My Photo
Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Writer/Curator/Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project. Contributing Author to Between Interruptions: Thirty Women Tell the Truth About Motherhood, and Concepts of Normality by Wendy Lawson, and soon to be published Gravity Pulls You In. Writing my own book. Lecturer on autism and the media and parenting. Current graduate student Critical Disability Studies and most importantly, mother of Adam -- a new and emerging writer.

“There is no hope unmingled with fear, and no fear unmingled with hope.” -- Baruch Spinoza

Monday, August 28, 2006


The Perils of Representation and Communication

The exhibition of autistic artists at The Lonsdale Gallery in Toronto as part of The Autism Acceptance Project will begin in a month. The exhibition serves many purposes:

1. To demystify many myths about autism, as art is communication and speaks for itself;
2. To celebrate autistic artists and people instead of instilling fear and doom;

Is this putting art on a pedestal thereby seeking to sensationalize autism? If we sensationalize autism, or the work of autistic artists in a spotlighted way, are we at risk of perpetuating another myth: autism and genius?

Last year, Jonathan Lerman was portrayed by certain media people as a “genius.” It bothered me on the one hand – Jonathan, this wonderful young man, understood and perhaps accepted by others only for his “genius.” While I was ecstatic that Jonathan was reviewed and revered, I felt that something was taken away from his personhood in the process. There are hazards in representing others, and communicating about autism. I recognize these perils and not only take responsibility for them, but also keep aspiring to communicate in a way that continues to achieve understanding and respect. Communication is an art – it is difficult for most of us at the best of times. However, with the divide as huge as it currently is, that is, between parents, society and autistic people, I consider the goal an important challenge.

Some people say discourse is a process. Others believe that acceptance is not a discourse. In my post The Learning Curve of Acceptance I said that acceptance is a process, as unfortunate as that is, and that as we learn about autism, listen to autistic people, our assimilation of knowledge about autism takes time, mostly because there is so much assumption and inaccurate information about autism. I think many of us have realized that acceptance doesn’t exist to the full extent that we need it to, and communicating about autism is ambiguous, paradoxical and difficult in the midst of the doom messages that are popular. The work of Michelle Dawson, Jim Sinclair, Amanda Baggs, Kathleen Seidel and others has been integral to intelligently understanding autism and the issues that abound when non-autistics begin discussing autistic people.

How we present the work of autistic artists is important as is discussing their work. Do we regard the work of autistic artists with awe because they are autistic, or do we regard the work for itself? When we consider the work in the latter context, we can then regard the person behind the work with respect. There seems to be some confusion in granting respect and equality to autistic people. Equality simply means that despite race, creed or disability we all deserve to be regarded equally while acknowledging challenges and differences.

The work involved in creating something is arduous. To believe that it comes just from some autistic stream of consciousness – that it just flows because of the autism -- is part true and untrue. There is always the work, the hours spent creating and perfecting it. I consider the hours that Jonathan spends at his art studio and the hundreds of paintings awaiting my attention at Larry’s. Their work is prolific. Jonathan’s work appears lucid, full of emotion. Larry’s, on the surface, looks more like folk art. What makes Larry’s work fascinating and important are the titles he ascribes his work, as important as the work itself and as inseparable as Siamese twins. His titles read like metaphors, poems. I am in awe of his use of language that rings with profound meaning. While the way in which he writes may come in part from autism, it is also indigenous to Larry. He has the ability to describe the world like a poet who can pinpoint the complexity of truth in a mere phrase.

In this respect, Larry and Jonathan have worked to SEE. Seeing, observing, understanding, assimilating in a way that touches us in a mere moment – the toilsome work of perceiving and understanding the world and manifesting that in a work of art, or literature, or poetry for that matter – this is a process that demands the artist to actively participate in the world.

Kamram Nazeer, an autistic policy advisor at Whitehall and writer, addresses our banal understanding of genius in his book Send in the Idiots. He notes that when we designate an autistic artist or writer a “genius,” we are taking away their dignity because we are in essence saying that there is no effort behind the work. When we believe this, we have once again diminished not only the work, but also the person behind it:


“The term obscures; it provides an area of grace. The problem with the term `genius,’ however, is that we do not only use it for the purposes of bereavement. We use it commonly. And we use words and attitudes that are similar in effect.”

The work by autistic people deserves the “full and proper rigor to the life of the ordinary, though very clever, subject but not to the life of the genius…. If the task of criticism is to somehow explain, or make guesses, or lead interesting speculations as to how works come to be or how they do what they do, the use of the term `genius’ must be eschewed. It reveals nothing, it gives no insight into the creative process; by using it, we get no further.”

Genius has to work hard too. Our conception of privileges of genius is a false one.

Genius has to engage with tradition.

