Our autistic senses are tuned to pick up things, notice things, that others do not, as Rhi@OutFoxgloved wonderfully describes in this post ‘The day my autism saved my daughters life.’ Our always-on, delicate antennae are tuned into everything, so of course we can experience overload in NT environments, and fail to pick up things that seem obvious to NTs. We usually realise too late what someone meant when they were talking, as exact words and actions now sifted and processed, come back to us. In NT environments we can consequently be seen as slow, or uninterested, and underestimated.
Our thinking is immersive, our brains work overtime — whirring intensely and continually processing details coming from our senses, fitting them with our experience and skills, making unique connections. Sonia Boué‘s term ‘brain dancing’ describes this beautifully.
In one of the galleries is an extruded rectangular sheet of thin hard white plastic mounted on a wooden board, lying seemingly discarded on a low table. I discovered that this is a representation in relief of an oil painting on display — an interpretation of the painting for blind/partially sighted people. I imagined touching it, my finger tips running over the surface, feeling the hard plastic with its complex indentations, and not being able to make sense of it. Was I wrong? Maybe I was underestimating the heightened sense of touch that may come with being blind or partially sighted? I did not understand how this object could ‘speak’ or describe, or say very much about the painting to anyone. In a fraction of a second, without actually physically touching it, I had explored and assessed the object thoroughly and was troubled by its possible not-fit-for-purpose-ness.
I forgot about this until listening to artist Lynne Cox talking about her work on the Shape Arts’ website. What she said about blindness was so interesting, enlightening and refreshing. I realised how much my idea of blindness was about it being a deficit, and how much we still have to learn and discover about difference.
This made me curious about the object again. Looking for some reference to it online I found the makers website and 5 minutes into a 10 minute video was a clue — people need vocal input from others to make sense of tactile images. Though I personally recoil at the ‘tactile’ quality of hard plastic used for the purpose of conveying a painting through touch.
My initial split second exploration and assessment of the object was confirmed when I read the excellent and informative ‘Shifting Perspectives’ by the RNIB, written by Zoë Partington-Sollinger and Amy Morgan. (for more info go to RNIB / VOCALEYES)
‘Someone using touch to access an image will rely on their brain piecing together many snippets of information. Making sense of that information and organising it into a complete image can be quite a task.’
These objects need to be used in conjunction with, for example, audio guides or guided tours. Line drawings work better than oil pantings. I still feel troubled though. The object ‘frames’ and presents a particular way of seeing for blind/partially sighted people. Are we, in the process, missing out on learning about other ways to see that may be more perceptive than our own?
outside the gallery
We’re not good at explaining our ideas, because the originality and energy is in the connections we make between things, and these important nuances can be lost in the linear structure of an arts funding application for instance, and go unheard. Contorting ourselves into a structure, a system that does not fit we can lose our way, and our wellbeing. Sonia Boué has written extensively and articulately about this.
In the business of being an artist and being able to carry out an idea that involves others, and/or get recognition you need to get funding or commissions or residencies or you’re not on anyone’s radar and not taken seriously. This is my understanding of The Way The Art World Works, but within this the goal posts are constantly shifting.
I have applied for commissions, residencies and funding over the years and have never been successful. The applications become all encompassing and take over my life. A few years ago, I decided to submit my own idea for funding. It was daunting, but I have years of experience in (meaningful) public engagement work, managed (incredibly) to attract two respected partners, and develop the project to a place I thought was ready to make an application. The infamous #grantium portal with its unfathomable loops and non-sensical descriptions, was the Alice In Wonderland opener to a nightmare. The timing of my application meant that I was caught between the old and new system, but the new system used the same confusing questions as the old one. Answering the questions was like being in a labyrinth, or a hall of mirrors, with no hope of ever finding my way out. At each turn, there were hundreds of possible exits, with each one leading to hundreds more… and numerous melt-downs. The process made me ill, and it was unsuccessful: the assessing panel said I had not explained an aspect of public engagement clearly enough.
When I was doing the application, I didn’t think the support offered and outlined in the guidelines applied to me, and couldn’t explain what I needed help on anyway. How can you explain what you don’t understand when you don’t understand it?
Sonia Boué’s blog brilliantly articulates and demonstrates the difficulties we can face when attempting to put into words and separate our multilayered interconnected ideas into rigid NT boxes for funding applications. It was only after experiencing this impossible process, and encouraged by Sonia, that I felt I could ask for support.
It has long been assumed our needs are covered under the ‘Disability’ heading. The artist Jon Adams (together with other autistic artists) is calling for ‘recognition and equality of support and funding for neurodivergent people as a distinct diversity category’ and tells us that ‘diversity is not diverse enough’.
Most arts ‘opportunities’ are not opportunities for autistic artists. Many (even those aimed at disabled people), exclude us as they are set up on a neurotypical basis, by NTs. As an example, every year at one arts organisation, 16 artists are shortlisted to attend group interviews from which 8 artists are selected to take part in a free-of-charge post-academic programme. The process sounds terrifying to me, I wouldn’t dream of applying. NAS illustrate here what a 1:1 interview can feel like for many of us, let alone group interviews. How is this going to work, when for some of us just dealing with the complexities of communicating over the phone (re. auditory processing) can be a barrier?
In addition when offering opportunities organisations often have networks of artists they already know in mind, and networks per se exclude us. As Susan Kruse resonantly explains in the catalogue text that accompanies her work ‘United We Stand’ (Power: The Politics of Disability, Shape Open 2017):
‘Success is dependent on relationships and networks. For autistic people, connecting with other humans is profoundly difficult; feelings of isolation, loneliness and frustration are common. …if autistic people can stand together, …they will find their strength and power. Autistic friends are deeply precious.’
After being selected for a ‘respected’ Open after leaving college I was approached by galleries and writers but had no idea how to respond, because of my background and because of neurological difference. I was invited to talk about my work and to be on panels with other professionals at conferences, but I am unable to do this in accepted NT ways and had to turn down the opportunities. Alternative ways of contributing are never offered, when in reality there is #morethan1way2speak.
Many organisations see diversity as being out there and other, and oh we need to work out how to include ‘it’. So it has kept excluding us, overlooking all of us, and producing pieces of white plastic instead of listening and engaging with us. We are here. Just ask.