close-up photograph of someone's fingers holding a vintage razor blade



I open the jiffy bag. Sellotaped inside clear cellophane, a man stares out in the manner of Lord Kitchener, demanding allegiance . Distinctive and dashing, with a high collar, his assured masculine confidence exudes Victorian ascendency. He represents a deliberate nod to a bygone age of the ‘gentleman’. Somehow he just about gets away with the moustache. It’s way before the Village People undermined that particular visual iconography.

Now I do remember this little package so I’m not imagining – but in today’s world everything about it seems from another time; a time even before my own boyhood. A monotone lithographic portrait set into a two colour print of turquoise and dingy royal blue . It feels a decade earlier; early fifties. I’m led to believe that this pack actually does come from the fifties, but still, I remember the design well into the sixties for sure. Perhaps they just never got round to changing the artwork; I guess brand identity evolved more slowly in those days. Maybe my dad had acquired old stock, who knows. Whatever the reason, this is the pack I recall from my childhood. The pack I first saw in our bathroom cabinet. The cabinet where adult things were stored.

I have hunted down this distant treasure on ebay in order to confront my crime. The crime of a child is typically transparent. There was no cunning in my actions, although later there was calculated deceit in my choice of where to conceal the stash. Mine was indeed more a compunction than a crime and is, to this day, without obvious motive. The victim was my father, though I’m not sure he was ever aware of my transgression. He is now in his nineties and, writing this, I am wondering if I will spill the beans. But I’m not convinced of his capacity to do much with the confession. It would probably seem like an inane act to him. Would he smile wryly or think… hmm that just about sums up my unfathomable son.

The blades seem not quite as perfect today as they did then. Smaller now I’m an adult; really quite small. The miniature Victorian gentleman’s stare is knowingly aloof, but not forgiving. He dares me to open the packet again – which of course I must.

‘Time to confess’, says the small voice. ‘J’acuse, monsieur j’accuse!’ Suddenly I feel Gillette Man is French.

The bathroom cabinet was a lock-up of secrets; a place where pristine, clinical things were kept. None more so than the multipacks of Blue Gillette Blades. I don’t recall the exact moment I decided to steal the first box, but I do quite clearly remember how it felt to open the packet and reveal the treasure inside. It was something to do with the waxy paper and the precision. These were objects that had no purpose in my world; no practical gain was to be had in taking them. It was the thrill of the new. The rush that comes with transgression. I was coveting a wafer of sharp silver in its delicious double wrap packaging. Mesmerised by the theatrical reveal.

Once laid bare, there isn’t much you can do with a razor blade if you want to maintain its perfection. Make a single cut and it’s virginity is lost. So I always packed them back up with care. Exquisite gifts from the mirrored cabinet. Folding the paper wings into their embrace of steel and sliding each blade back into the box.

Now I had moved beyond coveting, they were potential evidence. Evidence of my crime; smeared with my DNA. Even though I knew nothing of DNA at the time, my instincts were good. Like stolen goods they were hot. Very cool, but too hot to have around. Too incriminating. Yet I didn’t want to give them back.

Their eventual hiding place was arrived at via a process of elimination. My bedroom was small in those days with just enough room for a single bed and a pull down cabinet where I attempted my homework. Mother did the general housework and would be sure to find any secret spot, as nothing was deemed private at that young age. Obviously I couldn’t use my parent’s room so that only left the slightly larger one my older sister occupied in our three bedroom semi. If I was to use this as my treasure island I had to find a place neither of them would look.

They may have had an early version of carpet grippers in those days, but I recall ours being held by crudely fashioned flat headed tacks that kept the carpet in place. These were easily lifted, so I decided upon the classic hiding spot. Not exactly under the floorboards but under the carpet at least. Lift an edge, slide the blades in, and push the tack back into place with a furtive thumb.

Time passed. On finding after a while that there was no comment, no ramifications, no thunderous accusation, the mind of this criminal longed for further excitement. Was repeating the act merely satisfying the same craving, or had I a longing to be found out? I can’t answer that but, regardless, my plundering of the bathroom cabinet became ever more frequent and greedy. How many blades did father think he was using? Surely he would notice at some point? If he did he never said and thankfully he never grew a beard. He must have continued to buy blades. I fed my habit and added to the hoard. It was like money in the bank.

At some point I must have grown tired of this. Perhaps the carpet began to undulate with the accumulation of blades I hid under it. No doubt I became interested in other things. As an adult I occasionally have pondered this odd behaviour. Admittedly it was only a petty crime, but I do wonder what Freud might have had to say about it. I also wonder what the new owners of my parent’s house thought when they lifted that old carpet years later.

As an adult I have, on occasion, looked for some reverberations in my later life that might provide a motive. The best I can come up with relates to computer graphics.

In the mid eighties I was a demonstrator for a video based computer graphics system, presenting to industry professionals at media shows and the like. The world was by and large unfamiliar with such technology. Almost without exception, the audience would be wowed by the ‘instant colour graduation’ routine.
‘So I click here’ (clicks on colour palette.. let’s say deep blue)
‘then I click here’ (white perhaps)
‘and then click here’ (oh I don’t know – something similar to the first colour)… and hey presto; a perfect, shimmering tonal graduation instantly appeared on screen. The kind that used to take ages to achieve using an emulsion, film based process (typically employed for graphic overlays of captions and other such tele related stuff).

That little trick now seems profoundly trite and uninteresting; anyone can do it in photoshop with just a quick tutorial, but in those days it was amazing. It amazed me too. I felt like an explorer who had journeyed to distant lands and brought back something exotic and forbidden to bamboozle and astound his tribe. In the trade show context, I was a medicine man rocking up with my mysterious Pandora’s box of dodgy elixirs.

The look of computer graphics attracted me in the early days for precisely this reason. It was new, it was shiny and could achieve the immaculate in a way which denied any trace of the human hand. It was alchemic. And there, I feel, is the parallel. I was fundamentally drawn to the razor blades and their perfect packaging in the same way as I was drawn to this smooth computer generated graduation.

