Neurodivergents Deserve A Place in the Art Community12 min read

The Constant Autism Challenge

You know the image of the quiet, dis­tant, rocking autistic person? I’m not that person. I am autistic, but I am not quiet. Sometimes I can inter­pret body lan­guage, expres­sions, social queues, and tone. Sometimes I can curb my odd com­mu­ni­ca­tion style, inap­pro­priate ram­bling, and even my stim­ming.

I cannot do any of it uncon­sciously like neu­rotyp­ical people, and I can’t do all of it at one time. Something always slips. It is exhausting to keep track of all of those things just because I want to exist in a com­mu­nity. In addi­tion to being an ADHD Aspie, I have fibromyalgia with chronic fatigue. Functioning with those symp­toms, takes up much of my reserves, leaving even less energy to con­trol my “dis­rup­tive Autistic behavior” — ie: talking.

Chatterbox

I don’t con­nect easily to people, and my brain over­com­pen­sates with my sto­ry­telling. I love sto­ries. I love hearing them and exchanging them. If you tell me a story, I will likely grasp onto relat­able ele­ments and fire back with, “Oh, that reminds me of the time…”

This is my brain’s attempt to under­stand the con­text and help me empathize. I am not trying to “one-up” you or be the center of atten­tion. I def­i­nitely do not want to be the center of atten­tion. I want to know your feel­ings, so I can “get” your story. That’s why I ask so many ques­tions. I ask way too many ques­tions. I need to know things. I need to under­stand things.

I some­times inter­rupt. I don’t mean to inter­rupt, but my brain doesn’t nat­u­rally reg­ister other people talking, so if I am not careful– I don’t realize I am inter­rupting until it is far too late. My brain will yank one of the dozens of thoughts bouncing around, throw it to the front, and forget to reg­ister that someone else is already talking.

If someone asks me not to talk to them because they need to focus, no problem. If I catch myself inter­rupting, I apol­o­gize and let the person talk. If someone asks me to let them finish, I absolutely do, but most of the time, people don’t ask. Instead, they get annoyed.

This one trait — overtalking — has led to most of my painful expe­ri­ences with dis­crim­i­na­tion and iso­la­tion. Many people say they value those who are honest, gen­erous, kind, com­pas­sionate, intel­li­gent, cre­ative, and a list of other “values” that people claim are impor­tant, but in my expe­ri­ence people really just care if you comply with the social con­structs that keep every­thing calm and “normal.”

I get it. I am exhausting. I’m also very kind, gen­uinely care for most people, and I’ve been told I’m gen­erous. I don’t totally under­stand why it’s con­sid­ered spe­cial to be willing to share with others. I feel if I can help someone out, then I should help them out unless there’s a valid reason to not help.

If it is some­thing that hurts me (or others) in some way then I won’t do it, but if it is just an “incon­ve­nience” I will do it because what is the real cost? If it isn’t even an incon­ve­nience, then I am really con­fused why this is seen as “gen­erous” as opposed to just being a person. In September 2019, I was reminded why none of those sup­pos­edly valued traits matter most of the time.

Adventures in Pottery

In Spring 2018, I decided to start taking pot­tery classes at a local studio. I wor­ried if my phys­ical dis­abil­i­ties (fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue) wors­ened, I wouldn’t be able to tackle that pas­sion in the future.

I’ve always been a cre­ative person. I’m a writer and I love visual arts, but the skills don’t come easily to me. At first, I thought I’d made a mis­take. The instructor and I weren’t a great match because my learning style is unique and because my body doesn’t do what it’s told some­times.

To accom­mo­date the lack of mobility in my arms, I actu­ally needed to throw like a left-handed person. Additionally, some of the mem­bers of the studio took issue with me because I talk so much. It was dis­rup­tive to them, even though other people were talking, and I wasn’t talking to those it clearly both­ered.

After a few months, I met an amazing instructor and things changed for me. I switched to his class, and, though it wasn’t always smooth sailing, things were pretty great. He encour­aged exper­i­men­ta­tion, finding your own methods and style, and, above all, he encour­aged patience and a love of clay.

I applied for a mem­ber­ship to the studio in June 2018 and was told there was a long waiting list of at least four­teen people. I des­per­ately wanted to be a member so I would have more studio storage and, most impor­tantly, be able to come and go as I pleased. With my dis­abil­i­ties being so unpre­dictable, I wanted the flex­i­bility of a mem­ber­ship so I could spend more time in the studio.

After sev­eral months passed, I checked about the waiting list and was told by the mem­ber­ship coor­di­nator that someone had started a sep­a­rate list without telling her, so there were even more people ahead of me now. That sucked, but there was nothing to be done. So I shrugged and con­tinued to pay for classes and do my best to make it to the studio during open hours, but it wasn’t often thanks to my body.

A few months later, when I asked again, she told me it wasn’t just about when someone applied. They also had to con­sider what times people liked to be at the studio and whether they were hand-builders or wheel-users. This was not some­thing anyone else had ever men­tioned.

