Mahlia Amatina is a Reading based artist who is a late-recognized autistic woman. Intent on collating autistic perspectives through creative writing and abstract art, she was awarded funding by The Free Space Project to transform her work into a ‘Covid-Friendly’ interactive gallery. Interview by Emma Robdale.
Mahlia had never thought of herself as autistic. She only considered the prospect when, after appearing physically overwhelmed by bright light and loud noises, she was asked if she was by a healthcare worker. This started the ball rolling (quietly, and hopefully not over a corrugated floor!). Mahlia had previously been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), which is a common misdiagnosis for autistic women. She feels fortunate to have moved swiftly through the mental health system, knowing that for many it can be a treacherous road. It was this AS diagnosis which initially fuelled her art:
“It was like, an ‘aha’ moment. I could look back and be like, okay, that’s why I couldn’t do aerobic classes or why I didn’t pass my driving test until the 9th time! Why I spent a lot of time ending up in A&E as a kid, just from being quite accident prone. Little things like that just made more sense.”
She was referred to two support groups for recently diagnosed AS individuals. Half the participants were women. Here, Mahlia began to understand the depth, breadth, and nuances of AS perspective… tentatively taking a few steps before diving into the vast and vibrant land of neurodivergent culture,
“My first reaction to being diagnosed was wanting to reach out to others. To hear people’s experiences and to use art as a means to connect them. After that, I felt the need to educate others… I was educating myself and wanted to share that knowledge.”
Mahlia describes herself as an abstract painter and is particularly attracted to mark-making. Her chosen material is acrylics due to their capacity to build layer and texture. Describing her painting process as ‘a journey’, she spoke on how she starts with simple marks first, then adds colour and layers only when she is happy with the shapes:
“I stare at it for hours. The time will just go because I’ll be working out what it ‘needs’ next. When people ask, ‘how long does the painting take you?’ I really have no idea.”
In order to gather insights from other AS individuals Mahlia created a questionnaire; it asked those who were diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as an adult to describe elements of their experiences using marks, shapes, colours, and words correlating to emotional states. She found that the very specific colour of lime green was associated commonly with sensory overload (It’s not ‘just lemons and limes!’). Mahlia does not consider herself to have synaesthesia, but she did describe having an intensely strong relationship with colour,
“It’s something that I feel very intently. It’s got a lot to do with movement and flow. I don’t have the words, but it’s the driving force behind all my work. Colour is the theme I think of first. That’s why it helps me. It’s almost like a language that replaces emotions and feelings. I can get the exact colour to describe how I feel, but I often won’t have the words…”
Overjoyed by the number of questionnaire responses, she set about analysing content to uncover common themes: anxiety, overwhelm and meltdown. Using these categories as foundations, Mahlia channelled the marks/colours/words into artwork which would embody a range of AS perspectives. After reading the comments and stories left in response, she felt a huge sense of duty to the lives her work represented,
“I was carrying all these responses and narratives. I felt like I needed to represent all these views, the whole spectrum. I needed to ensure I was including everyone who’d responded to the questionnaire. Maybe it’s a reflection of my character, wanting to be really fair, but it made it challenging to produce paintings that I felt were representative.”
Mahlia developed written pieces to go alongside each painting to give them more context and “bring them to life”. Excerpts were also taken from questionnaires so that visitors could read specific insights directly. As well as joining AS people together, she wanted the gallery to heighten awareness; Dr Trevor Powell, a psychologist specialising in the nuances of gender and AS diagnosis, was invited to ‘Life on a Spectrum’. His talk, ‘What is Asperger’s? Dr Trevor Powell talks to Mahlia Amatina’, discusses common misconceptions of AS and how it presents in women:
“(Asperger’s) is not a mental illness. But, quite a high proportion of people with Asperger’s, particularly those people who aren’t aware of their condition, and don’t have a diagnosis, suffer from significant anxiety, depression, and other types of mental health difficulty […] the female presentation of Asperger’s is often more difficult to detect. So, females often don’t get diagnosed.”
Due to Covid restrictions ‘Life on a Spectrum’ has been virtual and interactive; this was a completely new and explorative realm for Mahlia. After producing the artwork, she needed to work alongside digital artists to ‘build’ the interactive space. Going forward, Mahlia wants to learn more on the art of programming/software usage, so she can take more active roles.