In the quest to make things look ‘realistic’ computers are now ever more required to produce images which appear distressed and imprecise, some might say subtler, but in the early days of CGI that effortless perfection represented the shock of the new. The birth of a flawless way of making things.

If you have grown up with computer technology you might not understand this epiphany, but if you are a tad older, and interested in the appearance of things, you will recall a world where such perfection was hard won. The razor blades to me as a boy were that perfection made real; to all intents and purposes an actual trove of treasure, beyond function; beauty for its own sake.

In retrospect, I see that the blades represent the achievement of an old way of manufacturing. Those processes associated with factories and smoke, ‘heavy industry’ and the skill of the hand. The astounding new technology of all things computer generated has assumed this mantle and headed off apace, but what hasn’t evolved so rapidly is ‘us’ and our emotional being.

Here in the present, although the humble razor blade might seem mundane to some, to me it remains as magical as ever it was because of the associations I bestow it from my past. I’m thinking that the on-screen colour graduation, though less tangible and admittedly now bland at first glance, might, in time, prove to be similarly profound. Something to meditate on – quite literally perhaps.

Listening to the radio this morning I heard a phrase ‘from hands to head to heart’. It was being used to describe societal evolution. First we made things with our hands and then we refined them via our intellect. That’s the ‘head’ bit. It is generally accepted that in the future machines will perform ever more of our manual and repetitive tasks for us. Though robots may indeed take over our practical functions, we hold as unique our sense of what it is to be human; to care; to genuinely empathise. Our ‘heart’, so the theory goes, is the bit that can’t be replicated or replaced by androids.

Holding on to our uniqueness may be a deceit, but for now I’m going with that as an idea. Let the razor blades stay in their box and let me imagine them. In that way they transcend their intended function and become the hero’s of my personal narrative.

Neil Armstrong Jan 2018

My Autistic Professional Template – a case study in autism and project leadership

Black and white photo of half of a woman's face. she is talking, there is an out of focus painting behind her

My Autistic Professional Template  also formed the basis for Sonia Boué’s, Out of the Ashes talk for Oxford University TORCH.

My Professional Autistic Template
Sonia Boué reports on her recent Arts Council funded project.


I am a professional autistic artist and creative project lead. I form part of what has been termed the “lost generation” – 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.

The following is the result of a six month research and development project, funded by Arts Council England. The aim of this research has been to create enabling conditions for my project work, and in particular in my role as lead artist, because there are no blueprints currently in existence for this kind of work.

My thoughts during this period have often been guided by Brent White, Director and researcher on autistic leadership, at the ACAT: Ala Costa Adult Transition Program, on the Ed Robert Campus at Berkeley.

Jon Adams has provided autistic peer support through Flow Observatorium.

Professional mentoring has been provided by Miranda Millward, and creative mentoring by Sarah Mossop.

Freelance arts project work is often by nature informal, characterised by highly individual working practices, and mainly without clear structures. Autistic artists need Arts Council funding to create self-led projects from which we can 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. Navigating this world requires a well constructed set of practical measures.

There is a great variety in how we present. I therefore make no general claims for my template – it is by nature ‘me’ shaped – but I anticipate that my experiences will resonate greatly with many autistic freelance creatives and help inform the arts organisations who hold our employment and opportunity in their power. 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 this funding barrier, and yet the early to mid term circumstances of my project proved disabling. Access was also impeded by factors beyond my control which were unrelated to my autism, and the emerging model for my work includes experienced and trusted neurotypical mentors to identify and troubleshoot the elements of my projects that autistic navigation systems can’t reach.

My project clearly signals the need for rights based approaches rather than relying on informal knowledge and conversation to gain access when working in close collaboration across neurological type and attempting to lead a team in a freelance context.

Autism as culture

Autism is both a neurological and cultural difference, and the disablement of autistic people at work is an ongoing civil rights issue leading to inequality and an increased risk of mental health problems. We are a small minority with a unique social difference. We live within a dominant culture, which runs almost exclusively on social aptitude of one kind. This culture is pervasive and disabling to us in ways not easily recognised or understood by the majority.

But those who work with us don’t necessarily have to understand us on an individual basis. They 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

In an ideal world our needs should be accepted without question and active measures taken but in reality they are mired in social complexities. Ours is a pioneering generation tasked with beating a path for ourselves and future cohorts of autistic professionals.

These are rights based issues, which we are currently forced to navigate via the very social codes which disable us.

Deconstructing the power imbalance

“I should not be subjected to this stress on my own project.”2

Aspects of my experience stand as a cautionary tale. The earliest iteration of my project began to flounder on the question of inclusion despite this being it’s primary goal.

The bare bones of my situation were that I had agreed to work collaboratively on the understanding that the project would be shaped around my needs but this proved impossible in practice. I had lent a creative idea and my ‘neurodivergence’ was the rationale for funding but nonetheless my needs were submerged. This rendered the original project proposal unworkable.

As an autistic person I must adapt myself constantly to engage with the ‘neurotypical’ world. In research terms my question became – what happens when I stop this process of constant adaption and ask for the accommodations I need to work accessibly so that I am not disabled in this situation?

In practice this did not work out – quite the contrary – and my energies continued to be painfully directed toward my own adaptation.

In general terms we need a wider understanding that effective inclusion is a two way street of adaptation. Accommodating autistics requires the will to focus adequately and make significant and responsive behavioural changes towards us. The level of adaptation this implies will depend on how close the working relationship needs to be and the kind of access required. 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. This can be because our difference is not convenient to others.

There exists a certain ‘tone deafness’ to the nuance of our autistic being, which has been dubbed the double empathy bind (Damian Milton)3.

Project leadership and design

“None of this is not stressful for me.”

To lead and take responsibility for funded projects I need to work in ways which minimise anxiety because it can become disabling. High standards of professional practice can be extremely helpful in this respect.

But my project had placed too much reliance on one key point 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.

I invested a disproportionate amount time in unpicking differences in collaborative working styles and finding ways to communicate my needs. But the continuous struggle to negotiate working terms and chase schedules was negative and eroding. My project appeared to be built on quicksand.

I attempted to modify the project design and consulted my mentors, but in access terms, my ramp was broken and I was disabled on my own project.This experience has enabled me to identify my need for more direct access routes and a hands on approach.

