What a week! ‘Portrait of a Brain’ exhibited for Coventry City of Culture 2021/22

I wonder if mine will be the first Canine visitor tally ACE receives?

405 people, 2 Dobermans, 9 Yorkshire Terriers, an assortment of poodle crosses and Heinz came along to see my installation – Portrait of a Brain -at the Anglican Chapel in London Rd Cemetery in Coventry at the end of February. A celebration of human cognitive diversity, and a joyful memorial to a neuro-divergent loved one lost (the data realised here being a depiction of this individuals’ particular ADHD spikey-profiled brain).

With additional thanks to Table Art Ltd for fabrication, Do It Solutions Ltd for the Neuro-divergent conditions screening tool that inspired the idea; to producer Suzie Cross who came all the way from Wakefield to bring me an epic lunch! And to City of Culture Producer Hannah Graham for her mentoring and positive affirmation in the very early stages. To the funders of course (Unlimited, and City of Culture) And to everyone who came and spent time with the exhibition and engaged with the ideas within.

I was supported in the space over the 5 days of opening by a brilliant bunch of City Hosts, and by Glass artist Brian Dickinson.

Here are just a few of the team of enthusiastic and engaged City Hosts who volunteered to support me during the exhibition; directing visitors, counting dogs and humans into the space, and spreading the word about Portrait of a Brain to their neighbours and friends. What a crew!

The Anglican Chapel in London Road Cemetery in Coventry, is recently renovated and made accessible for this exhibition by Historic Coventry Trust. It was an ideal venue to site my first significant installation, in this City of Culture year – data art; acrylic, light, colour and sound to delight, inspire and challenge perceptions of human cognitive difference.

Talented local glass artist Brian Dickinson supported with a hand made touch exhibit, and also kept me company for much of the week! Here is Brian with his wife, counting the number of reflections when you look through the layers of the slowly rotating piece.

Lots of children and home school groups visited. Many people told us about their own neuro-divergent conditions, and about the challenges their friends and loved ones experienced. We also heard hopeful stories about finding places and work where ‘spikey’ or irregular cognitive skill sets were celebrated and affirmed, and cognitive challenges were supported.

I loved that so many people took advantage of the floor mats, and lay down under the piece. Mesmerising!

Many of the autistic children that visited (my own included) were particularly transfixed by the colour and light – very stimmy! (well that’s why I like these materials too of course) We gave out lots of pieces of dichroic film for people to play with and experiment themselves.

Some visitors saw airplanes in the reflective light, and one man thought that the shapes etched looked like the city walls themselves. Still others said that they were reminded of chakras, or of the Northern lights.

Hanging out under the (very heavy!) suspended acrylic piece!

There’s something about light and colour that most people find joyful and life affirming.

One brilliant boy decided to scrunch up his piece of dichroic film, to create even more spectacular effects. His autistic lateral and creative exploration generating new ideas that no-one else had thought to try !

Yet another child (a girl who was ADHD) took the loose shapes I had left out, and matched them up with the shapes of the main work – asking some brilliant questions and puzzling out for herself what each represented.

I’m hopeful that this iteration of Portrait of a Brain can be exhibited again soon – we’d love to bring pupils and home school groups to come and interact with the piece with some focussed workshops. If you know of other places that might like to host the piece, please get in touch – i’d love to hear from you!

What’s next?

I’d like to develop this concept further using Virtual Reality technology. And I plan to take this real-life acrylic piece into different spaces too. We all of us change the experience of the very space we inhabit, just by ‘being’ in it. What colour and light and shape do you bring to the spaces that you live in?

Moving light, colour and sound – data art representing an individual spikey human cognitive profile.

On shaking. With rage if needs be ..


I’m thinking this week about how body work – somatic practice – is a compliment to speech, and how the act of tremoring is beyond the politics of words.

I’m currently training in particular body work practice – called TRE. (Trauma Release Exercises). This methodology for shaking was created by Dr David Bercelli, but in fact tremoring is a natural human – mammalian – adaptive response to stress, that humans tend to suppress. This practice of shaking is often seen in non-western tribal communities, who do not seem to experience collective trauma in the same way. The following is a reflection on the insight that my deepening understanding of TRE is giving me.

The additional context needed is my particular neurology – i’m autistic and have adhd and recognise that life’s experience have prompted a complex PTSD which i’m working through. TRE has been instrumentally very important in this process of unpicking and healing and understanding of how I respond to the world.