Around this time, I real­ized this woman was one of the people who didn’t like me. It’s not always easy for me to pick up on the clues, plus I often attribute the “she doesn’t like me” thoughts to anxiety-brain and ignore them, but she made it…clear.

She rolled her eyes when I said hello, she acted like every ques­tion I asked was an annoy­ance, she would single me out and tell me to be quiet, even when others were talking. She hated that I talked so much, even though I specif­i­cally tried to limit my con­ver­sa­tions to people who seemed to enjoy them.

Many quiet people love to hear my sto­ries and enjoy the “prompts” I give them to help them share. It is pos­sible the coor­di­nator had some per­sonal rea­sons as well. She had some drama, that I was unaware of, with another woman there whom I had befriended.  I never knew the true reason she decided to gun for me, but it doesn’t matter.

At the begin­ning of 2019, I asked her again about the mem­ber­ship list because I noticed how many people had changed. She told me I was near the top, but she’d have to check to be sure but I was def­i­nitely the top three. We all knew the studio was expanding to almost double the size and there would be room for at least six new mem­bers. I was so excited. She was not as excited.

Then we had an inci­dent.

A Friend and A Foe

I had made a good friend through the classes (no one was more sur­prised than me), and during the prepa­ra­tion for the studio expan­sion, my friend was out of town on a hiking trip. All stu­dents were asked to move their items from their shelves so the space could be rearranged.

Friday night, I noticed there were a few bisque pieces (pieces that have gone through an ini­tial firing but haven’t been glazed and fin­ished) left on my friend’s shelf, so I texted her to let her know she needed to move them by Sunday. She likely had no clue the pieces were there because when­ever she moved her stuff, they had still been in the kiln. When I went to move the last of my stuff on Sunday, her pieces were still there. I called her and then texted to tell her I would take them home with me if she wanted.

I finally got a text back, right before I left, telling me I was her queen and to please take them home. I packed them up because, of course, I wanted to help my friend. I real­ized that the studio pres­i­dent, who was moving stuff around, might panic if he saw them missing. I didn’t want him to worry, so I left a quick note let­ting him know they were safe and with me. I could not have pre­dicted what would happen.

First, he emailed me right after I left the studio asking if I had per­mis­sion. He then told me it wasn’t okay to take other people’s pieces without their per­mis­sion, and I needed to return them imme­di­ately. I didn’t see this mes­sage because I don’t check my emails all that reg­u­larly on the weekend. Before I checked my email the next day, the woman in charge of mem­ber­ship (who was in a rela­tion­ship with the studio pres­i­dent) emailed me:

Again, no one is per­mitted to take another person’s pieces without the owner’s express per­mis­sion. By doing so, you have put your­self in jeop­ardy of no longer being accepted into classes.

There will be someone at the studio today until about 4pm. It would behoove you to return (redacted for privacy)‘s pot­tery to the studio today.

I was rather stunned, con­sid­ering this woman shouldn’t even have known any­thing was hap­pening and because I was just helping my friend. I responded to the president’s email with:

Hey (president’s name redacted),

Sorry for being unclear. I had per­mis­sion but didn’t want you guys won­dering where it went since she hadn’t stopped by the studio. She’s been in Shenandoah with no cell signal (so she couldn’t call).

She didn’t know she had any­thing left other than some green­ware (the bisque pieces got added after she cleared her shelf). I took the bisque pieces and left the green­ware.

Sorry for the added stress.

I had texted her to let her know there was stuff, and she had me grab them for her.

I then responded to the other email:

Hi,

Sorry I hadn’t checked my email until now.

I had per­mis­sion. (Name redacted for pri­vacy) and I are friends and she has been out of town. She didn’t have cell signal so she couldn’t get call you, but we man­aged a couple of texts.

She is on her way back now and pulled over so she can email you.

I would never take some­one’s things.

Are we okay?

I assumed, of course, this would clear every­thing up, mean­while, my friend called and emailed the studio just to be safe. I called them to make sure they weren’t still anx­ious about it, only to have the phone answered by the “Membership Woman.”

I explained the sit­u­a­tion and she responded by telling me that it was still wrong, we should have told them, I needed to have written per­mis­sion prior to taking pieces (some­thing I had never heard before), and that they wouldn’t have done any­thing to the pieces so it was totally unnec­es­sary (despite their repeated insis­tence that every­thing be moved). She begrudg­ingly told me to just drop the pieces off the next day.

Things got worse after this because other mem­bers of the studio were made aware that I had done some­thing wrong. I am not entirely sure what they were told. Both the pres­i­dent and mem­ber­ship woman were very cold to me after­ward, but I shrugged it off. It was clear I hadn’t broken any rules and my friend had backed me up and let them know the same thing.

Unwanted

A few more mem­bers were added to the studio, and I was growing con­cerned. I had missed some classes due to my fibromyalgia and some work com­mit­ments, so when I returned I wasn’t ready for what I would find out.

