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.

Seeing Yourself in the World Around You

When it comes to TV shows, movies, and books, I see myself fairly regularly in the physical sense: I’m a young white woman. But when it comes to the things that I most associate with myself – being Autistic and struggling with my mental health – there is very little. Depictions of neurodiversity and mental illness are usually very stereotypical and often downright wrong. And that only adds to the stigma around mental health.

Now, I’m a twenty five year old woman with ASD and several mental health problems (including anxiety, depression, and BPD). I recognise that my experience is very specific. I’m not asking for a fictional version of myself; I just want some characters that I can really relate to. That isn’t an unreasonable request, is it? Seeing yourself in the world around you is so important, at least it is in my experience. It validates my emotions, my experiences, and makes me feel less alone when those things often make me feel very isolated and, if I’m completely honest, broken.

I’ll give you an example:

In Season 2 of Supergirl, the character Alex Danvers comes out as gay and a major part of the season is dedicated to her coming to terms with that and her relationship with another character, Maggie. This storyline meant a lot to a lot of people but the thing that I really connected to was Alex’s emotional journey and her relationship with being happy. In episode 9, her sister is abducted (said sister is Supergirl so she gets into trouble a lot but that’s beside the point) and her reaction is: “I was happy for five minutes,” revealing a belief that she doesn’t deserve to be happy, that somehow she is being punished for trying to be happy. This is brought up again later when she says, “I feel like the universe is just magically smacking me down from being happy.” These two moments were huge to me. This is something that I really, really struggle with and I have never seen it anywhere but inside my head. So to hear it from a character I admired meant everything to me. It made me feel less alone and less ridiculous for feeling this way. Because if this woman (who is more or less a superhero) feels like that, then it’s not unreasonable for me to feel that way, is it? Of course, I’d love for it to be revisited because it’s not something that goes away overnight but the fact that it was mentioned at all kept me going for days – weeks – and even a couple of years later, I can watch that episode and feel better.

And recently, Chyler Leigh – who plays Alex Danvers – has revealed that she lives with Bipolar Disorder. She first started experiencing symptoms at twelve years old and struggled through her teens and most of her twenties: “The mania would come and go, but the depression felt like it was always there. There are a lot of different ways mania manifests: I had extreme irritability and felt like an engine running on overtime; I couldn’t sleep at all; and I felt disconnected from reality, almost like I was high. As a teen, I did a lot of drugs, and that made me feel better, but crashing was devastating.” She tried to be the one in control of everything when she felt so out of control. She was diagnosed in her late twenties* but before her diagnosis, she says she felt like she was drowning and saw multiple medical professionals and multiple medications that just made her feel nothing: “[They] made me feel nothing, and that to me was more important than feeling happy or feeling sad. I withdrew and I shut down… I just didn’t know how else to function. And so I lied about a lot, I hid a lot. I kept to myself. And that caused an incredible amount of chaos and just destruction in the family.” Eventually she hit an awful breaking point, a mania so high that she couldn’t sleep at all and ended up hospitalised. Once she was released, she talks about how she needed to start fresh and find what worked for her. It was “very, very difficult” but now she’s in a good place: “I did find a medication that works that I still take, which keeps me very level, much more even. There are not really big peaks and valleys. It makes me function as a human being where I feel like, ‘Okay, I can manage when things are really hard and I can also really celebrate victories.'”

Ten years later, she’s ready to talk about it and use her platform to support others and raise awareness: “It’s something that’s terrified me for a long time because it feels like I’m admitting some sort of secret, or some sort of way that people are going to look at me differently or judge me but I’ve been met with nothing but acceptance and love and support, which is just amazing.” Her story is complicated but unfortunately very common and she and her husband are raising three children who either have mental health problems or are neurodiverse. The link to the initial interview (I believe) is here in case you want to read more about it. She also talks about talking about mental health and mental illness with her children in a healthy way that isn’t scary and that’s really incredible. She’s now teamed up with the Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health movement to advocate for mental health awareness and acceptance: “We have an incredible opportunity to change the narrative and change the conversation, and lead people to places that can encourage them and really take them where they need to go… It’s OK to not be OK. And it’s incredibly important to reach out. Be willing to let your guard down a little bit to be able to find that community. And also know that if you’re really struggling that there are so many resources.”

*”When I first got the bipolar diagnosis it was sort of like, ‘Oh my gosh, if that was me, how on earth am I going to deal with this? Am I in the same place? Am I equipped? Do I have what it takes to actually really genuinely take care of myself?'” I find this quote really helpful because that’s how I feel everyday. I wonder EVERYDAY if I’m ever going to be equipped to look after myself.

