

I first met John Berger in 1980, on a compulsory reading list for a degree in history of art. And I still have my copy of Ways of Seeing, which I bought in the tiny (on campus) Sussex University bookshop. Back in the day of free education at University level. My campus rent was £12 a week all in, and no tuition fees to be paid. The maintenance element of the grant was means tested, with a parental contribution exacted or not depending on income. End of.

John Berger was that rare and exciting thing. An artist writer.

I was decades away from knowing that I am autistic and also dyslexic/ dyscalculic.

Things I knew back then:

There were so very many perilous authors with a penchant for specialist language (the incomprehensible). Elitists! We raged – as a student group we were (I remember) angry young things.

That I was inexplicably and painfully shy in circumstances others navigated with confidence (this felt deeply mysterious and yet somehow inevitable and entirely my fault).

That I had an unreliable brain (on-off, there and not there).

My main job was to camouflage the oceanic scale of my perplexity – but this was (I believed) because I was an utter fake. A stupid person who had faked my way to university. I had to admit it was odd but autism as an idea for myself would be light years away.

When it came to visual culture I was less stupid it seemed. But still it was uphill in my first year, before I hit my stride. Geekery of course (as now I know it to be) pulled me through.

John Berger somehow cut though all of this. Ways of Seeing wasn’t a breath of fresh air – it was an oxygen mask. He detonated all my previous schooling at A’level, and visually I began from scratch. Yet for me it mattered less how much of what he wrote could be absorbed by the intellect.

The thing to grasp was quite other and better sucked through a straw than read. In drawing back the curtains of cultural assumption Berger also appeared as a magician – signalling alternate layers of perception. Autistic people inhabit liminal spaces it seems to me, often intuitively absorbing their environments. Seeing patterns, which other people can miss. Navigating with an unerring logic.

When I watch Berger now on YouTube I don’t want to claim him as autistic. That’s not what I mean. No way.

It’s just that there’s a certain cross over in the depth of his perceptions. Ha! Ways of seeing and ways of being, if you like.

In a long conversation with Susan Sontag on YouTube (1983) Berger says,

“I’m not very verbal, I have no facility with words.”

Sontag: “I don’t believe you.”

Berger: “It’s true, it’s true.”

And he explains that he’s talking about the unsayable – that which is beyond words, he goes on to insist. Like a melody, or a pattern of colours or a geometric form. And that the struggle is to recreate that in words.

His hyperawareness of the primacy of experience above language (I now realise) chimes in with the autistic condition as I have come to know it (I use the term condition as in state rather than as per medical model).

Words for Berger (he says) must be as close as possible, but they are never close enough to the primary source. They can’t touch the non-verbal, the felt intuitive experience.

And we’re there.

Of course.

This is my realm. I must feel my way. In all senses. The knowable is not always the sayable. We need gestures and babble sometimes – it’s all good. In fact it’s delightful.

What I recognised back then (without knowing it) was validation. From a man entirely connected to the primary sources of experience. A conduit, gifted with the ability to translate visual (and intuitive) perception in it’s highest forms into a language that was crystalline and egalitarian in spirit.

I recently viewed The Art of Looking a documentary about John Berger regaining vision after cataract operations (though it was so much more than this). Spending an hour in his company was to be transported back to this time, when University education was free.

As charismatic as ever at 90, he did that trick again of connecting me to myself and reminding me that there is so much good in the world. For 2016 – that was no mean feat.


Is it true that artists are only as good as their last work? No.

But this is how it often feels.

In reality what we might call a body of work stacks up – but if you have a poor memory this somewhat quiet process can begin to feel like a deathly hush.

This is probably why I took to Twitter yesterday – not exactly to blow my own trumpet – but to remind myself what I did.

What feels entirely true is that each time you end a piece of work, especially a complex multilayered project, you have to start from scratch to build the new work or project in development.

Patience is needed and stamina gathered – I’m still processing and filtering what I went through to get to all these places, and how to build a secure pathway through to the next adventure.