My highly logical thinking style, my ability to see priorities clearly and my intuitive grasp of sequence and method are also key factors in considering accessible project design. Not being able to work towards outcomes logically and intuitively at my own pace stalls my brain.

Identifying that I am a global and immersive thinker means I can now design my projects around my strengths. Holding their shape in mind as I work on each part enables me to drive priorities and achieve the exacting standards I require.

Any project in which I play a lead role will need to accommodate this profile and be shaped around my needs. In order to remain functional as a project lead I need my collaborators to work around me – and not vice versa.

This was the key to my disablement during the early to mid term of the project.

In addition there was a significant neurological imbalance on the project as I was a lone visible autistic. When my project hit serious access difficulties I realised that I needed to recruit my own ND/autistic team to create a more level playing field.

Social labour

“Its not that I don’t want to be friendly, its just that I get exhausted.”

Prevailing social norms and expectations come at no additional cost to the wellbeing of the general population. But when we adapt ourselves and ‘mask’ autism to gain entry into the workplace we do so at great cost to ourselves.

In the informal freelance arts sector I have found that there can be a high reliance on ‘neurotypical’ friendship codes and relationships. This can block access on many levels for autistics who can’t mask, and be ultimately disabling for those who can. Our inclusion can depend on pleasing others which can be difficult (if not impossible) to sustain and can be classed as social or emotional labour. Autistic access needs can be socially misunderstood due to the emotional needs of others.

But it is beyond stressful to decipher and manage certain types of emotional demand embedded in social codes at work. When this became overwhelming for me I found that establishing rules for contact helped manage this and keep me organised. I was able to filter interactions by limiting contact time and channelling communications to one email address.

These are effective strategies to carry forward into future project work.

As a more general point, when considering social risks in addition to potential ‘social overload’, for autistic artists there may be a particular difficulty in gauging digital vs realtime contacts  (where it is easier for potential co-workers to misrepresent themselves). This is pertinent as we can tend to rely on digital online networking. Properly testing relationships is a further barrier for us to overcome.

Autistic flow vs timetabling and task based work

“I feel cut up in pieces and dismissed.”

I now understand why all my primary school workbooks are empty and peppered with phrases like – good start Sonia, but where’s the rest of your work!

I experience autistic flow as a very specific state achieved by working with rather than against my natural thinking styles. This flow is continuous, often prolonged, and can involve a related state of hyper-focus. The degree of focus which can be achieved is (I believe) atypical.

A potential problem with this in working across neurologies is that there can be an unequal focus of attention on a shared piece of work. Unless sufficient catch up time is earmarked, I’ve found it can be hard for colleagues to keep up with the fruits of flow. I would not in future embark on a significant piece of close work where this focus is not well matched or without a suitable catch up system securely in place.

Flow is what allows me to develop my thinking on a topic or a series of related concepts, it is efficient and necessary for me to stay organised and productive.

During my research I found the demand for me to accommodate working practices which relied on timetabling work (to someone else’s schedule and priorities), and task based approaches (to work through and share core project developments) stalled communication. It also undermined my ability to think and I begin to lose functional capacity.

This learning allows me to factor flow into future project designs.

Mental Health and training.

“I’m at screaming point.”

I soon felt like a canary in a cage. I thought often about how miners used to carry these birds with them into mine shafts and tunnels to detect poisonous gases. If the canary keeled over they knew to get out.

When conditions become disabling we can easily become pathologised. My anxiety became acute. I considered seeking mental health advice when what I needed was to take a break from collaborative work and redesign my project along autistically accessible lines.

My project began with good intentions but relied on an informal knowledge of autism, and in addition had encountered an unexpected and decisive roadblock which was not autism related.

In future I would build externally sourced autistic-led training into project designs for close colleagues. This would both help support my access needs and take some of the pressure off personal explanations. The risk of colleagues misunderstanding autism can be great and can come at a very high personal cost.

I would build mentorship in at the planning stages of any future collaborative work.

Self translation, masking and trauma.

“Every communication is an act of translation.”

Being autistic in a ‘neurotypical’ world demands profound acts of self translation which, although mainly conditioned, are carried out with apprehension and painstaking care. We must often mask or otherwise camouflage our autistic selves to gain social acceptance and access to work. But this is exhausting and destructive in the long term.

It is genuinely hard for colleagues to understand this because autism can present invisibly. During the writing of my Arts Council bid it had been necessary to build up and prioritise my autistic template against a tendency for it to become submerged. With hindsight I can see that these were the origins of what would become a constant struggle.

It was deeply distressing to me to find myself invisible at key moments on the very project which was intended to support my needs. I turned to the poetic form. Publishing on my blog has been a constructive means to articulate my struggle and regain a sense of balance. This has been a highly successful strategy providing an effective means to communicate about autism to a wider audience.

But the circumstances of my project had become traumatic and aversive to me.

Autistic artists as a group have been earmarked as a funding priority by bodies like the Arts Council for good reason. I found that our struggle 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.


“I feel the need to languish in autistic spaces.”

Taking time away from problematic areas of the project was greatly beneficial to my thinking as I needed to arrive at autistic solutions. My mentors helped me asses the difficulties encountered and encouraged new areas of development on the project.

Mentoring also provided me with the vital ‘neurotypical’ perspective with which to decode the situation before me, enabling me to process and navigate my way through it. I was thus more able to gauge which elements of my challenge might fall within the range of problems of translation across neurologies, and those which were other.

Blogging brought in autistic contacts and I began a networking initiative for autistic artists called WEBworks, which aims to offer support with professional development. This is an important outcome from my template work.

My project was originally designed to lead to future large scale and ambitious outcomes in prominent venues. But such spaces can be wholly inaccessible to autistics. Like Don Quijote tilting at windmills, I had been persuaded (by various forces) to lead the way to doors which were closed to me.

I took the reigns of my project and began the job of reshaping it along accessible lines. The result of all the hours spent analysing my project was a solid paper trail from which I have been able to retrace my steps and find my way again.


“I feel like saying sorry my autism is inconvenient, but that would be ridiculous.”

