Autism and art have a complex relationship. In one breath, the art world is designed for neurotypicals - the bright lights and white-walled exhibition halls, the noisy spontaneous theatres and hectic moving crowds of people often creating an inaccessible and ableist space. On the other hand, neurodivergence informs creativity and innovation. Not only do autistic people benefit from participation in art spaces through channelling sensory outputs and visual communication, we also generate original ideas. Nadia Chomyn, Anna Berry, Nnena Kalu, and Damilola Idowu are all autistic artists who play an important part in a largely white, male, cis, and neurotypical history of art. Autism is an asset that presents its own challenges; challenges that the art world often struggles to accommodate. How do we address this? And how can we represent those who want to join the club?
Listening and responding: how do we create an “autistic space"?
Accessibility starts at the door which is so often closed. It begins with open invites and reaching out to communities often overlooked. A welcoming space is active and engaged in change and progress, moving forward in it’s methods and responses.
During a BFI screening, an autistic woman was forcibly removed and humiliated in a London cinema for laughing too loudly. The applauding audience and slurs that followed is an alarming example of the social reception of neurodiverse people in a world not designed for them. It’s shocking, but not unexpected. Whilst the challenging behaviour associated with autism is often thought of as antisocial, it can be re-directed and listened to as an indication of what works and what doesn’t. It’s a case of the world around us adjusting to basic “autistic friendly” requirements. Whilst a lot of these needs are shared by autistic audiences and participants, neurodiversity is not a monolith, there are nuances that vary for each and every autistic person. Case by case adjustments require a mutable space that can be gently altered to meet requirements. Limiting how many audience members can occupy a space at any one time can play a crucial role in reducing distress. Cutting down numbers not only facilitates an intimate and personal space, it also allows for subtle but important changes to be made.
What do we mean by an “autistic artist”?
Autistic people not only enjoy art, they also produce it. There’s an uncomfortable dismissal of autistic artists slipping into “outsider art”, a mode of art-making often considered as a naïve product of the un-trained artist. In some ways autistic art is remarkably empowering, spotlighting the specific talents that result from behaviours like repetition and sensory hypersensitivity as something different and respected, but I have my reservations. Why caveat the artist with the “autistic” prefix? Art ought to be appreciated purely on merit in the scope of the whole art world, not in the remit of the sidelined. This attitude begins to shift when we are given insight into Andy Warhol’s postulated autism, or the prehistoric art thought to be born from neurodiversity. These narratives perpetuate a typically male presentation of autism which ignores a camouflaged experience of autism that women often go through. Predominantly diagnosed later in life, or overlooked altogether, women often adapt, overcompensate, and “mask" their symptoms to make it easier to function day-to-day. The conversations about non-male autism are gradually changing focus, but not without difficulty. Until all facets of autism are discussed in the mainstream, autistic artists and their art will not be fully accepted or showcased appropriately in conventional art spaces.
Representation: how do we facilitate change?
What does progress look like? Seeing yourself represented in a world designed with you in mind. When we begin to platform autistic voices, artists, and audiences we can start to recognise a moving and improving space that accommodates neurodivergent people and their allies. It involves effort, time, and money, a willingness to learn, and a perceptive understanding of accountability. Autistic people are entitled to participate in, produce, and take pleasure in art in the same way that neurotypical people do: without thinking. It’s time to take action, to open doors, and to check people’s tickets as entry confirmed, no matter their needs.
METTE is a writer, collector, and curator working at the junction between print, audio, and interdisciplinary projects. Receiving an autism diagnosis at age twenty one she has a vested interest in representation and accessibility.
Instagram - @mettttte