Aside from ‘Life on a Spectrum’, Mahlia has produced several performance art videos around autism. They involve her remaining in specific situations which cause her to be overstimulated and overwhelmed: overlapping noise, multi-tasking, and residing in the same room as a ticking clock. Hearing this, it struck me, this is something I’ve also had immense difficulties with (ticking!). I’ve turned rooms over to locate watches hidden at the back of draws and even taken batteries out of friend’s clocks… but I’d never ‘clocked’ this as an autistic trait. Mahlia shed further light (not fluorescent or flickering!) upon how her body reacted to these experiences:
“I realised how much I internalise anxiety and discomfort. It’s really hard to explain to people, they think, ‘oh It’s just brightness’, but often it’s not, and it’s not ‘just sounds’ either… it’s the flickering, humming sounds, how it interferes with the rest of the environment… it’s all of it! And then it’s how it affects you afterwards. I don’t think people quite get that. They understand on a very flat level.”
Mahlia didn’t just want to discover more about how over-stimulation affects her, she also wanted to draw attention to how and why autistic individuals become distressed, exhausted and ‘strung-out’ by day-to-day stressors. The camera zooms in, focusing upon her eyes, highlighting small twitches which indicate her rising discomfort.
“My biggest problem is when something (sensory) is just a little bit annoying, and somebody starts talking to me at the same time… because then I’m putting all of my energy into holding off the atmosphere as well as actually processing their words. It’s like doing two huge things.”
These ‘experiments’ gave Mahlia insight into exactly how sensory overload affects her in the long-term. Typically, after a session, she ensured she had the rest of the day to decompress, but one filming was situated just before her workday… and this was how she became more aware of the full impact of overstimulation,
“Afterwards I needed just a dark room, silence, and not to do anything. One day, I had to go to work afterwards, but I couldn’t get anything done. I just couldn’t focus or concentrate. My mind was like a thick fog with no guiding light to see through it.”
It wasn’t just the ‘events’ (ticking/multi-tasking/noise, overlap) which caused unease; stress and tension ebbed out afterwards, impacting upon her wellbeing. Her sensitivity to light and noise were what initially ‘flagged’ her to pursue an AS diagnosis, but when she was first recognised as autistic, she described feeling lost:
“What does this mean for me now? Where do I go from here? What support is available?”
Constructing the gallery, meeting other AS individuals, reading and processing stories through art has enabled Mahlia to feel more at ease within her own neuro-type. She has already travelled as far as New York (“sensory hell!”) to exhibit her artwork and connect with others. From meeting a variety of AS peoples, Mahlia recognises that Autism/Asperger’s/AS cannot be comprehensibly researched and understood by media alone:
“Before connecting to others on the spectrum, the only representations I had were from the media. Films and books tend to not be very helpful either, because they rely on stereotypes.”
Mahlia’s work stretches outside her own experience of autism; she’s recognised and utilised the value of ‘connected spectrums’. Allowing a range of AS backgrounds and voices to power her art has aided Mahlia in discovering more upon her own perception and communication style… It has given her more insight into why events might be physically/emotionally overwhelming. In feeling a greater sense of ‘permission’ and confidence for developing AS voice/accommodating space, hopefully she’ll be able to continue ‘making marks’ that expand AS culture, enabling others to feel similarly,
“It’s not just my experience. I’m just one person! It’s a whole spectrum. You don’t have to be autistic to understand elements of what we experience. A lot of people struggle with anxiety, for instance… ‘Life on a Spectrum’ is about opening up a dialogue, closing gaps, and having these conversations.”
As neurodivergent/AS peoples we are ‘othered’, and many of us have felt very alone… Artists/autists like Mahlia enable voices to unite, and for it to be clear that our AS experiences aren’t ‘isolated’.
‘Life on a Spectrum’, was presented at South Hill Park (23rd Nov – 12th Jan 2020), and will be shown at Riverhouse Barn Arts Centre (25th Mar – 14th Apr 2021) and Allen Gallery (2nd May – 30th May 2021).
Below is a video of Mahlia Amatina’s interactive ‘Life on a Spectrum’ gallery: