Tuesday, 26 February 2013

There is more in you than you think!

Our world is seriously amazing. Let me start off by stating that fact.

I recently watched an amazing BBC wildlife documentary about whales and the filmmakers who risk their lives to learn more about these graceful giants of the deep. I grew up watching these types of documentaries and the narrating voice of Sir David Attenborough can, even now, still send me back to my childhood days and a feeling of total security.

I love animals and find them fascinating beings. I think I have always felt a greater affinity towards animal-kind rather than human-kind. The words used to define our species felt so wrong to me.

Human-kind? When I begun to realize that I felt different to the outside world, kind would not have been a word that I would have associated with human.

But let me first tell you about where I grew up. This place has had a defining effect on the person I am today. I am the daughter of an artist, Marten Post, who was Head of Art at the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales. I grew up living on a campus where more than 350 students from 16 to 18 years of age from more than 80 different nations lived together, studied together and worked together. Students come from a wide spectrum of socio-economic backgrounds, cultures and creeds and many are accepted based on full scholarships.

The United World College (UWC) movement was inspired by a man called Kurt Hahn, an inspirational educator who believed in the innate ability in each child to make correct judgments about moral issues, no matter the situation they come from. He believed in education which called forth and developed the deepest qualities of character and compassion. After witnessing the First World War, this conviction only became stronger.

The UWC concept was conceived in the 1950’s at the height of the Cold War. Hahn believed that students aged between 16 and 18 would be grounded in their own cultures but still be impressionable enough to learn from one other. So much could be done to overcome religious, cultural and racial misunderstanding and avoid future conflicts if young people could be brought together.

I therefore grew up in an environment where differences were celebrated, compassion and helping others was the norm, your own personal responsibility and integrity was vitally important and where you were enveloped by a sense of idealism…one person can change the world.

The beautiful natural environment I grew up in was my reality. The celebration of being different was my ‘norm’. And then there was the outside world. Whilst looking back and examining my childhood, I realized something vitally important. I grew up in a society which was totally unrealistic when compared to the outside world. Whenever I left the safety of the college walls, say to go to school, I was confronted by a world in which differences were frowned upon and laughed at, compassion was few and far between and idealism was something that was practically non-existent in my fellow students.

At a young age I became very aware of my personal preference for which world I found to be the right one. And then I set about trying to bring some of that world into the outside one. I started up a school newspaper when I was 8yrs old, persuaded friends of my mothers’ to bake cakes to sell to college students and raise money for a local dogs home, and after seeing a children’s’ program about how African children were losing their sight because they could not afford eye surgery, I set up a stand at a crafts fair to raise money for the appeal.

I took to heart the concept of personal responsibility and tried to pass this onto others through my enthusiasm for life.

This taught me that it was possible to help people to care and have compassion for others.

But, I realize that my childhood concepts of compassion did not start off with humans, but with animals. I’ve always had a sense of right and wrong and hate it when I see an injustice happening, especially when the other being cannot speak out for themselves. Animals encounter this problem on a daily basis. We all know that. What I am saying is nothing new.

But I strongly believe that because I grew up with pets and animals around me, I was introduced to this hugely complicated concept ‘compassion’ in a way in which I could begin to understand it. If an animal cannot in the face of wrongdoing speak out for itself, then that is wrong. This concept transfers easily to humanity. If a human being is not able, for whatever reason, to speak out for him or herself in the face of wrongdoing, then that is not right. This may sound too simple, but I find the strongest concepts often are. Sometimes things in life are just that simple.

Compassion for another is one of the simplest concepts of the world, but one which can cause the most destruction if ignored.

So I leave you with a quote from Kurt Hahn, “there is more in you than you think”.

 And remember, one person can change the world. Now let’s go do that!

Unexpected Lessons

I was recently asked my opinion about the case of a Dutchman with autism who had received a jail sentence after publishing fairly vile and rude Twitter messages about the Queen of the Netherlands. I'll call him the Twitter guy.

The more I looked into this story, the more I realised the intricacies of the case. You see, Twitter guy had already received two official warnings for sending threat letters to the Prime Minister and another event and was therefore on probation.
His four month prison sentence was based on all of these events and also took his autism diagnosis into account; otherwise he would have received a longer sentence according to a judge.