It is easy to talk inclusion but harder to act inclusively. With autism we face multiple challenges in demonstrating and articulating our needs as both cultural and biological in origin and expression.

Our needs may be considered hurtful, ‘antisocial’, and can be easily misconstrued and dismissed by the majority culture. Rights based approaches, education and training are (in my view) likely to be more constructive pathways to more successful inclusion than explanatory routes which can be derailed by the double empathy bind.

I have found that it is extremely inadvisable to rely on an informal understanding of autism and inclusion rights in a serious professional context where access is at stake. Reliance on informal arrangements can leave us vulnerable to disablement and mental health risk.

As I tipped the balance of my project towards accessibility I began to understand that truly effective access design may be almost indiscernible. The smartest design will be the kind that fits so well as to be virtually invisible. Designing projects around our unique neurological profiles would take us closer to this ideal of best fit accessibility.

To arrive at such best fit solutions the space to think and plan autistically is needed.

Elaborating access around more dominant or typical goals and assumptions risks ill-fitting and potentially counterproductive project designs. It also runs counter to the very identity politics which many late diagnosed autistics seek to embrace. We don’t wish to be enabled to be more ‘neurotypical’, a point which has particular resonance in creative practices.

My research suggests that issues of identity, accommodations, and project design are likely to be closely aligned – and that what we need as a group are most probably holistic designs for holistic thinkers. This understanding and related insights will be carried forward into my future projects and form the foundations of my mentoring and supportive network development with the WEBworks group.

I can now share my research and attempt to inform a much wider conversation about neurodiversity in the arts in the freelance sector.

Sonia Boué – September 2017

2. Quotations under section headings are from my field notes.
3 On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’
Damian E.M. Milton, Pages 883-887 | Received 08 Jun 2012, Accepted 13 Jun 2012, Published online: 16 Aug 2012, Download citation

Jon Adams – Active but Odd: an unswerving ‘compulsion’ to create

a drawing of an open envelope with scrabble letters pouring out of it


Jon Adams

‘FlOb Holotype – The first piece of writing expressing the ideas of Flow Observatorium calling for change in the arts landscape – October 2015′ written by Jon Adams

I was born with a pencil in my hand, or at least that’s how it seemed, but recently I have been usurped by my wife who has joined the growing ranks of the ‘pencil colourists’. To watch her using & choosing the right pencil or pen, always in the ‘correct colour’, matched to the ‘correct white space’ is a delight and has been quite revealing. I’m not jealous other than of her burgeoning collection of colours, not in the slightest, because we both ‘make’ for diametrically different reasons. She chooses to colour as a form of self-guided therapy and as her creativity flows, her pain goes. It’s like watching someone lift a heavy overcoat from her shoulders, released on a summers day, as her brain is distracted, switching to a more calming & effective analgesic. She is living proof, along with many others, that ‘making’ is physically and mentally good for you, sometimes seen as inferior to some nobler calling. No, as the nominated artist in the house it’s not about fame or fortune or even making me ‘feel better’, it’s about simply an unswerving ‘compulsion’ to create.

As a young child, intently curious but solitary, without recall to the reference library of experience I’ve now built up, my saving graces were few; those pencils, Lego, stones or maps, plus the wonder of laying in the garden watching the stars move. I’ve always known I was different, from my earliest memories, alongside the bump on my thumb or faint indented marks on an eternally ink stained finger. I realised I needed a form of base line translation to accompany my perception as the world around me seemed too fast or too slow, with always that unchanging few degrees of untouchable 1% difference. Instead at school I soon learnt to be wary of people, they seem to be my ‘kryptonite’ and like the ‘love of making’ that has never changed.

Aged 6 I announced I was going to be an artist in response to one of those typically childhood ‘adult’ questionings; ‘what are you going to do if you grow up’. For me this wasn’t my (as yet undiagnosed) autistic logic talking but a more holistic, enveloping feeling that there was no other choice worth considering. Being an undiscovered dyslexic meant as soon as the 3Rs were involved I revealed an exploitable weakness to balance any ability I may have genetically acquired. I did have my pencils; they made me popular, drawing cartoons but paradoxically I always found difficulty with the ‘draw what you like’ scenarios. I found school very difficult after a certain point was reached; in the era of shifting educational dinosaurs there was no mention of any support for my daily observed ‘staidness’. Then in the final primary year, the headmaster chose my picture to go up on the hall wall. For me that was the long desired dream of acceptance, negating any differences I may accidentally show. Now I value that difference, but at 10 I desperately wanted to fit in. It was not to be, that precious picture was torn into pieces, dropped into the waste basket in parallel with “You can’t even spell your name you’ll never be anything”. I learnt to

keep quiet, filling the pockets of my proffered overcoat with gifted stones as evidences to weigh my future down. Now, with the benefit of hindsight and that library of experience I’ve collected, I know why I then became an ‘outsider’.

An accumulated history of its making, albeit hidden

Leaving school I never even entertained entering an art college to train as the artist I said I would be, or engage with other like-minded people other than occasionally through music. I knew I wasn’t stupid, opposite to what I was frequently told, but it was often this disconnection that reinforced earlier issues. My other lover was geology, accepting oneness with the unseen landscape – so that’s what I studied. I seemed unnaturally good with visualising or touching time, arranging layers of stratigraphy, ordering and systemising. On leaving after a brief dalliance with ideas of a PhD, disregarding accidentally what others seemed to see in me, I soon found myself that solitary ‘artist’s niche’ in geological illustration. This soon widened into science, archaeology or historical book illustration. Seemingly made for the role with an obsessive attention to detail or repetition plus an honesty for each subject – if it wasn’t meant to be there it wasn’t included. All the clues were there, set in stone, undecoded, waiting for a possible later revelation that I was Aspergers and neurodivergent.

Always finding illustration unsatisfactory, I started wondering why. For me it was in the detail, how the page was laid out, the faint draft pencil lines, inking in or at a push the final colouring that brought joy, but to everyone else this was unimportant or ignored. For them a final finished polished image without the bonus of a told journeyed story was king. Even though my name was there I often felt anonymous, for me it was all about the work as representation, an accumulated history of its making albeit hidden, constantly rerun in my mind.