And here’s another example:

One of my favourite fictional characters is Daisy Johnson from Agents of Shield (which will be ending soon, something I am genuinely devastated over – it’s going to take actual therapy time to adjust to such a meaningful change in my life). Again, she’s practically a superhero (there’s a theme, I know) and ever since I started watching the show, I’ve been very inspired by her and her storyline. She’s a force of nature. She’s experienced great tragedy and each time, she uses it to reinvent herself, searching for ways to do good and make positive change in the world. She might be a fictional character but she means so much to me. And that led me to following the actress that plays her, Chloe Bennet, on social media. A few months after I started watching the show, she did an interview where she talked very honestly about her mental health: “I suffer from anxiety, I’ve had depression… it’s hard.” She talked about having panic attacks. She talked about the importance of mental health. And she talked about having therapy: “I see a therapist on a regular basis and that has helped me so much.” Reading all of that meant a lot to me. Knowing that someone I admire has had a similar experience makes me feel less alone in that experience.

Bello Magazine (November 2016)

It goes without saying that I wish none of us had to deal with these challenges but hearing people talk about these experiences really helps me. It makes all of this less lonely, less isolating. And seeing strong, smart, insightful, compassionate people (real or fictional) deal with the same things I do, reminds me that I can be those things too, that my mental health problems don’t make me less of a person with less of a future. Seeing people succeeding in what they do, while living with these challenges makes me believe that that’s possible for me as well. Representation is a powerful thing.

A Short(ish) Note on Thirteen Reasons Why

Ever since I started this blog, it’s been on my list to write something about  the TV show, Thirteen Reasons Why. I’d intended to write something really in depth but time got away from me and now the new season is coming out. And frankly, it’s been done. But with the new season being released, I want to write down some of my thoughts before new storylines and new characters stir all those emotions up again.

There has been a lot of controversy around this show. It’s been criticised for failing to mention mental health and how that likely influenced Hannah’s actions, and most common are the complaints about its graphic depiction of Hannah’s suicide and how it could incite others to do the same. These are all valid points and things that I wish the show had handled better but I don’t want to get too far down that rabbit hole here; as I said, that’s been done and done much more eloquently than I could do it (some examples here and here). But I want to say this: seeing stuff that I struggle with, seeing it out in the world and outside my own head, really helped me. Yes, I found the suicide scene (and many others) distressing and, to a certain extent, triggering but it’s not that simple: I remember watching it for the first time and feeling completely overwhelmed by so many emotions that it took a lot of thinking to untangle them. But it was ultimately a positive experience for me because it made me feel understood. Our stories are different but what Hannah was feeling really resonated with me, like we were on the same frequency. I’m not suicidal (although I have dealt with suicidal thoughts at various times) but I can understand the intensity of the emotions that lead Hannah to that decision and seeing those emotions depicted was a clear sign that I wasn’t alone in that. That was hugely important for me.

I also want to say that it was kind of a relief to me, to see suicide shown so starkly, with no weird camera angles to hide the violence of it. There is so much stigma around admitting that you feel suicidal or that you’re dealing with suicidal thoughts so to have that taboo broken so forcefully felt almost like an opportunity for a fresh start. I’m talking more emotionally than anything else, and only for myself. This is such a complicated, personal issue that I would never want to speak for anyone else. But for me, the more people don’t talk about something like this, the more the pressure builds and the more difficult it is to talk about it. For completely understandable reasons, the reaction is dramatic if you bring up something like this but what if we could discuss it without that pressure? With the respect it’s due of course, but without the pressure. Wouldn’t that be better? Obviously that is too much to put on one TV show but it’s something to aspire to. I’m not claiming to know how to get there or suggesting that this show be the blueprint but for me, it helped with my processing of this incredibly complicated emotional issue. Again, I am only speaking to my emotional reaction to the show. If you felt differently, that is absolutely valid. We’re all in different places and react to things differently; what feels okay for me may not be for you and vice versa. I’m just putting my experience out there.

I could ramble on because I have a lot of feelings about this show and there are a lot of layers to those feelings but I’ll stop there. It’s got its problems, of course, but it made me feel less alone with my mental health and that is something I’ve never had from a film or TV show before. So above all else, I’m grateful for that.

Now, to watch Season 2.


(Blog Note: I’m sorry the posting schedule has been all over the place. As you guys know, my life has been pretty hectic recently but I’m hoping to get back to posting more regularly next week…)