Creative Difference: Exploring Art And Autism

Recently I attended a webinar hosted by the Autism research charity, Autistica, about the relationship between Autism and art and it was really interesting. The panelists were Professor Jonathan Green (Autistica Trustee, Professor of Child/Adolescent Psychiatry at Manchester University, and artist), Sarah Jane Bellwood (artist and gallery owner), Lizzie Huxley-Jones (editor and author of Stim: An Autistic Anthology), and Jane Elizabeth Bennett (multi-disciplinary artist and researcher).

Each person introduced themselves and then the discussion began. I found the whole thing really fascinating so I thought I’d pull a few quotes from the video that I thought were particular highlights, but I thoroughly recommend watching the whole video to hear all of the points made.

So here are some quotes that I found really interesting…

JANE ELIZABETH BENNETT: “I think art is the first language that I really kind of learnt. So, for me, art is a way to speak, it’s a way to communicate, it’s a way to convey emotion, and they’re not always things that I’m fantastic at doing in a kind of neurotypical way. For me, art is a very atypical way of communicating. You do it through colour, you do it through gesture, you do it through sound.

I love this description of art and it’s something I really relate to as an artist. I definitely use my songwriting to tell stories and relay experiences and share emotions. I do that through the lyrics, through the melody, the vocal performance, the arrangement and instrumentation, as well as the production. While, for me, the song is the piece of art in its purest form, the performance, the arrangement, and the production are all a vital part of conveying and enhancing the emotional experience. I definitely experience Synaesthesia to some degree: sounds have colours (and some even have specific tastes) as do emotions and so a big part of my process is trying to bring those experiences together; I’m often only happy with a song when the emotions, sounds, and colours are completely in sync.

JONATHAN GREEN: “And I was totally absorbed in doing this drawing, like nothing else existed except what I was doing. And I came out of it an hour or two later or something and I think I felt, ‘That’s the most real thing that’s happened to me for a long time… is that connection, with that plant through drawing.’ And I think that’s, for me, why I held on to it… was that it felt… it gave me an access to something that was so real… It’s allowed me to feel really real.

Having just written and finished a song is when I feel most real, most alive. Sometimes I feel like I don’t really exist and when I finish a song I’m proud of, it’s like a realisation that I really do exist. It’s the only time I feel in sync with the universe. I never feel so connected to myself as when I finish a song, or to other people as when I perform a song I’ve written and they respond to it. We’re all in this single moment, experiencing this thing together and it’s magical.

LIZZIE HUXLEY-JONES: “We should have the space within an industry to create whatever we want.

JANE ELIZABETH BENNETT: “I think it’s very important that as an autistic artist… it’s very important to have that space to make work that isn’t about Autism. Just because I’m autistic doesn’t mean I have to be, like, the voice of Autism but I think my Autism – just as a personality or as a writing style – is gonna be inherent in the work I make.

LIZZIE HUXLEY-JONES: “The way I describe it is, ‘we experience everything autistically so why wouldn’t everything we create be a little bit autistic as well?‘”

I think these are really important points: just because we’re autistic, it doesn’t mean that we have to create art about being autistic. Many do because it’s an outlet for their individual experiences or because it’s a way to make sense of themselves but we should never be pigeon holed into just creating Autism related work. How much space Autism takes up in our lives is different for everyone and we obviously feel and experience unrelated things that we want to make art about so not all autistic artists will choose to make art about Autism. But as Jane points out, being autistic likely will influence the work we make because it influences the way we perceive the world. Day to day that can be incredibly frustrating but when it comes to art, it can be something that makes our work special and different.

JONATHAN GREEN: “I think, for me, making art or the process of making art does help me make sense of things or sort my mind out in some way. I always feel, kind of, more in harmony after I’ve been making art. Internally, you know? Kind of rebalanced, or something like that.

I can absolutely relate to this. I definitely feel most calm, in mind and body, when I’ve just finished a song. It’s not too far from the experience I described earlier, about feeling real and alive and in sync. I also feel this real sense of inner calm. It’s like everything within me has been shaking and it’s suddenly stopped. It’s like all these disconnected pieces have come together and everything makes sense. It’s not dissimilar to how I imagine getting high feels.

There were a couple of things that bothered me though. I felt like having three visual artists and one writer wasn’t the best representation of artistry; they could’ve had a musician or sound artist, an animator, a photographer, etc and that would’ve created a more varied discussion because the forms of art were more varied. The discussion was really interesting as it was but I think a wider variation of art forms would’ve only added to that.

