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Communal Space as an autistic person or: What’s the big deal about other people?

For a long time I didn’t really understand what the big deal was about being with other people. Yes, they could be funny, kind and interesting. But frankly, as far as I was concerned, I was already all of those things for myself. The other people bit, especially when there was more than one, just felt like a chore, something that was just part of being alive, something I had to get through so that I could be alone again. That might sound very sad to some people, they might think I’m describing a pretty lonely life, but to be lonely you have to feel like your missing something, and for a long time I didn’t. I had nature, knowledge and creativity and that was good.

As I got older things did start to change a little, I did start to want company, not all the time and I don’t think I needed it in the way a lot of my peers seemed to, but I did want it, want something. I had friendships throughout my childhood and adolescence, and these were really important and valuable to me but, especially as an older child and teenager, they often didn’t feel like they were mine.

Growing up autistic in a primarily non-autistic world means constant compromise. There’s the more surface level compromise; just doing things you don’t want to do or understand the point of, but don’t really hurt you in any way (in my case putting down a book or a project from time to time and looking at a person). Then there are the deeper compromises, the ones that aren’t always told to you, but you somehow learn. Suppressing the way your body wants to move, talking differently, learning how to answer people’s questions in the way they want you to and not the way that makes sense to you. Not looking too closely, not being too weird not being annoying or boring or repetitive. Compromises that, feel pretty one directional and ultimately just mean ‘be a different person’, don’t be autistic.

When you do this for long enough you lose the memory, the feeling of who you even are. It seems to be quite common for people like me, who get diagnosed or get an understanding of themselves as being autistic when they’re an adult, to go through a pretty significant change in how they behave. This can be in very fundamental ways like how they express themselves and how they relate to others. To the people around that person it may feel like the persons changing into someone else, but to the person themselves it feels like becoming. It’s just figuring out what’s your instinct, what inherent to who you are and what is the result of so much time and energy going into trying to be someone else.

I went through this, it was exhausting, and I’m probably not quite done yet. It’s been profound, confusing, overwhelming, sad and joyful. Often all at once. There are many things that have surprised me but perhaps the most significant of these was what was figuring out what was at the core of my lifelong confusion and difficulty with company, friendships and community. And it wasn’t that there was something just deeply wrong with me as I’d always feared. It’s actually very simple:

You can’t make meaningful connections with other people when you’re not being yourself.

Of course in practice it’s not simple at all. In the context of our culture and society it’s very difficult because the ways of being that are valued and held up as proper and even truly human tend to be very neurotypical ways of being (they also intersect with race, gender and class*). The way we’re meant to talk to each other, the way spoken language is held up as the truest way of communicating, the way we’re meant to sit and look each other in the eye, the things we’re meant to enjoy, how we should sit back and be entertained, respect a social hierarchy and value different kinds of relationships over others.  And most poignant to me, the way we’re meant to play and experience art.

Access to communal space and experience is a matter of inclusion in the broadest sense. In my life I repeatedly see people who genuinely want to be inclusive, in their playgrounds, their classrooms, their community group, their theatres or art’s events. But they just miss the mark, they tick all the boxes for making spaces accessible but they’re not truly inclusive. And I’ve begun to recognise that part of that is they’re missing something from their understanding of what a shared or communal space or experience is. It’s can’t simply be a space to be with others, but…

A true communal space or experience is one where people can be themselves, together.

This means we need to acknowledge that for a lot of people in society that ‘being themselves’ isn’t something that comes easy. It’s also often not something they can do alone. In talk about how disabled or autistic people need to be ‘part of the community’ people fail to acknowledge that ‘the community’ isn’t a neutral thing. It didn’t form of its own accord with fixed rules and expectations. We all create and maintain them. And some people have more power and ability to influence this then others.

A true communal space is life changing. It’s motivating, it’s energising, it makes you feel valued. I feel it most when I spend time with other autistic people and feel free of needing to censor myself or change who I am. But I should be able to do this in the wider world too. I meet children who’ve maybe never even been able to do this, being with other people is still just something difficult, painful and suffocating. They are constantly compromising and it exhausts them. But it doesn’t have to be this way and i don’t think they should have to wait until their an adult to figure that out. We can work to create these spaces for them as well as ourselves. For me this is about my role as a playworker and artist in helping create these spaces with and for others. It’s also about giving myself permission to seek out those spaces for myself. For you it might be in your role as an educator, manager, arts programmer or maybe your role as a parent, carer, friend or neighbour. I hope reading this has reminded you or the value of that work and perhaps given you another way of thinking about it.

Connecting with people meaningfully means being able to do so as yourself. Creating a communal space means allowing people to be themselves together. How can you do this for yourself and others today?

