My exhibition “Creating Autism” is in St Peter’s Cork for most of February 2019, with a programme of associated events and talks. Please try to see the work as a whole in the gallery, and if you aren’t autistic, try to go with someone who is!
The exhibition puts forward the view that “autism” is a real, biological and neurological entity, but also an entire set of parallel meanings embedded in language and experience. These alternative “autisms” overlap, portray autistic people in different ways in different times, places and contexts, and are frequently quite incompatible with one another. We have the opportunity to seize the metaphor and create the autism we want – a consensus that will suit us individually to different degrees.
Some of the images use sampled video to create composite still images that explore my sensory experience of living in a city and sharing an environment that is often intense and alien, designed for a majority who either love sensory stimulation, or are simply not distracted and made anxious by sensory overload.
One of the defining versions of “autism” is medical or psychiatric criteria for the diagnosis of autism. These have changed dramatically over the past seventy years. The title image is a plywood sheet with the words “creating autism” overlaid with printed text in layers. These are strips torn from pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders containing the diagnostic criteria and descriptions of autism. The final layer of text in the collage is taken from autobiographies written by autistic people. (I am not a complete philistine, so these are colour photocopies and no books suffered in the making of this collage).
I have a chapter in a new anthology of experiences written by a diverse group of people who were diagnosed autistic in adulthood. The book explores what it is like to feel so different, in so many ways, from other people without having known why; and then discovering that autism is not merely an explanation, but also an experience and identity shared by many others. Learning that your differences are autistic, even late in adulthood, is a positive event and useful knowledge for these writers.
The anthology is available in paperback (£19.05) or as a Kindle eBook (£9.99) from Amazon or from Barnes & Noble.
In a few months (the whole of February 2019) I will be exhibiting data visualization, digital images and photographs related to the portrayal of autism in St Peter’s Gallery on North Main Street in Cork. The exhibition will be accompanied by presentations and a panel discussion open to the public. These include:
“Working with autistic people to make art”, “Special needs education and the formation of personal identity”, “An Autism-Friendly space initiative”, and “How disability and difference find spatial signatures”
and A panel discussion featuring all speakers, open to questions
Lacunae, the APPI International Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Issue 16 (July 2018) is specially-themed to autism with a translated article by the brilliant Jean-Claude Maleval, “Mottron’s Autist is not Kanner’s”; an interview with Irish autist Dr. Stuart Neilson conducted by Marie Walshe; Rob Weatherill on fatherhood “Being (Not) in the World Without a Father.”
Editor Eve Watson writes “Highlighting the importance of first-hand accounts in approaching the subjective experience of the being on the autistic spectrum an interview with Irish autist, Dr. Stuart Neilson, provides a fascinating first-hand account of the lived experience of Asperger’s Syndrome. The interview was conducted by Marie Walshe, on behalf of Lacunae and shows there is much to discern from Dr. Neilson’s personal narrative of living with Asperger’s.”
I have been making some images recently that attempt to capture, for me, the ‘feel’ of an event or action. Photographers talk about “the decisive moment”, the title of Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s most famous book (although the French title is actually “Images on the Sly”). I am thinking more of “the decisive motion” – what event, movement or attention-grabbing object fills the frame in memory? I have been taking short sequences of video and creating a single image from all of the frames, to locate images that capture my sense of memory.
The best of these include motion heatmaps, images coloured by the amount of movement in each pixel. In a classroom this should be a map of the things that matter (the teacher, friends, intentional moving images), rather than distractions (fidgeting, wafting posters and reflections). The image above shows areas of high motion (red) and stillness (blue) in a classroom.
I think my relationship with story-telling – with books and films – is different from many other people’s relationship. This is especially so in the sensory impact of stories, where perhaps emotional and sensory feelings intermingle, changing the sense of the story. My perception of the story is different from the people around me. I don’t know how much of that is ‘autistic’, or neurological, or natural human variation. The colour we know by the word ‘red’, for instance, does not represent the same sensory experience for all people because our eyes and brains differ. The word ‘red’ itself also differs, through past association and learning. And – according to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis – we might not even consciously perceive ‘red’ if we did not have a symbolic word to represent the sensation.
Putting stories into narrative text and films are relatively recent modes of story-telling. Looking at stories conveyed through a single, static image is very revealing of the amount we can share through one common sensory touchstone, assisted (we assume) by language, gesture and ritual. The touchstones remain, like Stations of the Cross, to remind and strengthen after the words have faded.
This post is part of a much bigger, more wide ranging look at what ‘autism’ means and where it comes from. I hope to have a display of related imagery and text ready around November of this year.
Last year I had the privilege of being asked to take part in the last of a three-series documentary on living positively with autism – in childhood, in teenage and now in adulthood. The documentarian, Alison Toomey, has a wonderfully light touch that creates the space for her subjects to speak their own words and, in effect, direct the outcome to express their priorities. Links to all episodes are here.
Fertility, sexuality and pregnancy are issues that are far more likely to affect autistic, disabled or mentally ill people. I am in favour of replacing the Eighth Amendment with sound legislation. It is really important for all affected groups exercise their own choices and vote, whichever way, for the outcome to reflect their views.
I like making photographs and find photography incredibly helpful – as a record of holidays and places, of the gas reading, or just to note the location of sockets on the back of the television; as a shield to deflect attention in busy places or to reduce anxiety in fearful situations (like zip-lining); or my favourite, photographing insects and minute things. The world is a fractal, with detail at all scales from continents to sand grains, so moving far away (in an aircraft) or zooming in close can be very interesting. No matter how far or close, the image always has details.
This is a weed leaf that blew off an extension roof. Taking a photograph at high magnification can be difficult because the depth of field (the region in focus) is very small, and only the front edge and water drop are in focus here. If you are wondering, this leaf is about 6mm (1/4″) wide.
Taking a sequence of images (twelve, in this case) focused progressively from the front to the back of the leaf saves a collection of “slices” of in-focus leaf at different distances. This allows me to make a composite image with the whole leaf in focus. (I used align_image_stack and enfuse to align all the images and then combine them into one focused composite).
This is the leaf on my forefinger, which is about 18mm across. You might notice a dark smudge on the stem, just below the front edge of the leaf. She is an early visitor.Zooming a bit closer reveals her to be an aphid of some form. She is about 0.8 mm long. I had no idea that she was there when I picked up the leaves, and only noticed after I had taken the first series of photographs.
The world is full of incredible detail like this, which we miss most of the time in favour of objects on our own scale and objects that have social connections. My family often complain, especially on holiday, when I get distracted by the beautiful details at ground level.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is a definitive document for many professionals assessing, diagnosing and providing services related to autism. The DSM has been slow to recognise of Hans Asperger’s work (see also Historical context of Asperger’s first (1938) autism paper), of Asperger syndrome and Lorna Wing’s contribution to the wider autism/autistic spectrum .
Professionals inform parents, carers, teachers and others about the meaning of ‘autism’ and are often held in awe. The identity of autistic people has been impacted by the ebb and flow of ideas and consensus in the DSM.
This is a description of some images I have been creating of the definition of autism in the full text of every version of the DSM, from 1952 to the present.