There was one thing specifically that I really didn’t like and that was the repeated use of the word ‘obsession’ in place of ‘special interest,’ the term more commonly used in Autism. I know that some people don’t like the phrase ‘special interest’ (I must admit I don’t love it) but I don’t think that that’s a good reason to revert to the word ‘obsession,’ a word that has some very negative connotations. Various definitions of ‘obsession’ involve the terms ‘unhealthy’ and even ‘disturbing’ and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I find those associations with my special interests uncomfortable and actually upsetting. I’ve had a handful of special interests in my life and none of them have been unusual in subject (animals, writing, singing, songwriting, to name some), but the intensity of that interest and fascination is what stood out. Definitions of ‘obsession’ also include the idea that they dominate a person’s thoughts, that they have control over you (which links back to the idea that they’re unhealthy), which, again, I personally wouldn’t associate with my special interests. While I think about my special interest – songwriting – a lot and would prefer to spend all of my time doing it, I can think and do other things and I can recognise when I’m spending too much time doing it and neglecting the other areas of my life. And during my research into the difference between ‘obsession’ and ‘special interests,’ I found several articles about how helpful and positive engaging with special interests are for autistic people (here and here). In the former, the writer, Laina Eartharcher, makes many good points that I feel I should quote rather than attempt to paraphrase:

  • “They soothe and calm me.”
  • “My interests do not dominate my thoughts the way that is consistent with an obsession. It’s not like I can’t think about–or talk about–anything else. It’s not like I can’t set my other interests aside and focus on my daily work. It’s not like I can’t get anything else done. If my interests were indeed obsessions, none of that would be true; my life outside of the interest would have come to a full stop.”
  • “For me, it’s all about relaxation and curiosity. I want to learn, focus, explore. And I want to do so in depth, with a sense of completeness. I don’t want pieces of the picture, I want the whole picture. I want to connect dots. I want to reach understanding. I want to feel solid in my knowledge. Tidbits and soundbites just don’t do it for me. They’re pointless and unsatisfying. It’s like, what’s the point of spending time gathering a bunch of soundbites and headlines? Meh. Give me the whole story, or don’t bother me with it.”
  • “I would like to see the ‘obsession’ association fall out of favor. It’s not accurate. It’s not nice. It lacks understanding.”

I relate to all of these statements and fully agree with her. ‘Special interest’ may not be the perfect word but the use of ‘obsession’ can be damaging and create misunderstandings about Autism. So it did really bother me how many times this word came up and the fact that it was never addressed, even briefly. I want to talk about special interests more in the future – I think it definitely deserves its own blog post as a subject – but as it came up here, I felt like it was important to talk about.

But that issue aside, I found the webinar to be a really informative, enjoyable experience and I look forward to similar events that Autistica puts on. I’ve followed several of the speakers on social media and have enjoyed delving deeper into the work they’ve created. As an autistic person, I’m always intrigued by the work of other autistic people and to what degree they experience and interpret the world in the same way I do and then (if they do) how they translate that into art.

Musicians And The US Election

I think it’s safe to say that a significant number of us, in the US and abroad, are terrified of what will happen if Donald Trump wins the upcoming election and so a vast number of public figures are becoming more politically vocal than they ever have before, at least as far as I can tell. People from all kinds of professions are speaking out and sharing their views, sharing information, and encouraging people to vote. And for what feels like the first time, there’s a lot less of the ‘vote according to your beliefs’ and a hell of a lot more ‘vote Biden because voting for Trump will cause irrevocable damage, including the deaths of thousands of people.’ Personally, I’m grateful for that. It’s one thing to tell people to vote for the party they believe in when the parties just prioritise different aspects of society, it’s another when people’s lives, their families, their very homes and livelihoods are at stake. This isn’t about priorities; this is about turning a blind eye to greed and corruption or putting people’s lives above all else. Because that’s what this will come down to. Donald Trump does not care for the American people and that will affect everyone in America, regardless of whether you voted Democrat or Republican.

I accidentally went off on a bit of an emotional tangent there. What I really wanted to talk about are some of the people making political statements and taking political action and how they’re going about it, specifically musicians…


Sara Bareilles – While Sara has never shied away from posting about politics, she has dedicated her social media almost entirely to politics in recent months. She tweets and retweets a lot of political discussion and resources and continually calls out Trump – and other Republicans – for their terrible behaviour. She also doesn’t just share the major, nation-wide stuff; she shares state specific stuff as well, which I imagine is really useful to her American followers. She’s unapologetically loud and it’s fantastic to see.

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She also recently started the #MoreLoveCampaign – named after her recent album but apt for the current times – encouraging people to vote…


Taylor Swift – While Taylor is relatively new to talking about politics, she is absolutely serious now. She did post about and encourage people to vote in the last election but she didn’t publicly endorse Hillary Clinton, who she’s since said she supported. During a recent interview, she said that she felt her endorsement could’ve been damaging:

“The summer before that election, all people were saying was, ‘[Taylor’s] calculated. She’s manipulative. She’s not what she seems. She’s a snake. She’s a liar,’” the pop star told Vogue. “These are the same exact insults people were hurling at Hillary. Would I be an endorsement or would I be a liability?” She described how the attacks might have gone: “‘Look, snakes of a feather flock together. Look, the two lying women. The two nasty women.’”

She’s since said that, regardless of that, she regrets not clearly stating that she was voting for Hillary.

In the last two years, she’s become increasingly political but she is very strategic about it. She doesn’t post about it a lot on social media but then again, she doesn’t post a lot on social media at all. So when she does, it’s pretty big deal, especially if it’s about politics. She publishes targeted, impactful posts that, as you can imagine, get a lot of attention, on social media and in the press. It’s a different approach to that of Sara Bareilles’ but with Taylor’s megastar status, that’s not surprising. It doesn’t make one strategy better than the other though.