I’m a words person. They spill out of me, but, often, the more they spill out the more I lose threads of connection between others where experience is so apparently alien. The more ( I ) talk the less I connect and the more that difference is described and marked. So there is a tension created by marking the difference – defining and going over the edges to find my own shape and take up the air that this body needs. Because defining those edges simultaneously dissolves the possibilities of immediate empathic connection, and this recognition of threads let go is a kind of grieving of imagined relating, and often adds more heft to the existing trauma. But I think too that perhaps that empathic connection is not real unless we have a shared understanding of who each other is? So the work is also in learning each other. Sensing each other.

(For me this is true: ) sometimes the silent howl is as much towards words as the body can manage. Or the real howl. Which stays mostly private. Muteness and selective muteness may be the soul’s protest when words are inadequate and cannot and will not be received by the other.

Bodies are political. The experience of TRE may be a kind of democratising of experience: putting our bodies in relation to each other as we shake without words. But also it may put our bodies in juxtaposition with each other where I allow myself to be vulnerable to one observing; so that the trauma is witnessed – this feels supremely necessary. This is movement beyond dance – not as beauty or as form or as directed catharsis of experience. It is primitive movement – primal brain movement. It is an expression which is intensely private but it is an act that I think must also, in some times and some places, be witnessed with ceremony and form; like an exorcism of ghosts that were never meant to be there. That must be expunged from a body; our bodies, collectively, that are designed as glorious and for which this traumatic resonance is evil absorbed.

I’m starting to read the work of Resmaa Menakem to explore this further. The happenings in the US right now, following the murder of african-american George Floyd by a white police officer make this understanding of trauma context ever more critical to reflect and act on. (For clarity I am white and live in the UK)

Increasingly I think this; that where trauma is contextualised and rooted in a geography, and within walls – this historic trauma resonance might be shaken away into that very place so that the walls and the soil bear witness to that violence taken in. For individuals as well as for communities.

Our bodies, which become characterised by the tensions of that trauma resonance, know instinctively that the chance of renewal grows into the folds that form in us around that compression and oppression. As plants grow up new life through the cracks in pavements. Shaped by but not held back by that immovable. Leaving that resonance in the space where it belongs then, and taking just the learning that the resonance gave us; with us – as tool, and fertile tilled soul, in which to grow further understanding.

If we leave the words and also the resonance where they belong – at the site of trauma – that evidence can bare witness to what dissonance was done there, and it may do more work to change.

Where does your trauma belong? Where does the resonance of it sit in this world?

How about you learn some ‘autistic’ instead of expecting us to conform?

Time for Change
Photo by Alexas Fotos on Pexels.com

That’s quite a provocative thing to say, isn’t it?

Well, lets start a conversation. The Neurodiverse amongst us are willing to teach you!

Here’s another short piece I wrote for Arts Pro recently.

https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/328/feature/learning-autistic

Learning ‘autistic’

Autism should be seen as a cultural difference rather than an impairment, says Hayley Williams-Hindle.

I’ve just returned from a lovely weekend in Derbyshire. Fifty strangers, all mums, of mixed ages, ethnicity and sexuality, and each of us autistic. The group aesthetic was typically ‘neurodiverse’: rainbow-striped and comfort clothes, clothes that cuddle or spark joy rather than high fashion. Amongst us were engineers, mathematicians, IT workers, musicians, a driving instructor, an HR specialist. Some there were unable to work due to mobility disorders, mental ill health, or weak executive functioning skills (which allow us to plan and execute tasks), and many others were struggling to find their niche in workplaces that rarely recognise the potential economic benefits of brain difference. (https://hbr.org/2017/05/neurodiversity-as-a-competitive-advantage)

We laughed, drank, smoked, sat alongside each other in silence and discussed controversial topics – politics and religion – with cooperation and passion. It sounds unremarkable, perhaps, and yet, the primary diagnostic criteria for autism (https://www.psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm) includes ‘persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction’ so the success of such a gathering is intriguing. 