A few weeks later I heard the news that Gary McKinnon was not to be extradited to the USA because of hacking into 97 military and NASA computers causing over $700,000 of damage. This decision took the government 10 years to make. 10 years of waiting. 10 years of his life on hold. 10 years of fear of being 'fried', as some clever soul in the American press wrote.
Again, the diagnosis of autism had been taken into account. Mr. McKinnon has always acknowledged that what he did was technically against the law, though possibly in his mind, the means justified the end. He does acknowledge that he will be punished.

If I were the US government I would be employing Mr.McKinnon to find all the loopholes in their supposedly 'secure' firewall systems! He has proved that they are there and that he can find them. But then that would be out of the box thinking. Unfortunately something that is not that common in government.

A week after this news, a poignant and emotional documentary aired on Dutch television called 'The Rules of Matthijs'. A filmmaker and best friend of Matthijs filmed him during the breakdown of the world around him after loosing his house which resulted in his consequent suicide.

Unfortunately the documentary is in Dutch and has, as of yet, not been translated into English. Keep your eye out for it in the future as I'm sure this will happen due to the many awards it has so far received.
The judge who decided he was to lose his house said something that chilled me to the bone,’ you are hiding behind your autism.'

That a judge can say this in this day and age shocks me. Yet maybe I shouldn't be so shocked?
This sentence fits in with so many questions I'm often asked, such as 'but you don't look autistic', or 'what problems do you have then, I don't see any.'

Notice that these are more statements than questions. I truly don't mind if someone asks me how my autism works or what the advantages and disadvantages are.
Stating that I don't “look” autistic and then waiting for my response, means I actually have to defend myself. Something that I have vowed not to do.

Explain? Yes. Defend? Never.

Now what do these three cases have in common?
Obviously the diagnosis of autism is the connecting factor, and the fact that they have all had associations with the legal system.
Twitter guy was out of work, depressed and got drunk when he did the things he did.
Gary McKinnon only received a diagnosis after a viewer saw a TV interview in 2008 and contacted his lawyers saying he should get checked out. After 6 years of legal proceedings, he received an official diagnosis compounded by clinical depression.
Matthijs took his own life because the world as he knew it did not exist anymore. Depression was also a part of his reality for which he took medication.

As I'm writing, I'm starting to feel quite uncomfortable.
(And yes, I am going old school and am using a simple pen and paper! My local bookstore/café has decided to ban all laptops, see text:

'Nope, no WiFi. This is a place for talking and drinking coffee. Please leave your laptops in your bag and take a break. Say hi to your neighbour. Emails can wait'
Auti-friendly or what? I did state the fact that there was no other customers and therefore had no neighbours to talk to; to which the owner replied,'what about your dog?' He has a good sense of humour. I might have a chihuahua, but I am not one of those freaky people that have monologues with their dogs! :-) Pen and paper it is then!  )

But back to feeling uncomfortable. Why is this feeling bubbling under the surface?

A lawyer will use anything that will help his or her client. A diagnosis of autism apparently seems to encourage the use of diminished responsibility.
This raises questions in my mind. Should a person with autism be seen as different and therefore be judged less severely having committed a crime?

I argue in my lectures that people with autism should indeed be viewed as different but not less that someone without autism. However, I also do argue that everyone should be seen as different.
There is no 'normal'. That is, in my opinion, an illusion people create to feel safe.
There are however accepted behaviours and rules that the majority have to abide by.

So if I agree that people with autism should be judged differently, what then makes me feel so uneasy?
I think it is because I see the next logical step. Let's take a hypothetical situation.

Say there's a woman who has no official diagnosis but knows she has autism. Her life is perfectly organised and she is fully in control. She does not need to acknowledge her autism, because in her opinion she doesn't experience any problems related to it. After all, if someone is totally independent, can design their life to the tiniest detail, is self employed and has a supportive family, why would they need a diagnosis?

But then she becomes involved with the legal system and her lawyers tell her it would be to her advantage to have a formal diagnosis. She follows their advice and does so.

A step further has been taken. The person has effectively used their diagnosis to their advantage. Whether this did effect her behaviour or not, the important concept is that the person does not believe this. Fortunately I have not heard of this happening in reality, but it seems only a matter of time.
I see a dangerous parallel to daily life. I will never use autism as an excuse for not having done something, or for having done something for that matter.

It can be a reason, but never an excuse.

Why you may be asking?
Because this opens up a massive squirming can of worms. If someone with autism manipulates their surroundings and uses it as an excuse, you set a precedent for how the surrounding will judge the next person with autism that comes along.