She’s also recently been featured in V Magazine’s Thought Leaders Issue, which included multiple public figures and their views on the election and encouraging people to vote.

She’s also talked about the election repeatedly in interviews and has even been including ‘vote’ cards in her merchandise deliveries as reminders to fans.


Maren Morris – Maren is another musician who has been consistently posting about politics on social media. I don’t recall seeing anything that directly states she’s voting for Biden but everything she posts and reposts, tweets and retweets implies that she is: she’s talked about having a voting plan, the debates, voter suppression, publicly (and I assume privately) mourned Ruth Bader Ginsburg, shared posts about how Trump’s people were manipulating photos and videos of support, and so on. She’s not sitting back and staying quiet as country artists are so often encouraged to do.

But I think her biggest contribution has been her recent song, ‘Better Than We Found It,’ and its accompanying music video. The song itself is more general in its message, a message of always striving for a better world, but certain lyrics – “When the wolf’s at the door all covered in blue,” “America, America, divided we fall,” and “God save us all from ourselves and the Hell that we’ve built for our kids, America, America, we’re better than this” – point to this specific moment in time. It’s a very powerful song but the music video is more powerful still, highlighting three different stories, all far too common today: two young Mexican boys, beneficiaries of the Dream Act, who are being forced to return to Mexico; footage from the Black Lives Matter protests; family members of Daniel Hambrick, who was shot and killed by Nashville police in 2018, talking about his death. It’s a very emotional video. It makes me cry every time I watch it; I cried just writing about it.

As well as spreading an important political message, some of the proceeds from ‘Better Than We Found It’ are being donated to the Black Women’s Health Imperative.

You can listen to/buy the song here.


Halsey – Halsey has always been an activist but it’s never been more obvious than it has over the last few months. She marched in the Black Lives Matter protests in LA where she was hit twice with rubber bullets, going back the next day with medical supplies to help treat the injured protesters. She’s been very vocal about the movement:

“I’m mixed-race and white-passing, and part of the [Black Lives Matter] protests put me in a position where I was subject to being shot with rubber bullets, and where I was subject to violence. Part of the reason for my participation is because my family is Black. Every time I see a name in the news, it could be my family. Being subject to violence [at the protests] gave me a lot of perspective. I’ve always been a part of an activity like that since I was a pre-teen—I was in the streets for Occupy Wall Street—so I’m a seasoned protester.”

She’s since set up the Black Creators Funding Initiative to award $10,000 grants to Black artists.

She’s been featured in V Magazine’s Thought Leaders Issue and was on the cover of Time Magazine as one of their ten Next Generation Leaders. She’s constantly using her social media accounts to share information and resources about the political situation and the election, as well as challenging those who share problematic or hateful views, and she’s currently releasing a series of videos where she discusses different elements of American society with Bernie Sanders, while encouraging viewers to vote.

“You vote for humanity, or you don’t,” she says. “You vote for a racist or you don’t. That’s the black and white of it to me.”


Of course, there are multiple others in the music industry doing the same or similar, including Carole King, The Chicks, John Legend, Cher, Madonna, James Taylor, P!nk, Billie Eilish, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so on. I chose these four because I know more about what they’re doing and so can more personally speak to their actions and motivations and also because writing about everyone who has been getting involved would probably result in this post going up after the election…


And a quick side note:

It also makes me really happy and proud that some of my favourite actors (including those behind some of my favourite characters) have also been using their platform to encourage people to vote and especially to vote for Biden. For example…

Mariska Hargitay (Olivia Benson from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) has been posting consistently about the election, endorsing Biden, and providing resources through her social media. She’s also engaging with (the respectful) people in the comments about why Biden is the better choice and why Trump getting in again will be so damaging. Given what I know of her as a person through interviews and so on, this doesn’t surprise me but it means a lot to me to see someone I respect so much putting so much effort into this.

And Chloe Bennet (the actress behind my absolute favourite character ever, Daisy Johnson from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) has also been very vocal about the election and about voting Democrat.

She’s been politically active for as long as I’ve been aware of her, and longer if you scroll back through her social media. Something I particularly like and relate to in her approach to politics is that she’s equally as emotional as she is thoughtful and strategic. She gets sad and angry and she rages about the unfairness but she also finds ways to help and engages with organisations (even co-founding one, RUN AAPI) that will improve people’s lives. I think a lot of people need to see that: that you can be emotional about it but that that doesn’t have to leave you frozen. You can both feel and act.

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She’s also been calling out Trump for almost as long as she’s had social media, the earliest one I could find being in 2013. If we didn’t know already, I think we could safely say who she’s not voting for…


It’s hard to be in the UK and not be able to do anything, as far as I can tell. We can speak out on social media, share resources for our American friends, and so on, but we can’t actually DO anything. It’s scary and I know I’m not the only one feeling helpless, waiting for this one moment that will change everything, one way or the other, without being able to affect the result.