Double empathy trouble

Recent studies have validated what autistics have known all along: a double empathy problem exists. (https://kar.kent.ac.uk/62639/1/Double%20empathy%20problem.pdf) In other words, the difficulties that define autism happen particularly when communication is between neurodiverse and neurotypical individuals, but not when it is within groups of all neurotypical or all autistic people. From this perspective, the deficit is not wholly autistic; we may not ever be fluent in your brand of human, but most often you’ve not even considered learning ours. Approximately one in 60 people are autistic but, as is so often the case, the narrative is defined by the majority. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epidemiology_of_autism)

Humans have retro-fitted ape brains with long-standing instincts for in-group tribalism, and the sophistication we display in embracing initiatives for inclusion and diversity has developed in spite of those instincts. Recognising when our personal differences are cultural differences dampens our fear of the unknown and keeps our curiosity high. Think of how, for instance, we Brits are tribal about our respect for the sanctity of a queue (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170320-we-hate-to-admit-it-but-brits-arent-the-best-at-queuing) and the correct way to make a cup of tea. Heaven forbid, the Americans boil water in a microwave.

Autism too can be understood as a cultural difference. There is a hidden curriculum (https://purehost.bath.ac.uk/ws/files/120697864/EJSNE_Final_Oct_14.pdf) of social information that is not directly taught but that we assume everybody knows; it’s this we have in mind whenever say things like “it’s just common sense”, “that’s obvious” or “I shouldn’t have to tell you this”. The autistic cultural code is defined primarily by an absence of such rules. You may talk to me and not once catch my eye, and I won’t assume you are rude or dishonest, as most may – 68% of hiring managers say lack of eye contact is the biggest mistake at interview (http://press.careerbuilder.com/2018-02-22-The-Most-Unusual-Interview-Mistakes-and-Biggest-Body-Language-Mishaps-According-to-Annual-CareerBuilder-Survey but for autistic people, that gaze can be confusing, intense and acutely uncomfortable. If you make an assertion that others think is blunt or rude, I am more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt and be curious. 

Not understanding unstated rules or customs can make the world a confusing and frightening place for autistic people, making those of us who are not neurologically wired to automatically ‘get it’ feel isolated. But the other side of the coin is that autism is neurological egalitarianism. Autistic people hold less intrinsic bias against others and, like other neurodiverse populations (Dyspraxia, Dyslexia, ADHD, Dyscalculia, Tourettes) are more likely to operate from values of fairness and justice, rather than hierarchy and unquestioned loyalty. If you want to build diverse work teams, it’s a great idea to have a couple of autistic people on your hiring panels. 

Subjectivity

There is sound reason that autism is considered a disability. Sensory differences and anxiety make life very difficult for many. But let’s be clear: learning disability, though often co-occurring, is not autism. Arguments like Tom Clements’ (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/26/autism-neurodiversity-severe) that suggest that the ‘neurodiversity movement’ is not inclusive of autistic people with learning disabilities conflate two separate issues. Non-verbal autistics also have much to contribute to this discourse.

A diagnosis is a luxury; it isn’t essential for neurodiverse communities to extend a welcome to you. Online and in-person autistic spaces provide an unofficial cultural translation club to parse social meaning for each other. Although heritability is not disputed and austistic genetic markers are being identified, diagnostic criteria are still unhelpfully based on behavioural observations. In the UK, the ignorance around presentation, especially in females, and the lack of affordable, available diagnostic services leaves many people stranded and feeling like aliens in a foreign land – Morks with no Mindys to guide us. 

As a sector, we are getting better at making adjustments for neuro-disability, as is our legal obligation under the Equalities Act. Many venues now reliably offer ‘relaxed’ performances with raised lights and breakout spaces. There are also more neurodiverse artists being programmed. Frustration remains though; we’re not all artists. Many of us are administrators, marketing specialists, bookers, producers, technicians, customer service professionals, and all the other vital roles that go to making a public event a success – it’s these people who are rarely part of the conversation about autistic inclusion within our sector. Commitment to properly representative workforces requires joined-up thinking across all teams and stakeholders. The strides made in public and artist engagement ring a little hollow otherwise.  

The fact that, even in 2019, 86% of diagnosed autistic college graduates are unemployed, (https://www.autism.org.uk/get-involved/media-centre/news/2016-10-27-employment-gap.aspx) many of whom want cultural sector jobs, presents us with an immediate challenge to embrace. Learning ‘autistic’ is a great place to start. 

We may not ever be fluent in your brand of human, but most often you’ve not even considered learning ours.