Normal is just a setting on our dishwasher

Things changed inevitably, which as an aspie [Aspergers] is difficult, and it struck with becoming temporarily unemployed. It’s not that I wasn’t successful in what I was doing, quite the reverse as I had just been offered a contract with my own book. I had developed unconscious coping strategies for my dyslexia which involved not relying on letters but personal visits to discuss the design and images needed. This was to make sure I understood what they wanted from me so I wouldn’t slip up embarrassingly. It was all part of my ‘camouflage’ at the time and

unbeknownst to me vital for my autism. Although I chose this path I did find people hard to get to know and I wasn’t very good at self-promoting other than letting the images speak for themselves, so when I found a company who were happy with what I did I stuck with them. The flaw was not predicting the company would split into two and the staff I evolved the ‘different way of working’ with went one way and my book contract went the other. I couldn’t cope with building up relationships again due to my low self-confidence so I not so much gave up but stalled. It was one of those serendipitous moments which seemed bad at the time but was really just sending me on the better path.

There had been times in my life where I’ve almost realised that I see or experience the world very very differently, but I mistakenly assumed that other people ‘saw’ in the same way too. When I was 15 I went to see Tangerine Dream and could run my fingers through the moving intertwined sequences but tended to keep such intimate secrets silent. Then becoming unemployed, I happened to mention to someone that when I read it looks like the words were being viewed underwater as in a rockpool; they almost immediately told me this was not normal. Now I realise that ‘normal’ is just a setting on our dishwasher, but then it did make me feel outside, deficient or faulty, different to what people expected I should be. Neurodominance is a social construct of the many not us few.

‘Solutions at a moment’s notice’

I was summarily sent for a dyslexia test. However the prospect was quite disturbing, I was sure that after the five or six hours it would take I would just be declared ‘terminally stupid’. This was not to be and when I was called back in she spent an hour explaining what the geological looking graph with its many mountainous peaks and troughs meant. It did confirm I was not good at spelling and writing, I knew that but I was good at drawing, finding patterns and verbal comprehension. I guess that came from always being able to talk my way out of a situation which I had to do on so many occasions at school, showing an alternate creativity, finding ‘solutions at a moment’s notice’ in countering the abuse I often received. But I did love words, words tasted right in the right order, they would seem to physically ‘slot together’ and letters tasted or rather seemed to have personality.

On being told I was thoroughly dyslexic, my first response was to rebel against everything I’ve been told previously, that I couldn’t write, was to write poetry. I had tried to draw, express myself on paper but it seems so one-dimensional whereas words had life. Although I did win some international poetry competitions which

boosted my confidence I was very reclusive and became very solitary and separate from people. It was hard to come to terms with being dyslexic, not the stigma, far from it; I had researched why some people call it a gift; I was mainly dealing with the aftermath of realising it wasn’t my fault. I was proud of being dyslexic it enabled me in alternate ways such as the 3D drawing and cutaways I had been making for 20 years.

It wasn’t until London 2012 was announced that I made the decision to break free, ironically not knowing I would find myself in a couple years working on Olympic inspired arts projects. At the time I was reclusive, unemployed, living on a council estate but I knew inside I had something to offer and to prove to myself. I don’t know if it was the tone of the announcement, but something ‘captured’ me and I thought “well if that’s coming why don’t I do something?”

Spurred on I applied for an AA2A residency, grants and competitions, soon finding myself working as Artist in Residence for a train company mapping people’s journeys. Also, preparing for a solo show at Pallant House displaying a geological interpretation of my life story. Eventually both these projects were ‘seen’ and evolved into a new commission to document creatively London 2012 events and projects in the South East in geological metaphor. This played right into my strength as autistic as the final outcome was a geological map compiled from ‘field notes’ taken over 3 years obsessively recording each day’s journey.

Also there were ‘open weekends’, opportunities for artists to make celebratory work, placed in the public realm inviting people to join in. My ‘Dysarticulate’ project was one, encouraging people to make flags out of redundant book pages plus kebab sticks. An open invitation to plant them in open local spaces, draw them, dance with them, becoming the ‘lead artist for the day’.

I guess working within the Olympics gave me much needed confidence and was where I first realised my autistic traits of ‘connecting’ and ‘collecting’ could be a positive advantage as an artist. Yet somehow I didn’t fit the mainstream without support or encouragement, and I didn’t necessarily fit in with the disability arts world either. I inhabited my own no man’s land which enabled me to choose one or other side if and when I wanted to as if the distinctions didn’t exist. For me, even at this early stage, I knew it was about the work plus the story, not about what other people perceived may or may not be wrong with me. I didn’t want people to judge me or my poetry as “he’s dyslexic and trying his best”. I would often keep it hidden within, letting the work standalone; if they liked it they liked it and if they didn’t they didn’t, each was a validity.

My new freedom of expression led me eventually to be officially diagnosed as Aspergers in 2013 when I worked with Professor Simon Baron-Cohen in

Cambridge, and then Sir Peter Brook within the research for the play The Valley of Astonishment. Previous to this I’d been indoctrinated into feeling the way I ‘thought differently’ was wrong, faulty or divisive, never divergent, but these people recognised an inherent expression within the work I made and encouraged me.

I guess I’m more relieved with my earlier diagnosis of dyslexia because most of my life I had sat under the impression that I couldn’t read and write; the Aspergers diagnosis was a ‘completion of my complexity’ and a statement for support. It’s not necessarily the categorisation that’s overtly harmful but the attitudes and assumptions that go alongside it. It’s not the autism or dyslexia that are the problem but attitudes to the difficulties they may bring fitting in with society’s demands.

Strictly speaking ‘neurodiversity’ should embrace all human variations that have the potential to enrich society as ‘biodiversity’ does our planet. We need people who think radically differently or perceive the world in a totally different way but often difference can be scary. Neurodiversity is about a human variation rather than the medical pathology of say, Autism, Aspergers or dyslexia. We are ‘wired’ differently, some would say distinctly and its this value we can bring with our own lived culture, custom and creativity. Rather than continuing to be ‘a shoe horned fit’ it could be argued we need our distinctiveness recognised in the arts just as other diverse groups have been, we should indeed call for neurodivergent organisations led by neurodivergent people.