Play (and/or art?!) diary: Who framed the Pineapple

“the ambiance of play is by nature unstable. At any moment ‘ordinary life’ may prevail once again. The geographical limitations of play is even more striking that its temporal limitation. Every game takes place within the boundaries of its own special domain”


Guy Debord from On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Period of Time

A little while ago I was doing a session as a visiting artist for an outreach youth work programme, it consists of a couple of youth workers and an artist going out each week and doing a half hour session in four different outdoor locations around the local community. Each week children and young people show up in anticipation of the team arriving or drift over slowly from whatever other activities they’re engaged in if their interest is peaked. I’ve worked with the team a few times now and each time I’ve done something a little more abstract and been delighted in the ways the young people respond. This time I wanted to take an area of art theory that interests me and see if I could reinterpret it in a relevant and playful way.

Psychogeography is one, of many, areas of art theory that make people despair, it’s overly wordy with its key practitioners seeming to have spent more time writing about it than doing it and no one quite knows exactly what it’s meant to be, it can be applied to literature, performance art, politics, town planning and psychology… but, here is the definition which most interests me;

psychogeography is; ‘whole toy box full of playful inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians of their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape

Yes, of course, the definition that mentions play. Psychogeography is about the link between our emotional experience and our environment. Not a particular or special kind of environment; but any and every space in your everyday. It’s also a tool to explore or interrogate that environment and your relationship to it. Think of the writers who tell stories about and through their cities, the parkour runners or skateboarders who turn unnoticed and unremarkable aspects of an urban environment into part of their playground and whoever it is that keeps putting traffic cones on top of statues that you maybe never even looked at properly, that is, until they gained a bright orange hat. You were probably a psychogeographer once too… think of the child who studies every crack or feature of the pavement and turns navigating them into a game, the child who sees every bench, wall or curb as part of a never-ending climbing frame and the child whose imagination breathes life into inanimate structures and buildings.

In simplest terms perhaps psychogeography could be described as the art of being in a creative relationship with the space around you. This is a two-way relationship; it’s both taking inspiration from your environment, noticing the effect it has on you and putting inspiration into it through your creativity. It’s quite a wonderful thing to find yourself having a greater level of control over how you experience the space around you especially perhaps when you don’t have much choice over the environments you find yourself in.

On this day the environment was a slightly chilly residential area in Edinburgh and the tools were a pile of empty frames, three pineapples and a bunch of children’s creativity. My first proposition was that we turn the space into an art gallery. To do this they could take a frame and walk around the space looking for art. Some took a literal approach using things found in the environment to create art within a frame, tearing up grass and piling up twigs to create landscapes. Others jumped on the concept and pushed it beyond looking around their space in new ways; literally reframing aspects of their everyday space as art. Frames were held high, placed on the ground, balanced against fences, stacked on other frames. They were also climbed through and held up to frame each other looking through frames, looking through frames… The one thing every group had in common was that at some point someone would hold up a frame in front of their face and declare themselves art. I liked their confidence.

Photograph looking down on a pile of empty frames stacked haphazardly on top of each other on the ground. There are eight frames in a range of blacks and browns.

The next proposition was that they give each other a tour of this new art gallery. Here they were to walk around the newly imagined space and tell each other about their work. I gave prompts where needed; “what do you like about this”, “does the piece have a name?”. Children would listen to each other briefly before continuing to experiment, stepping into each other’s frames, directing each other and hanging frames from bodies.

The final proposition came with a request, for this part they weren’t to talk. The proposition itself was non-verbal, and, as I looked around with faux-sternness to check they weren’t chatting, I walked across to our non-descript black bag and slowly, one by one, pulled three pineapples out.  Placing them on the ground and I would step away, giving a nod of ‘go on then’ to my mostly quiet spectators. For the couple of groups who really followed the no-talking request the moment when I pulled out the pineapples gained an extra level of absurdity. With eyes widening and jaws dropping they looked to each other in confusion, amusement and excitement.  Not being able to communicate in their usual way completely changed the atmosphere and possibilities of the space. Suddenly a pineapple or two against the backdrop of the everyday was a fascinating concept. The pineapples were absorbed into the narrative as they were moved, balanced, rolled, stacked and of course, framed. Two ultimately met an unfortunate fate.

Here I was playing with the idea that by creating absurdity or abstraction you create an opportunity for art and play, and, if this is all it takes it follows that art can be created anywhere and everywhere.  In this case, the abstraction was created by firstly changing the the social rules of the space through taking away speech and then behaving unexpectedly. They couldn’t ask questions or comment in their usual way which could have quickly normalised the situation instead they were held in the moment of absurdity and, able to consciously decide whether to go with it or not. They very much did.