‘Neither Use Nor Ornament’: Could autism-led arts projects pioneer more inclusive and comprehensive perspectives?

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Emma Robdale reflects on Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) as a model for Autistic Leadership and of best practise to help entwine diverse backgrounds and neurologies.

portrait of artist with a large black bag

Sonia Boue with treasured objects.

Originally culminating in an exhibition of ‘object art’ at OVADA Gallery, Oxfordshire, in the spring of 2019, NUNO was a nine-month project that brought together neurotypical (NT) and neurodivergent (ND) artists. Lead artist Sonia Boué has created an online document evaluating the project as whole, sharing the reflections and artwork of 14 diverse artists producing visual, performance, sound-based and written creations.

‘I created NUNO because objects are the backbone of my creative practice. Objects let me tell my story. I work with my family archive and memory’. Sonia Boué

The artists’ works and essays have been compiled (and are available in print) as a PDF on the Museum For Object Research website.

“I designed Neither Use nor Ornament to accommodate autism specifically, and this has really meant something quite profound, ours is an innovative and pioneering approach.” Sonia Boué

An overwhelming amount of autistic/ND artists are held back from reaching their potential by unsympathetic and unaccommodating environments. Wellbeing, diversity and inclusion are core values at the foundation of the project’s aim to put together a working model that could be adopted by arts programmes.

NT and ND segregation is entrenched into the way organisations operate, cater and fund opportunities. But ND artists do not work or function in isolation to NT society… nor should they be made to! One autistic artist on the project commented: “Most of my friends, family, colleagues and people that I meet professionally are not neurodivergent (autistic). So, most people when they hear the term ‘autistic’ are largely ignorant about what autism is.”

On the topic of triggering atmospheres Sonia observed, “We (autistics) can be triggered at any moment by hostile attitudes and/or ignorance. Micro-aggressions can bleed into historic trauma, affecting our mental health and functioning abilities. Sectors need to better understand safeguarding regarding the mental health and wellbeing of autistic artists in the face of societal stigma.”

The main principles in Sonia’s ‘Model of Best Practice for Working with Autistic Adults’ entail:

Autistic leadership: Providing adequate support for Autistic/ND individuals to be put in leadership roles; not only enabling fair career progression but resulting in genuine understanding of ND needs being accounted for. It was commented that in NUNO,  “Sonia’s degree of willingness to shift project parameters to accommodate autistic artists was unlikely to be found in non-autistic project leads.”

Accessibility: For true consideration to be taken to ensure that events are accessible to people who have needs which aren’t immediately visible; this type of accessibility is generally catered for by approach and not equipment. People in management roles not only need to comprehend how mental health and being ‘wired differently’ affect wellbeing…  but also be willing to put practical strategies in place to alleviate these stressors. This should be viewed as a human right, not a luxury; autistic/ND artists encounter very real difficulties. One NUNO artist opened up to their experiences:

“To be a successful professional artist I need extra support around communication and networking difficulties. And also support to navigate the complexities of funding applications and identifying opportunities. However, I was also feeling extremely uncomfortable with some of the labels (diagnosis) I needed to attach to myself in order to get that support.” Participating artist.

Tailored Support: Sonia’s hyper focus and attention to detail meant that she took great care in supporting artists with individualized approaches. ND individuals have very different needs, which fluctuate. To provide ongoing support Sonia endorsed a mentoring scheme, “It provided a vital sense of security for some, allowing for a cessation of fight or flight responses, that could be caused by historic trauma.”

Sonia used her role to sensitively alter artist’s job responsibilities dependent on how comfortable they felt performing certain tasks and duties; a wider range of organisations can expand on their appreciation of what autistic/ND individuals need to feel welcome and secure. NUNO endorses that, “People are generally happier when their needs are met.” … and this is hard to disagree with.

Good Communication: Everyone has a preferred mode of communication… but ND people find processing large amounts information in certain formats difficult, overwhelming, and ultimately painful! Sonia ensured that all artists in NUNO were informed that multiple models of communication were available and, that they could be flexible. A calm, thorough, responsive and good-humoured approach when communicating with artists inspired confidence and trust from the very start. They could be open about things they found difficult and anxiety provoking, instead of desperately masking. One artist commented on their area of difficulty,  “I struggle to function well when surrounded by lots of noise, social interactions and rapidly changing visual stimuli.”

Alterations were made so that instructions could be written down. There was also a need for directions to have more precise/narrowed down guidelines. And some participants preferred texts and regular, quick face-to-face chats, over longer more irregular meetings.

Knowledge of Routine/Changes: Autistic and ND Individuals normally like to be kept in the loop before sudden changes. These shifts may have a greater likelihood of causing intense stress. One contributor commented that an “inclusive light leadership style” was “reassuring” and that they felt safe that there wouldn’t be any ‘last-minute panic’. If similar measures were introduced within a wider range of organisations they would undoubtably improve wellbeing for a range of individuals: “Not only is inclusive practice potentially a quieter, more careful and considered game than I’d imagined, but the ultimate goal is that we genuinely don’t see ‘difference’ because we’re all included equally.”

‘Neurodivergent’ spans a comprehensive collection of diverse ‘brain-types’: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Autism, Bi-polar, OCD etc… many people who experience difference would benefit. In addition to this, all NT artists fed back that they gained from the additional tailored support offered by NUNO. Almost unquestionably inclusive, more considerate practice will lead to kinder establishments.