This is why positive awareness of any neurodivergence, support and adjustments are so important, but often to gain support you need proof and that proof is ‘labelling’. It’s almost the next step beyond the social model of disability and until we get society supportive or not to associate connotations of negativity, we will still need the duality of ‘not being labelled and being labelled’

Touching Time

Personally I’ve never really believed my dyslexia or Aspergers ‘disable me’,
socially , but it’s mainly people with their rules, attitudes, misunderstandings or advantage taking that do so, leaving a legacy of frustration which often reinforces depression or worse, which I do ‘suffer’ with. I don’t need to state I’m dyslexic or autistic, it should be about the work. I’m an artist, I’m not an autistic artist because that implies that I am doing it ‘despite being autistic’. I know that I am different to other people with autism in that I am happy to talk about the way my autism works with me, but doing this, wearing the mask of ‘perceived normality’, takes up most of my energy. In essence, to be in public and perceived as ‘fitting in’ I have to pretend

to obey an imposition which wouldn’t be that hard to change. This effort is often a double-edged sword, I’ve often had it said “but you’re so clever what do you need support for?” It’s how you put your vulnerability in front of others that counts. It shouldn’t be left to a series of accidents or a chaotic pattern of events that enable neurodivergent people to show or have the opportunity to make work, nor segregation into ‘special’ ring fenced events; we need an intelligent debate with action for nurtured understanding environments to give our best. But then isn’t that true for everyone?

I am also a synaesthete; I can touch time and music and personify number, and this also informs my working practice. I was once asked what it’s like to be synaesthetic. I stood for a minute before I answered “well what’s it like not to be synaesthetic?” I have no experience of not being synaesthetic so wouldn’t really know how to describe what I perceive as my lived experience in someone else’s terms.

For example, I demonstrated this once in Tate Modern having the rare chance to play in the Turbine Hall. Every time I’ve been into that cathedral like space I ‘hear’ seagulls as if I’m ‘by the sea’ where to me the high cliff is ‘my cathedral’ and the seagulls being the sung litany. What I wanted to do was replicate that in the simplest of forms so other people could experience it as an aural interpretation. I already had recordings of seagulls which were slightly edited and played through a small amplifier representative of the size of a seagull. It would not have honest played through big speakers as it had to sound like it belonged. I represented a beach tide strand line with yellow tape, playing the sound on the hour between 11 and 3. People looked, listened and sat as if on ‘their beach’ as the sound echoed it also filled the space. To me it was very strange to hear this outside of my head but it also made complete sense.

Neurodiversity not Neuroadversity

My autism not only informs my working practice, but the way I engage with life every day, and I embrace it as a hidden ability, not a disability. I make work because I’m an artist and I am compelled to ‘make’. I can’t say if the compulsion is an aspie thing, I’m often told by fellow neurodivergent artists that it’s not about the fame and fortune, but about that deep compulsion to make. I don’t make work to fit in with other people’s contexts, my library of experience is contained within the work itself

Neurodiversity in here

Unfortunately I’m often still expected to demonstrate my ‘neurodivergent talents’ but leave the autism at the threshold so they don’t have to make accommodation, as if they’re two separate entities or I can choose to ‘be’ either when I wish. One problem is people don’t ask us what we need either they look towards experts or make assumptions – assumptions don’t make safe spaces, safe spaces are attitudes that start in the mind, because people can make or break us; there is no space in between. We are experts in ‘us’ and we’re all different – one formula won’t work it has to be individualised. Neurodivergent people need to take the lead. The case is creative plain and simple, if you want to experience ‘performance’ that is different you need to commission makers who ‘think differently’ and look towards an ‘undiscovered country’, but then you will also need to think differently about how you interact with them.

Jon Adams, Research fellow and artist has established in collaboration with The New Theatre Royal Portsmouth and Threshold Studios, ‘Flow Observatorium’ to curate, campaign for ND acceptance and create safe space for neurodivergent practitioners and makers in the arts

Appendix one Formulaic diversity

Diversity should be people centric not a formula applied generic……No matter what new option you start with unless we change the ‘formula’ we use we’re always going to get to the same answer eventually – you can show this with a simple mathematical game – take a number – if it’s even halve it, if it’s odd multiply by 3 and add 1 (3n+1) and no matter what number or diversity ‘option’ you start with as you work through applying this formula you will always end with the same repeating sequence – tortuously in some cases even though we invest a large amount of time getting there.

Option 5 leads us to 10 5 16 8 4 2 1 4 2 1 4 2 1…….
Option 7 to 22 11 34 17 52 26 13 40 20 10 5 16 8 4 2 1 4 2 1 4 2 1……. Option 17 to 52 26 13 40 20 10 5 16 8 4 2 1 4 2 1 4 2 1…….

People mistakenly see switching the number option as the agent of change and not the formula. For realistic meaningful change to happen there has to be total change, in this case at the start of the equation with the formula, the mindset we apply.

To achieve change using the formula you just cut out the ‘division’ – better still don’t apply a formula at all…………….

Number option being the ‘diversity’ or route options ideas etc The formula being ‘but’ or ‘the way we always do it’

My football shirt

a crowd of football supporters. some are wearing black and white striped shirts

An article by Dave Edwards. 

Directly in front of me, pinned to the wall in my office, is a postcard of a crowd of football fans making their way to the 1999 FA Cup Final between Newcastle United and Manchester United. It is an image I look at almost every day.

My football shirt 1

The photograph was taken by Stuart Roy Clark who specialises in photographing football fans and stadiums. To my way of thinking, this image is a rather candid and engaging one. Taken from above, the image features two Manchester United fans – a father carrying his son on his shoulders – surrounded by a large crowd of Newcastle United fans. Given the rivalry and ‘tribal’ animosity frequently associated with football fans, mainly in the mainstream media, the relaxed behaviour of the fans and total absence of any sense of threat or malevolence is notable, but perhaps not entirely surprising to those of us who attend football matches on a regular basis. What is also notable about the photograph – so much so indeed that it is almost unnoticeable – is the number of fans wearing replica football shirts. While some fans can be seen wearing casual clothing, and one or two are evidently wearing suits, the majority are wearing replica versions of the shirts worn by players of the team they support. A closer look also reveals that most, but by no means all, are wearing that season’s shirt.

Allegiance and attachment

Though familiar and highly visible, the football shirt is no ordinary object. It is an object of iconic significance. The shirt is the most recognisable symbol not only of a player’s identity but also of a team and a football clubs identity; so much so that many of the most common club nicknames are derived from the clubs shirt colour or its associations; the Blues (Birmingham City) the Clarets (Burnley) the Hornets (Watford), the Magpies (Newcastle United), the Reds (Liverpool), the Tigers (Hull City), etc. In addition to defining a football club’s visual identity the replica football shirt has become an item of ‘cross-generational leisurewear’ (Stride et al, 2014) and the primary means many fans have of expressing and communicating their allegiance and attachment to a particular club or team; and through this their locality or nationality.

In this context, the term ‘attachment’ refers to the emotional bond, the enduring psychological connectedness established between human beings, individually and collectively. Attachment theory was first developed by the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1907-1990) (Bowlby, 1971) and the American born developmental psychologist Mary Ainsworth (1913-1999) (Holmes, 1993). The central tenet of attachment theory is that the emotional bonds formed with our primary caregivers during infancy shape the way we relate to others throughout later life (Ainsworth et al, 1979). It is through these bonds of attachment that we acquire a sense of self and of belonging. If these bonds are significantly damaged or absent a person may experience a range of mental health problems in childhood or later in adulthood; including separation anxiety and a pervasive sense of insecurity (Holmes, 2001).

Feelings may run high when our attachments and allegiances are challenged or threatened. A recent example of this being the current controversy in Spain surrounding the kit to be worn by the national team in next year’s World Cup. Coming as it does at a time of heightened political divisions in Spain the new kit has apparently proved extremely divisive among the nation’s fans. Nuanced though it is, the controversy appears to stem from the addition of blue – seen by many as purple – to red and yellow colours traditionally used in the design of the Spanish national team kit. According to the BBC website,

Critics say the colours of the shirt appear similar to the flag of Spain’s Second Republic, rather than the current Spanish national flag. The Second Republic started in 1931 when the King was overthrown and lasted just until 1939.

Ironically, the shirt was designed to recreate the classic jersey worn by the Spanish team at the 1994 World Cup held in the USA and both the Spanish football federation and the manufacturer Adidas deny the kit has political connotations.

Get your kit on…

For much of footballs history, developments in the fabrication and design of player’s kit – shirts, shorts, socks, and boots – have been driven by the requirements of the game for enhanced performance and by developments in manufacturing technology. In the UK, where the game first developed, football has traditionally been a game played in winter. Consequently the clothing or kit worn by players – stout, studded boots, woollen shirts, etc. – served not only to help identify players from their opponents but as protection from the elements. In warmer climates – in South America or Mediterranean countries, for example – player kit tended to be lighter in weight and tighter in fit.

As the game became less physical and more athletic over time, traditional, natural materials such as cotton and wool have been replaced by lighter, ‘engineered’ synthetic materials often with baffling scientific sounding names designed to reduce sweating and friction and increase freedom of movement. A notable relatively early example of such a development in my lifetime was the kit worn by the England football team during the 1970 World Cup finals held in Mexico. To combat the heat and humidity of a Mexico summer the England team wore a kit made from Aertex, a lightweight cellular material designed for hot climates.

Brand loyalty

For boys of my age owning your own football kit marked something of a rite of passage. No longer compelled to wear the ill-fitting sportswear allocated by school I could wear what I wanted, or more accurately what my family were willing and able to buy. Not that there was a great deal of choice back in the early 1960s. Shirts and shorts came in primary colours, usually with white collars and cuffs; socks similarly. Lacking club crests and numbers the shirts available bore little resemblance to those worn by the players seen in newspapers, magazine and, increasingly, on television. Although football boots had long been commodified, it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that replica kits, marketed as sportswear to children, became widely available. One consequence of the increasing commercialisation of professional football has been the ruthless commercial exploitation of the desire to identify with clubs and teams, especially successful ones such as Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

Wearing the shirt may bring with it a sense of belonging but it comes at a price. Clubs not only change the design of their first team shirt on an annual basis, they do so for second (away) and third strip too. For the loyal football fan buying and wearing the shirt can be an expensive undertaking. At the time of writing, a Newcastle United Home Shirt for the 2017-2018 is retailing on the club website for £54.99. This price includes a £10 discount on the manufacturer’s retail price. Personalising a shirt through the addition of a name – one’s own or that of a favourite player – comes at an additional cost.

Wearing the shirt

In his book The Language of Things Deyan Sudjic, the current Director of the Design Museum in London, writes,

Objects are the way in which we measure out the passing of our lives. They are what we use to define ourselves, to signal who we are, and who we are not. Sometimes it is jewellery that takes on this role, at other times it is the furniture that we use in our homes, or the personal possessions that we carry with us, or the clothes that we wear (Sudjic, 2009: 21).

This was never truer than with the replica shirts bought and worn by football fans such as myself. Not only do they help define us through making our sporting affiliations so public, but they mark the passing of time as clearly as the rings in the trunk of a tree. The logos we display also turn us into walking advertisements for global sporting and other brands. The current Newcastle United shirt sponsorship deal with the Chinese gambling company Fun88 is the biggest in club’s history. While being extremely lucrative, shirt sponsorship is relatively new given the long history of the game. Prior to 1979 advertising on shirts was banned by the FA.

My football shirt 2

My own Newcastle United club shirt is many seasons old now and doesn’t have my name or the name of a favourite player on the back. At a guess, I would estimate I bought my shirt in 2007 or 2008, the year before the bank Northern Rock – the club sponsors at the time – were taken into public ownership and before Puma became the official supplier and licensee of replica merchandise for manufacturer in 2010. That I haven’t replaced my club shirt for almost a decade now over the illustrates my ambivalence concerning the commercialisation of the game (no matter how loyal a fan I might be I really couldn’t bring myself to wear a shirt with the Wonga logo emblazoned so prominently on the front) and about the role played by the clubs current owner – Mike Ashley – in relation to this.

