Out of the Ashes – notes from the frontline of creative practice on the boundaries of visibility. #autism
My talk for:
Untold Tales of Neurodivergence and Mental Health in Oxford, a panel hosted by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and Pitt Rivers Museum. Pod cast also available.
My talk today is about navigating the rapids of freelance work as an autistic creative and the challenges of working collaboratively across neurologies. My recent research has been a personal journey but has included a consultative partnership in the US and many conversations with autistic professionals across the globe.
I have come to know of so many talented hidden voices, and, while my talk is about a singular process, so much of what I have to say has a wider application.
My contribution to the theme of ‘Hidden Beneath the Surface’ is a tale of struggle in which becoming visible is an ongoing process and at times a question mark. What I offer are some preliminary thoughts culled from a much longer draft report for Arts Council England.
I am an autistic artist and creative project lead. I stand before you as a person in translation.
I form part of what has been termed the “lost generation” of individuals who are diagnosed late in life due to recent advances in knowledge about autism. In my work as a freelance professional, I need accommodations to access the same level of opportunity as that of my peers.
I am now coming to the close of a unique piece of work, a personal case study in the field of freelance project work funded by the Arts Council. The aim of this research is to design an enabling toolkit for my work as an autistic project lead, which I will also use to enable and mentor other neurodivergent artists.
The key to understanding this piece of work is that I have had to build my tool kit from scratch as my project has unfolded. This is the first time I have worked visibly as an autistic person and attempted to advocate for my needs in the workplace.
Freelance project work in the arts is often informal, characterised by highly individual working practices, and without clear structures. We need funding to create self-led projects from which to build sustainable artistic practices in line with our peers. Yet, without adjustments for the challenges involved, we can quickly become disabled in the freelance melee.
Our ideas are often powerful and original – funding us can be hugely beneficial and reap rich cultural rewards – but the barriers to our inclusion can be overwhelming. I have made it through the funding barriers, and yet my project proved disabling and needed major adjustments.
Autism as culture
Autism is both a neurological and cultural difference. We are a small minority with a unique social difference. We live in societies which expect and demand from us a social orientation and aptitudes which are quite other. This is pervasive and disabling in ways not easily recognised or understood by the majority.
But those who work with us don’t need to ‘get’ autism in its entirety – this is a big ask for our colleagues. Indeed, the demand to share personal information about ourselves to gain access is an issue in itself (Mia Mingus). In an ideal world, our needs should be accepted without question and active measures taken, but in reality, they are mired in social complexities, and we are currently forced to navigate access via the very social codes which can disable us.
Deconstructing the power imbalance
Aspects of my experience stand as a cautionary tale. The earliest iteration of my project floundered on the question of inclusion despite this being its primary goal.
The bare bones of my situation were that I had agreed to work collaboratively to shape a project around my needs. I had lent my creative idea, and my neurodivergence was the rationale for funding; but still my needs became submerged. So how did this happen?
Well, I think we need a wider understanding that effective inclusion is a two way street of adaptation, and that accommodating autistics requires the will to focus adequately and make significant and responsive behavioural changes towards us – especially in close collaborations across neuro-types.
And, while we may seem to speak the same language, our innate human difference as autistics can be greatly misconstrued, and our value as the very people who can generate ideas and employment can become easily obscured in practice.
There exists a certain ‘tone deafness’ to the nuance of our autistic being, which has been dubbed the ‘double empathy bind’ (Damian Milton).
Neurotypicals find it difficult to relate to and engage with autistic experience, and vice versa.
A mirror world exists in which the only difference between us is that of number. I promise you that many of the ‘flaws’ suggested by the deficit models of autism can be aimed at neurotypicals from an autistic perspective. This has perhaps been my profoundest piece of learning.
Project leadership and design
To lead a project, I need to work in ways which minimise my anxiety. Anxiety is a constant for many autistic people, and can become disabling.
High standards of professional practice can be extremely helpful in countering anxiety at work.
But my project had unwittingly placed too much reliance on a single means of access, and I was responsible for outcomes without being able to move the necessary cogs directly in an ambitious and complex piece of work.
This was hugely inefficient and anxiety provoking, and at times it seemed my project had been built on quicksand.
I’ve learned that enabling project design will include multiple and direct access routes, and allow for a hands on approach in all areas where outcomes matter, also that truly successful access must be written in at the point of design and not simply added on later. My toolkit and my thoughts about project design have begun to merge.
In the informal freelance arts sector, there can be a high reliance on NT friendship codes and relationships.
Autistic access needs can be socially misunderstood due to prevailing norms and the emotional needs of others. It isn’t easy to find a way to tell your colleagues that the emotional labour they take for granted can be taxing enough to make you lose the power of speech later in your day. Invariably, people tend to feel that your needs don’t apply to them, because these norms are so powerfully dominant and immediate in our lives.
But it is beyond stressful to decipher and manage certain types of emotional demand embedded in social codes at work.
My mid term project hack was to establish rules for contact, and filter interactions by limiting contact time and channelling all communications to one email address.
These simple adjustments quietened down all noise which was not work related. Some forms of invisibility can be a very good thing.
Masking and trauma
But generally we have to mask or otherwise camouflage autism in the workplace, and this is exhausting and destructive in the long term. It is this very issue my research seeks to address.
It is genuinely hard for colleagues to understand this, because autism can be invisible even when we try to explain ourselves, and such failures of communication can be genuinely traumatising.
Our struggles can be made clearer if we talk purely in terms of access and equivalences with other examples of disablement. The will or ability to adapt to our needs, however, lies in the hands of our colleagues and is not often in our power to influence via social means of negotiation. This is the nature of our vulnerability as freelancers.
As autistic professionals we face a bewildering tautology. In order to become visible, we must express our needs in translation. We share language and use the same words about a sometimes radically different set of experiences. We cannot thus assume a shared meaning or understanding. This is why it is vital to focus on the machinery of access – the nuts and bolts if you like.
Translating autism is a job in itself and no guarantee of successful communication, and though I am a huge believer in cultural advocacy in its many forms, I think it is unwise to expose ourselves to this labour in workplace negotiations.
Equality, I’ve come to think, should not require that we ‘overshare’ our vulnerability (so to speak). This can serve to accentuate the power imbalance in collaborations across neuro-types.
I think that smart project design will be the kind that fits so well you can barely see it. And for this, we need the liberty to design our projects around our neurological profiles, and present our toolkits as a matter of high professionalism. For this we need spaces to think and plan autistically, and to share and disseminate our learning, which is my intention.
My quest has taken me much deeper than expected but I think my learning is all the greater for it.
Visibility is not for everyone, because privacy really does matter and may be crucial for wellbeing, and the layers of our suppressions are multiple and complex. But I have found the urge to test these boundaries has brought the richest of rewards – that of personal and professional congruence. I am profoundly grateful to the Arts Council for this opportunity to develop my practice as an autistic creative.
In becoming visible, we encourage others to do the same. This creates momentum and so can lead to change. But, in doing so, we can be measured in what we share, and this too is our right.