“Non-autistic artists said that they loved how the project was clearly explained and laid out. Artists felt valued and enjoyed the high level of flexibility offered.” Sonia Boué

Sonia wanted to gauge exactly how the close-knit group of artists responded to her autistic leadership. Participants divulged that the direct attention afforded to them enabled many to feel less anxious and allowed them to concentrate more fully on creativity. Autistic insight enabled Sonia to understand vulnerabilities and approach certain struggling artists; without this these artists could have become withdrawn and disengaged.

“Knowing your leader shares your communication style means that you don’t have to be concerned about being misunderstood.” Participating artist.

One artist focused her project and attentions to the power of walking; her motivation was to explore the physical isolation many autistic/ND artists and individuals experience. Yet, she found that, through walking, she gained a sense of competence and emotional strength… with societal strains reduced, she took ownership of places she felt comfortable, and could decompress. Glad to have taken part in NUNO, she deemed Sonia’s approach to leading the project to be “open, confident, well organised, logical, and completely supportive.”

Being led by a person with similar interactional styles was appreciated by all autistic/ND artists involved. Several artists grappled with considerable self-doubt, instilled by previous rejection. Traumatic and isolating experiences are regrettably still quite commonplace for autistic/ND individuals. They create lifelong pain which can affects mental health, creativity and will cause people to feel unsteady when building new relationships. Sonia remarked that gaining ACE funding for NUNO boosted her own self-assurance, “It helped me to shift from a state of aversion to one of enthusiasm. Autistic aversion (in my case), I see now, was clearly fostered by a lifetime of exclusion.”

NUNO’s Autistic Model of Best Practise demonstrates that alterations can be made which enable autistic/ND artists to feel much more at ease. All participants (autistic and neurotypical) felt they’d made substantial progress on work. Being in a space around accepting, like-minded people created a sense of solidarity and comradery that some of the artist’s had not previously known. Assumptions that autistic/ND people don’t enjoy socialising are only perpetuated by NT individuals who don’t seek to empathise or understand persons from different backgrounds and neurologies; ND people, people on the spectrum, and people with mental health difficulties are regularly forced to make compromises in order to cope in climates they find harsh, inflexible and uncompromising. It’s time neurotypical society meets them half-way.

“Autistic artists reported that Sonia’s willingness to be open about and accepting of her own difficulties created an inclusive environment from the outset.” Sonia Boué

Sonia encouraged open and non-judgmental interaction within NUNO and this led to participants appreciating a sense of respect and professional dignity. Artists raised ideas and concerns freely; the ways in which like-minded artists fed into discussions Sonia coined as ‘group brain’. She encouraged healthy, long-lasting relationships to be nurtured within her community; however, even within NUNO internalized ableism was identified as problematic. NT individuals can be startlingly unaware of the complications Autistic/ND people face… more comprehensive understanding of mental health and how being wired differently affects individuals’ welfare, performance and processing ability is very much needed.

“Autistic artists can fall between industry gaps in understanding. More work is needed to address stigma towards autism to enable sectors to tune into specific professional needs.” Sonia Boué

Sonia herself, in operating NUNO, needed support so as not to become overloaded. Realising this, she was able to delegate tasks and responsibilities to her two mentors, preventing her from being overwhelmed. Autistic individuals do develop strategies to lead and excel… but this is helped substantially when suitable and sustainable support is given. Over time Sonia has established her own efficient approaches to time, event and budget management. It was also important to Sonia that mentors booked local/familiar venues and worked with contacts she already knew; securing ‘like-minded’ partnerships was crucial for Sonia to succeed in leading autistically.

While undertaking the project Sonia was described as ‘self-aware, reflective and analytical’. But, though Sonia’s acute attention to detail was hailed as extraordinary by participants, it was also described as sometimes ‘painstaking’ by mentors; autistic/ND individuals do have tendencies to be tremendously methodical, and sometimes strive for unattainable levels of perfection… this can and does lead to devastating burnouts and needs to be recognised and managed by potential project conveners. However, overall, Sonia described leading NUNO as, “A compelling, immersive, and creative process.”

With her insight, empathy, and outright determination she created a project that, if properly acknowledged, should make real difference in how organisations treat and view autistic collaboration. Currently completing my own ethics proposal for interviewing ND/autistic writers and performers I’ll be taking NUNO’s person-centred findings on board. But going forward, as a dyslexic ND writer, I sorely hope that more fully accessible platforms begin emerging; so NT and ND artists (and workers) can feel at ease collaborating, irrespective of their backgrounds and neurologies.

“Investment is urgently needed in autistic leadership. Autistic artists need autistic project leads. We need sector support to self-lead our own projects.” Sonia Boué

Names of all fourteen contributors: Neil Armstrong, Sonia Boue, Dawn Cole, Jenni Dutton, Dave Edwards, Ruth Geldard, Patrick Goodall, Susan Kruse, Rhiannon Lloyd Williams, Katherine May, Naomi Morris, Kate Murdoch, Hugh Pryor and Sonja Zelic.

To further understand the development of the project as a model of best practice I’d recommend reading Sonia Boué and Susan Kruse’s blogs documenting their experiences within NUNO.

You can check out the Instagram Artist Stories and view images of the event and work produced on the Museum For Object Research website