Whenever I enter busy public places I have difficulty identifying where to place myself in relation to crowds, and how to navigate to the places I want or need to reach. I have been using video – some recorded by me, some streamed online – to identify patterns of movement over public spaces, exposing the intensity of movement and potential sensory refuges.
Some of these images and video were showcased as part of “A Case for Sensory Decolonisation: Autistic Escape” curated by Magda Mostafa as part of the Time Space Existence Collection at the 2023 Venice Architecture Biennale, hosted at the European Cultural Center’s Palazzo Mora.
The selected work represents an intersection between my attempts to explain my own experience of place, and Magda Mostafa’s ASPECTSS™ Design Index, an evidence based set of guidelines for autistic inclusion in the built environment.
All of us have to use public spaces to access education, work, health care, sport and social opportunities. I often feel public places are designed and run in ways that – hopefully unintentionally – are difficult for me to use, yet most people navigate with ease. When I am in the middle of crowded places, I often feel like everyone is rushing in response to an alarm that I have not seen or heard, and I am the only person going the wrong way. I often feel overloaded by the sensory experience of streets or shops, and not just by the uncontrolled noise, motion and odour of public space, but by the boundless possibilities of all the things I know from past experience might possibly happen, and all the things my over-active imagination conjures up as a possibility that could intrude on the present. Public space is busy, complex, and unpredictable. As a pedestrian in a busy city, I often feel a sense of exclusion, which I had always attributed to my own anxiety and to me being autistic – and not to the design of public space. My pictures attempt to capture the distribution of motion and calm in a public realm, to share my sense of safety when I find somewhere out of the flow, or how to safely join the flow of people and traffic. I make pictures of public places that try to identify how I feel, and what makes a place hostile and excluding, or calming and inclusive.
(This post is derived from a presentation I gave at the AsIAm “Same Chance” Conference. I repeated the presentation to the Irish Planning Institute “Building for Everyone – Universal Design and Inclusive Public Spaces” workshop in February 2023, which was mentioned at the Joint Committee on Autism, 16 May 2023)
Luke Jerram’s illuminated sculpture of the Earth, Gaia, was installed in St Colman’s Cathedral, Cobh as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. It is hard to convey in images how awe-inspiring this perspective on our little home in the universe is. The juxtaposition of the fragile Earth with the alpha and omega (ΑΩ) pennants is especially poignant, our lifetimes just a blink in the lifetime of the planet. The event drew plenty of very positive coverage (in the Irish Examiner and elsewhere) and plenty of viewers.
This post uses some imaging techniques to explore the motion of the sculpture and its viewers within and outside the cathedral.
I am more proud of this collection of work than of anything else I have done. This is a good time for me to reflect on my needs as an autistic (city-dwelling) adult, and on the amazing support I have had over the past (more than) decade from Aspect, the support service for autistic adults in Cork & Kerry.
The junction of Grand Parade and Washington Street, with bollards and lamp-posts obstructing pedestrian desire-lines, which are fluid and can not be contained by the designed crossing layout.
As part of another project, I started created “heatmaps” of the motion intensity into video recordings of everyday events. These are not images of literal heat, but assessments of the amount of visual change across the video field, converted into a coloured scale, where “heat” (from blue to red) is a readily-understood representation. My main motivation was to assess where and to identify what attracts attention, or distracts from attention, and to express how the environment feels from an autistic, attention-deficit (ADD/ADHD) perspective. These heatmaps of the amount and location of visual change became quite informative maps of how people use space, and how design constrains people from using space effectively.
(A minimal, fully-functional code sample is appended to the end of this post. You will need Python, and the OpenCV and Numpy libraries installed.)
Cork City centre is within 15 minutes walk (green) for 22,000 residents, within 30 minutes walk (cyan) for 53,000 residents and 45 minutes walk, or 20 minutes cycling (pink) for 106,000 residents.
Cork City centre is compact, varied and contains all the amenities for most people’s everyday needs. The City centre shops and facilities are within 15 minutes walk (green) for 22,530 residents, within 30 minutes walk (cyan) for 53,481 residents and 45 minutes walk, or 20 minutes cycling (pink) for 106,200 residents.
These residents are, equally, the consumer base of many of the businesses within Cork City centre, and the audience for appeals on footfall and invigorating activity in Cork.
I use the boundaries of Cork City, as defined at the time of the 2016 census, to count and plot how many can (and do!) walk, cycle, use public transport and live without cars or private motorised vehicles in Cork City. Links to the full CSO Small Area Population Statistics (SAPS) are included (and repeated in full at the end), as well as some excellent sources of information about the City, including the Pedestrian Cork Survey 2020.
Rosie Weldon received an autism diagnosis at 25, by no means either the beginning or end of her journey of self-discovery and world shaping. In her memoir, “My Autistic Fight Song”, she presents a raw, intense and very positive view into family, education, love and work from her autistic perspective.
Last year I was interviewed by Marie Walsh for a special issue of the journal Lacunae, the International Journal for Lacanian Psychoanalysis. Issue 16 of Lacunae had a special theme of autism reflected in Jean-Claude Maleval and Michel Grollier “Mottron’s Happy Autist is Not Kanner’s,” and Rob Weatherill, in “Being (Not) in the World Without a Father” in addition to this interview. (You can read the full table of contents or buy a copy from Karnac Books).
The full text of the interview is reproduced below with permission. Marie Walsh did an excellent job of shepherding my rambling thoughts into a cohesive narrative.
You can cite this interview as: Walsh, Marie. (2018). “Interview with Stuart Neilson, on the Lived Experience of Asperger’s Syndrome”. Lacunae, 16, 54-63.
Urban space is changing fast and despite the potential to increase urban space through growth, technology and social progress, the reality is often increasing exclusion and isolation. My own experience is one of a city increasingly paved over, squared off, noisier and lacking in calm spaces. Traffic, busy people and blank commercial facades have replaced more welcoming districts, because accessibility and family-friendly features are not a developer priority – they maximise borrowings, ramp up local property prices, take the increase in plot value and move on. Sustainable community is not a short-term money-spinner.
My perspective is very much the social exclusion and sensory impact of unsympathetic development. This post includes some images of Cork City and data maps of changing city demographics, at the level of the 74 electoral districts, to outline how the city is changing.
This is the full text of my chapter on sensory issues in public spaces, in the anthology “Knowing Why: Adult-Diagnosed Autistic People on Life and Autism”. The anthology presents contributions from 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 book contents are: Emerging From Burnout – Erin Human; Being the Dictionary: On Passions, Diagnosis, and Integration – A.J. Odasso; Sensory Issues and Social Inclusion – Stuart Neilson; Working While Autistic – Kelly Bron Johnson; All of Me: How Do I Know Where Blackness Ends and Neurodivergence Begins? – Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu; Using Intersecting Identities and Radically Accepting Communities to Increase Coping Skills – Samantha Hack; Autistic Navigation of Chronic Illness, Mental Illness, and Healthcare – Amythest Schaber; The Spectrum and Depression: Four Stories – M. Kelter; Cyborgs, Luddites, and To-Do List Apps: An Autistic Use of Technology – A.C. Buchanan.