Perhaps the greatest achievement and finest use of the term `genius’ is that it makes us feel safe. By using it to identify a group of individuals who are different from us, and we refuse to engage with how it is that these individuals do what they do. We accept that their achievements do not depend on anything but the special quality of genius itself.

Genius doesn’t rely on us.

Genius just is. Hence, the overall effect is that we completely rid ourselves of any responsibility for progress. We don’t have to understand what they do. We don’t have to aspire to do it ourselves. In return, we give geniuses certain special privileges. We cannot hold them to ordinary standards of behavior, for example. And in the end, we are able to remove ourselves from the great game. This is incredibly liberating. We can now enjoy our private lives. We need never feel anxious about our “contribution.”
(excerpts from pages 79-88)

Genius is creative activity with hard work. It is true for all of us. Are these works of genius at The Lonsdale Gallery? Maybe yes for some, and no for others. But let us not put these artists on pedestals because of their autism. Let us regard the work for itself, and then we can also come to understand the person behind the work. If art is also communication, let us actively seek out what it is trying to communicate. Art, like all communication, is a two-way process.

The TAAProject video which will be released this week, is set to celebrate autistic people and to provide a positive view among society-at-large so that we can begin shifting paradigms. It is not perfect. I consider the video a work in progress, reflecting how views are in the midst of changing. It is a beginning for the general public to have access to something different about autism. The next video will begin to address the complexity of our beliefs about autism, even those beliefs that suggest that autism is a special ability. It is and isn’t any of this. Autism just is.

How do we explain autism to the general public, if not one step at a time? This is our very first step. I believe it is for the better.


Blogger laurentius rex said...

I dislike the concept of disability art it is a form of ghetto art and one is like to be judged not for ones skills but as a performing dog,notwithstanding I have tarted myself in that way with "autism never there" cos I ain't got the social nous nor the contacts to put my art out there where it deserves to be.

I'll tell you sommat mind, give me a canvas and the materials and I will be the first to fill it :)

I am not an autistic artist

an academy artist

an outsider artist

I am a feral artist I do as I do and only can do what I do.

You'll likely never see my art in a gallery or anywhere,

You might one day see my landrover driving or me driving my landrover (is that the same or not?) and that is art and art is that for enfilmicly engaged and enacted is the artifice thereof

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Estee. Terrific new post about Larry and the other artists. I talk a lot about Larry’s use of metaphor in the penultimate chapter of my book (“Reasonable People”). My son communicates like Larry, and I’ve wondered why those who come to language late (or who are at least provided a communication system relatively late—post nine or ten) seem to use metaphor much more than we neuro-typicals do. Surely, there’s something to the fact that with non-speaking people with autism there is no speech/writing dichotomy; thus their “speech” is slightly more formal than ours might be. But there’s more to it than this. When I had my hip replaced, my son anxiously remarked to his therapist about the hospital bed we’d placed in the living room, “My mom and dad invited injury into the home.” You or I wouldn’t put it this way, at least in every day speech, but I wish we would or could. There’s something profoundly relational (analogical) in the way that non-speaking people with autism communicate. Perhaps being forced to map the world visually encouraged an over-reliance on metonymy (or the principle of relational contiguity); whatever the case, their way of communicating and the ethics it implies (not individualism but community, connection) seems a lovely rejoinder to much that is sadly neuro-typical. In a footnote about Larry, I suggest that he seems to produce spontaneously the wonderful analogical dislocations of the great modernist poets. My next project will try to account for this sort of language production more rigorously. Linguists like Stephen Pinker, who has a section in his book WORDS AND RULES on the odd vocabulary of those with Williams Syndrome, want to pathologize this sort of linguistic difference, attributing it to some some sort of genetic abnormality. I hope to proceed in a different way, keeping open the possibility of essential cognitive difference that may be socially conditioned. One Autist I know, upon being given a communication system, lamented the fact that he was gradually becoming less metaphorical in his communication. Normal linguistic conventions were beginning to colonize him, as they do any neuro-typical person. Five years into being literate and communicative, my son can now produce the kind of regularized discourse expected of someone in the eighth grade, but left to his own devices he (thankfully) types with metaphor and idiosyncratic locutions in abundance. As a poet, I envy his apparently natural ability to be the Midas of language, turning everything into poetic gold. I often have to search and search for that part of my brain that can write poetry.
Anyway, great post. You’re a constant source of stimulation and hope.

Your comrade,

Ralph Savarese

2:57 PM  
Blogger laurentius rex said...

Now get your Larry's sorted, cos I reckon as Mr Pinker is metaphorically or allegorically speaking something of an "anus", in fact anus is in itself a latin euphemism or metaphor deriving from ring so there you go.

This particular Larry late to language literally aliteretes and if illiterates on the littoral strand straddle and traduce tradition declaring that I am sedition

Well what of it?

4:04 PM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home