Investment, Identification and identity

For a number of years now there has been much talk in the media, especially in the North East, concerning the way Mike Ashley does business and runs Newcastle United. Despite, or possibly as a consequence of being a highly successful businessman (he owns, amongst other businesses, Sports Direct) Ashley is frequently portrayed – mostly by angry fans, it must be said – as miserly, incompetent, secretive, malevolent and ruthless. This may or may not be true. What is beyond dispute is that Mike Ashley is intensely disliked on Tyneside, mainly for selling popular players and failing to invest in strengthening the first team. Since taking ownership of the club, Newcastle United has been relegated from the Premier League on two occasions; most recently at the end of the 2015-16 season.

At the heart of this antipathy is the entirely different nature of the investment Ashley and the fans have in Newcastle United. Irrespective of the fact he may be seen sporting a black and white shirt, tie or scarf, Mike Ashley’s investment in the club is primarily financial. Ashley appears to view the club as providing a global platform from which to promote his retail business Sports Direct. Although it is difficult to obtain precise figures, the financial investment has certainly been substantial.
For most fans the investment made in Newcastle United is emotional rather than financial, although no one should underestimate the cost of being a committed supporter of any football team, let alone Newcastle United. In addition to the not insubstantial cost of actually watching the team play at home or away, live or on television (match tickets, travel, food, TV subscriptions, etc.), there are team shirts and other symbols of affiliation and loyalty (merchandise such as bedspreads, mouse mats, key rings, etc.) to be bought.

It is the depth and intensity of this emotional investment – the emotional bond (attachment) – that so many fans and followers of the game – myself included – feel is so ruthlessly exploited. Those who profit from the game, – most obviously club owners and multi-national corporations – want our money, our participation and (brand) loyalty, yet are willing to reschedule games, seemingly on a whim or sell crowd favourite players even if this weakens the team. This feels like contempt and may in fact be such. If the fans continue to turn up in significantly large numbers week after week with little prospect of witnessing success why should the likes of Mike Ashley care? So long as the money continues to roll in why should it matter what I or other fans feel? No wonder then that a recent national fans’ survey revealed that two-thirds of fans believe the clubs they support do not care about them. More fool us!


Ainsworth, M., Blehar, M, Waters, E. & Wall, S. (1979) Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, New Jersey, USA

Bowlby, J. (1971) Attachment and Loss Volume 1: Attachment, Penguin Books: London:

Holmes, J. (2001) The Search for the Secure Base, Brunner –Routledge: Hove

Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby & Attachment Theory, Brunner –Routledge: Hove

Stride, C., Williams, J., Moor, D. & Catley, N. (2014). From Sportswear to Leisurewear: The Evolution of English Football League Shirt Design in the Replica Kit Era. Sport in History. 35(1): 156-194

Sudjic, D. (2009) The Language of Things, Penguin Books: London

DE: Wednesday, 15 November 2017 (2100 words)

A lifelong Newcastle United supporter, Dave Edwards is an HCPC registered Art Therapist and a UKCP registered Psychodynamic Psychotherapist who has been practicing for over thirty years.

He also has a Sheffield based private practice mainly offering individual clinical supervision to qualified art therapists, psychotherapists and counsellors.

The second edition of Dave’s book – Art Therapy – was published by Sage in 2014.

Going live: Launching our new website! #MfOR

IBMT newsletter - Museum for Object Research

We have now officially come to the close of an exciting Arts Council funded research and development phase, which has seen this project change shape in order to truly reflect and accommodate its autistic leadership. I’m incredibly proud of all that has been achieved, and of our contributing ‘neurotyopcial’ artists who have remained so patient and open-minded during this process. For a period this meant not knowing what our project outcomes would look like, and it takes a particular kind of faith to pin a professional stake on an unknown quantity. I hope part of the reward is to see it all come to fruition and be part of something pioneering and potentially revolutionary. We also have some exciting ‘realtime’ outcomes to be getting along with.

I’m especially pleased to have been able to develop a mentoring scheme called WEBworks, for a small group of autistic artists, and to have offered employment to two of my mentees during the latter half of the project.

As a result this website is designed, built and curated autistically, and I’m delighted to say the Museum is an ethical and congruent project both at front and back of house. A huge thank you is due to artist Hugh Pryor for his work on the website.

I’m looking forward to building more content about our WEBworks artists, and tracking our progress as we roll out a new model of mentorship for autistic artists – who so often get  left behind despite their great talent and potential.

The website now has a quite wonderful Artists section where you can view each proposal for an exhibition in realtime – which will form part of our next Arts Council bid. We have also included a new Features tab where you can find resources on object related matters, including a growing list of book recommendations and links. You can also read about the fascinating project, Family Snaps! created by artist, Linda Hubbard, in our Artist Interviews section (the first of what we hope will be many such interviews with artists working with objects.) There’s a brand new blog page for Autistic voices – which will gather in posts about autistic relatedness to objects.

Our original Art Blog also remains at the heart of the project as a space for reflection and conversation about object work within artistic practices.

I’m delighted to announce that during this phase of MfOR, we have been able to commission a new video work by artist Naomi Morris which will be ready for upload shortly. Her video piece will be a response to objects from an autistic perspective.

It’s been a hugely enriching experience developing this project, and it’s been a joy to connect with others in the autistic community, notably aritst Jon Adams and the pioneering project for neurodivergent artists called Flow Observatorium.

Especially rewarding has been the opportunity to share my recent research at an event organised by Oxford University TORCH (The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities) – a pod cast and transcript of my talks are both available here.

I can’t end this blog post without expressing gratitude to my two mentors for MfOR and Webworks, Miranda Millward and Sarah Mossop. My project has thrown up many challenges and they have been steadfast in guiding me – I think mentorship (in a freelance context) for artists is a seriously underrated and unspoken need. I can’t wait to carry on our work together to encourage and support our WEBworks artists.

So watch this space! MfOR has become a living breathing entity, which can grow and develop both in online and ‘realtime’ platforms.