Maybe that next person has not got the ability to verbalise their thought processes and so they are judged unfairly. Or as the judge in the case of Matthijs said, they will be seen as 'hiding behind their autism.'
None of us can afford to encourage this way of thinking as it is
not only for our own good, but for the good of the next generation of people with autism.

Home 2011

A place of safety, a place of peace,
a place where I can finally find my own release
of the feelings I have which scare me so much,
the ones I hardly ever let touch.
The silent watcher, inside of my mind,
the one which I let nobody find.
Pill popping, a daily theme,
pushing down the screaming pain within,
Asking myself the question of life,
Is it really worth it, this daily strife?
But then I look down at their golden eyes,
My silent friends, the ones that are always there,
that in their own way really do care.
What to do to make myself feel good?
I would do all those things if only I could,
One day I know, that time will come
until then, I'll wait, and just try to have fun.

Autism and Art

I recently watched a documentary about a young girl of four called Marla Olmstead and her almost prodigy-wise ability to paint at a level that did not fit her age. I watched with disbelief and a great deal of skepticism. Something in the documentary struck me in a more profound manner than her ability to paint in a way far beyond my means.

An art critic spoke about the concept of Modernism and how we often react to artwork in that category. He said that unfortunately, if a piece of art does not seem to explain itself or is transparent in what it’s trying to achieve then the art is often seen as inherently bad. It is the work of art’s fault that we don't understand it, not our own. 

This struck a cord in me. I have never heard such a beautiful analogy of what people with autism so often have to cope with in their lives. If the person with autism cannot explain themselves, or are not transparent in the way the viewer expects or demands, it is often seen as the persons' fault. Not the viewers'.

I experienced my diagnosis as a blessing with the positive aspects massively outweighing the negatives i.e. people often see the term autism as a label. I have always felt different, as if the world was not made for me but have always known that I would find the answer to why I felt this way. I have of course had my dark moments, like so many others who get a diagnosis later in life. Those moments will never leave me. I will never be able to forget. But, I do not see this as a bad thing.

They help remind me of how strong I am and how I should never accept anything less than what I am capable of.

As an artist, these moments only help to color my work. They have helped me reach greater emotional depths within emotions that none of us really want to have to face in life. As I progress with my artistic development, I find myself asking the question that many artist's ask themselves; how does my creative process work and is it any different to that of other artists'? However, my question now has an added dimension to it; the dimension of autism.

How is my creative process different to that of an artist without autism?

My brain is wired differently, that much is almost certain within the medical community. Could this be my answer? I don't think so. I think that this is almost a necessity for someone who aims to be an artist! Whether it be on the level of actual genetics, how you choose to interpret the world or how your mind chooses to see it.

I don't want to go too deep into the semantics of it, but needless to say, you view the world in a different way and feel the need to communicate this 'other' view.

I suppose I could say I don't have a choice in how I see the world. There is no on or off button that I can use when details almost physically jump out at me (not handy if ​you're already vertically challenged!) or when the sunlight gets too bright. But then I'm sure if the artist Edvard Munch was standing over my shoulder he would debate this with me. Pointing out that when he experienced the moment upon which 'The Scream' is based, he had no choice but to hear the scream of nature as the sun was setting during an evening walk.

So if it is not my brain’s wiring or my choice in how I see the world, what could be the difference...if any?

What do I use to facilitate my creative process?


When I am in my studio, working through the hundreds of images I have shot and selecting those that have most potential, I often listen to music. And recently, I have become aware of a certain pattern in how I go about my work. Depending on my mood or on the emotion I want to convey with the image I am working on, I will play music that will call up that required emotion. Now we are all aware of how music affects us; good or bad, happy or sad.

But I seem to have taken it a step further. Emotions are frightening, weird, unsure random concepts that can be good and bad all at the same time. Or at least that's what they are in my world.

How can I then imbue my artwork with the emotion I want it to convey?

By playing music that will open up the door/s to that specific emotion or collection of emotions. The depth of the image changes through the emotional depth the music calls up in me.

I do not dictate what the end result is going to be, but I am actively seeking to control in some small way what is going to come out of the creative process. This is something that many artists try to do.

My autism is therefore enabling me to achieve this in an almost intuitive and effortless way. Now if that's not an advantage of having autism, I don't know what is!