Being Autistic in the (Art) World

The Autist. Artwork by Matthew (matthewjfox.com)

In Matthew Fox’s satirical digital painting The Autist (2018), a child with puzzle pieces for skin leaps toward their mother. The child’s motivation is unclear to us: are they attacking their parent or are they seeking attention?

The villain in this faux film premise is a doctor depicted as a mad scientist. He wields a syringe and laughs as his evil plans to destroy families are realized through his so-called vaccines. The parent/child relationship becomes the site of medical horror and the autistic child is cast as a movie monster: no one is clear of what they want or need and it’s frightening. The child in The Autist struggles and fails to be seen as human by their mother and doctor. He is Frankenstein’s misunderstood monster, aged five. Matthew drew this image based on his own experiences growing up as an Autistic child.

Misinformation, vaccine paranoia, dangerous therapies, insidious inspirational idealization (also referred to as ‘inspiration porn’), and a general lack of knowledge still plague perceptions relating to Autism. This serves to marginalize a diverse group of people in strange and unfortunate ways. These common prejudices create and feed into institutional barriers for disabled artists and viewers, and is further compounded by the reality of occupying a space within a society that was not built with their neurodivergence in mind.

It’s important to define what we are talking about when we speak of Autism. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada: ASD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that includes impairments in language, communication skills, and social interactions combined with restricted and repetitive behaviours, interests or activities (source). These impairments range from mild to severe. Some individuals may need no assistance in their day to day lives while others may require lifelong care.  It is important to keep in mind that each and every autistic person has different traits and proclivities related to communication, cognition, and behaviours. 

It is not a mental illness or a disease, but it is a state of being that presents a certain set of challenges. 

The art world has largely employed the diagnosis for its own benefit. Disabled artists are presented for novelty’s sake, or worse yet, are ignored completely. Autism has also been used by abled artists as a metaphor to imply a trance-induced state, as by radical conceptual artist Lee Lozano who attempted to enter a mode she termed ‘autistic … absorbed in fantasy to the exclusion of interest in external reality.’

French artist Jean Dubuffet collected art from people in institutions and coined the term Art Brut, later known as Outsider Art, which simultaneously romanticized and patronized the disabled and ill. He fiercely protected his collection and this concept, selectively applying the label where he thought it appropriate. In positioning autistic and other disabled people as ‘outsiders’ or strangers to artmaking, Dubuffet indicated that these artists are ignorant of the wider cultural context that they lived in. He reinforced early psychiatric findings that a disabled artist’s creative output is strictly confined within a naive space, segregated from the sophisticated academic world of trained artmaking. If you’d like to learn more about the history of Art Brut and Outsider Art check out our other essay: The Beginner’s Guide to Art and Ableism.

The romantic idea of being an untrained but brilliant savant— an intuitive but damaged genius— is a perception that shares its roots with the problematic distinction of primitivism. Art Brut and primitivism both emphasize the erasure of the artist from the (so-called) civilized world due to their ability and/or race so their aesthetic can be taken up by art professionals and exploited by the market. 

To be recognized as an outsider because of one’s diagnosed mannerisms is condescending and to be curated in this way is simply dehumanizing. Autistic people choose to become artists because they wish to articulate their lived experiences through visual language, as would any other artist. Autistic people do not exist solely to transmute a radically different vision of the world to able-minded audiences, and they certainly should not be forced to justify their worth to society through creative endeavors or special interests. They are autonomous and able to engage with materials and ideas that appeal to them.

Despite the drive and effort of autistic artists, the institutional settings of the art world are directly at odds with their needs and abilities. Universities employ rigid course outlines and facilitate critiques which are coordinated in spaces that adhere to unspoken social dynamics. Galleries actively exclude disabled people from their diversity-oriented mandates as there is often no programming or accommodations specifically tailored toward disability access. Art education activities, exhibition layouts, jobs, and even volunteer positions are for the abled and socially integrated.

Another barrier to a career as an art ‘insider’ is the demand for written material. A contemporary artist is also expected to be a writer: artist statements, biographies, exhibition proposals, and grants require a technical specialization that many will never possess. This single expectation alone is the gate that shuts out artists with impaired communication skills from what is considered a professional art career, and it perpetuates related class issues when autistic people can’t access funding for their projects. 

As of 2018, approximately 1 in 66 Canadians have been diagnosed with Autism— and some of those affected individuals have chosen to become practicing artists across various disciplines (source). So with knowledge of art history and the issues that many autistic people face, how do we best support autistic creators as equal contributors to contemporary art?

To better include autistic people in organizations and institutions it must be understood that written information privileges a certain type of thought that may not be accessible to some. Social communication is often as fraught as written, which adds another obstacle to a situation that is already challenging. But art is often image, action, or object-oriented, and this can offer new and flexible ways to connect with ideas. Diverse approaches to sharing information would benefit both disabled and nondisabled audiences alike. 

The work produced by autistic and other disabled artists deserves to be shown and celebrated for its own unique qualities. Autistic people share the same space with everyone else and their insights and contributions should be afforded the same considerations. Their participation in this field is both personal and professional, and it serves to disrupt the neurotypical bias that invisibly permeates all aspects of life. 


Works Cited:

Canada, P. of. (2018). Autism Spectrum Disorder among Children and Youth in Canada 2018 – Canada.ca. Retrieved from http://canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/autism-spectrum-disorder-children-youth-canada-2018.html

Lehrer-Graiwer, S. (2014). Lee Lozano. MIT Press.

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