Letter to the Editor: Art is for everyone, so don’t exclude autistic children from galleries

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Lisha Aquino Rooney sends a letter about a recent experience of visiting a visual art gallery with her autistic child, and questions the rigidity and lack of inclusive thinking in such spaces. Letters to the Editor are not commissioned by Disability Arts Online.

Small child admiring a piece of art

Lisha’s son Lumen admiring a piece of art

We visited a white cube recently, my son Lumen and I. We’ve been gallery and museum-goers since he was in the womb, along with my older son Enlai.

Lumen is autistic. He is non-verbal, he wears ear defenders because he can’t bear certain sounds on the auditory spectrum, and he likes to be barefoot. All the time. He sat on the floor of this gallery as soon as we entered, to take his shoes and socks off. An invigilator walked over, and before she had a chance to say he had to keep his shoes on, I explained to her he was autistic, had very little tolerance for anything on his feet, how much I wanted to see this show, and how I chose it because I thought Lumen would want to see it also. She was okay with his exposed tootsies, but what she wasn’t okay with was him sitting on the floor.

We walked about the gallery, and as I thought he would, Lumen seemed to be enthralled by the wall-based works. He favours symmetry, order, pattern, and colour, and these works contained all these elements. Because Lumen has no filters – he is the most sincere human being I know – we can easily surmise what he likes and dislikes. I know he loved these works because he lingered, he walked in front of each one, moved closer to it, stepped back, cocked his head to one side and then to the other, sang a ditty, walked to the next one, and did the same. And then he sat down on the floor in front of one. Out of nowhere, a pair of different invigilators came rushing over to tell me he could not sit on the floor. I asked why, and the woman responded, ‘Because that is our rule.’ I asked why this is the rule, mentioning that he was not harming or obstructing anyone, was not even close to any of the works, and was just viewing them from a different perspective. I asked if they could make an exception in this instance. The man, impervious to rationale, said, ‘It’s the rule, please do not let him sit on the floor.’

Ideal conditions for viewing art are not a one-size-fits-all situation. Considering art’s subjective nature, why do galleries and museums and curators insist on particular viewing parameters, especially if it is only a matter of standing or sitting? I understand if a white cube does not want a congregation of viewers sprawled out on the floor for health and safety reasons or for fear of harming the works, but have we not all seen groups of students sat in front of masterpieces, drawing their respective renditions? While some may consider it somewhat bothersome to have to move around them, the bigger picture is that young eyes, young brains – and dare I say young hearts – are being exposed to works which may stay with them for the rest of their days, works which may affect them in a profound way. Enlai learned more about the Holocaust from a Maurizio Cattelan piece, more about authoritarian regimes from Ai Weiwei’s work after we saw them and discussed them, than he will probably learn from a book or documentary.

My love of art is its ability to make us contemplate. It is an open-ended conversation in which we can stare at a piece, inhale it, listen to what it is trying to tell us – its yearnings; its desire to communicate a moment, a gesture, a history, a personal right or collective wrong, a colour which refuses to release it from captivity; its request to hold its hand for a time and then walk away, but to come back to it in the conscious or subconscious; its screams of everything erroneous and whispers of everything true; its need to punch us in the chest and kick us in our proverbial balls and occasionally apologise or guffaw; its insistence that we look at it with weary eyes that still seek; and its want, always its want. I feel alive and fixed to something so much greater than me – a beautiful monster that cradles me and makes me ask questions and release preconceived notions, makes me grateful for time and chances and senses, makes me empathetic to struggles and confinement and the human condition, makes me exult in the why and how and even the because, makes me ponder necessity. And contemplate filth and splendour and money and flesh.

My relationship with art is much deeper than appreciation. While I don’t necessarily wish to pass this passion on to my sons Enlai and Lumen, I want them to be aware that art will not fail them. If humans betray or disappoint them, judge them for their differences, if nature isn’t working its magic trick, if they are in need, there will always be art. I want Lumen to know this especially. He can have the conversation he wants, on his terms. Without anyone inflicting their expectations.

For the Jake Chapman’s of the world who believe taking children to galleries is a complete waste of time, that ‘children are not human yet’, and that it is ‘arrogant’ of parents to think children could comprehend Pollock or Rothko, I say exposure, appreciation, and sentiment matter more than comprehension. One does not need a Master’s or a PhD, or even to know who Louise Bourgeois or Kara Walker is to feel something standing in front of their works. To see that a painting, a sculpture, a video, a film, an installation is a breathing creature full of stories, of adventures, of delicate gestures and horrid atrocities, to see that it is full of tales of light and darkness, silence and screams, of madness, of bliss, of pleasure and pain that can only be depicted with a line or sound, form or space, rhythm or texture is enough.

Look to Basquiat, whose mother regularly took him to the Brooklyn Museum, where at the age of six he became a junior member. Look to Gormley, who said: “I don’t think art is to be understood – it’s to be experienced. I wouldn’t be an artist today if I had not been taken to art galleries as a child. Yes, I didn’t understand the history or the principles out of which modernity arose, but that didn’t stop me from understanding vitality, horror, confusion.” Look to Olafur Eliasson, who often creates immersive, participatory, sensory installations which children and adults alike respond to. He states that “Art and creativity have much to offer the world outside the arts. Artistic thinking is based on constant awareness of potentiality – of the idea that reality is malleable, relative, and that, through my actions, I can affect and change the world. Art can touch people deeply; experience isn’t just in the head, it’s embodied.”

While I have no longing for either of my sons to become artists, I aspire for them to understand that art is a possibility, a recourse, a companion with an ability to effect change. I want Lumen – who quite possibly understands light and shadows better than Turrell and Caravaggio – to have the opportunity to be able to view art as any prospective buyer would. Despite the fact that he likes to sometimes sit while viewing art, sometimes spins, sometimes flaps his hands, sometimes sings or make sounds, despite the fact that he has about three buttons and a Lego piece to his name and is not in the market to buy a Jenny Saville or Cézanne, and despite the fact that he is only seven years old, please look outside the white cube when it comes to how he views art. And please be kind.


Do you have a burning issue about the arts, access or disability that you’d like to share your views on? Send your Letter to Editor to joe@disabilityartsonline.org.uk