I was already depressed because I couldn’t come up with the money for the class fee and had orig­i­nally hoped I wouldn’t have to because I would be a member. Members pay more overall, but they don’t have to pay it all at once (they pay monthly rather than every nine weeks).

I was already fighting my anx­iety attack at the thought of having to lose one of the only hob­bies I have ever man­aged to main­tain with some con­sis­tency and to have to say goodbye to the few friends I’d made, at least for a couple of months. Then it got much worse.

It turned out that once they com­pleted the expan­sion, they finally did add some new mem­bers. Specifically, they added twelve new mem­bers in August 2019, sev­eral of which hadn’t even started going to the co-op until after my appli­ca­tion had been entered. I was dev­as­tated.

I had a full-blown anx­iety attack melt­down, which takes the form of me crying hys­ter­i­cally. I packed my stuff up as fast as I could and went to say goodbye to a couple of friends that were there that night.

I tried to find out what was going on, but no one in charge would talk to me. The best infor­ma­tion I got was that sev­eral mem­bers con­sid­ered me to be “dis­rup­tive” (the talking) and “argu­men­ta­tive.” The second part seemed to be a com­bi­na­tion of my odd com­mu­ni­ca­tion style, people like to assume because you “ques­tion” them you are arguing with them.

I ask ques­tions to try to under­stand things that my brain doesn’t process prop­erly. Also, if I am told some­thing that con­tra­dicts pre­vious infor­ma­tion, I ask ques­tions until I figure out what the dif­fer­ences are or which infor­ma­tion is cor­rect. This is often taken as arguing instead of just my need for clarity. Other com­plaints seemed to be com­prised of sto­ries people either bla­tantly lied about or con­fused with someone else.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The pres­i­dent and mem­ber­ship woman broke up, and he was the only one who could actu­ally over­rule the mem­ber­ship deci­sion. He wouldn’t even respond to my text or phone call.

Sharing, Healing, Hoping

Even now, it truly breaks my heart. I thought if any com­mu­nity could handle my odd­i­ties, it would be an artistic com­mu­nity. I thought my good­ness, my gen­erosity, and my cre­ativity could help pay the cost of my annoying nature, but it never does.

I will get through. I always do. I man­aged to get an edu­ca­tion, a partner, and an inde­pen­dent life. Most people with my chal­lenges are not as for­tu­nate. So why write this? Why pub­lish it after all this time?

I want people to be more aware of invis­ible dis­abil­i­ties and dif­fer­ences. I want more com­pas­sion in this world. I want the other mem­bers of that studio to see this someday so they know why I couldn’t be there. Even if just one of them real­izes a person’s value doesn’t depend on how much of an incon­ve­nience they are to others, it will be worth sharing.

I am a valu­able addi­tion to any com­mu­nity. Communities need people that care and have pas­sion. Communities need diver­sity, not just in skin colors and cul­tures, but in minds and per­son­al­i­ties, too. Those dif­fer­ences help us grow and thrive instead of stag­nating and becoming toxic.

I deserve to be a part of a com­mu­nity even I “dis­rupt” your neuro-typical life. If you hear your­self saying things like, “Maybe it’s just not a good fit,” there’s a good chance that you are saying that to make your­self feel better about dis­crim­i­nating. Next time try really con­sid­ering what is impor­tant and acting with com­pas­sion instead of con­ve­nience.

3 Comments

  1. I’d love to chat! What’s your favorite piece you’ve made so far? Can we pri­vate mes­sage on here?

  2. Unfortunately com­mu­ni­ties of artists/creative types are as cliquey (or more cliquey) as any other group of human beings. Ego and inse­cu­rity runs ram­pant. Just because artists can be eccen­tric doesn’t make them any more tol­erant or accepting than other NTs.

    I attended art school (twice, eye roll) and the last time was ostra­cized by everyone in my small depart­ment. One stu­dent bul­lied me so much that I had to leave when he arrived and I ended up doing much of my senior thesis in my small apart­ment — and my work suf­fered quite a bit. No one believed me because they never wit­nessed it, and a star stu­dent. I never knew why he seemed to hate me so much (I wouldn’t receive a diag­nosis for another 12 years), and the sit­u­a­tion was made worse by the fact that I most likely had PTSD after 911, and a life of living with Autism.

    When I grad­u­ated the 2 other people I grad­u­ated with looked right through me at the cer­e­mony and never said a word to me. All I can think now is that people may have thought I was a know-it-all (one stu­dent told me as much), not real­izing I was 20 years older than most of them and had already been through art school. Also I was quiet and kept to myself because I WAS older, mar­ried and had a home life out­side of school, and I didn’t feel like I had much in common with any of them. It was pretty wretched and I was so glad to leave. Since then I’ve never prac­ticed the craft I majored in because it’s tainted now.

    Later I lived in 2 small towns and tried to get involved with the art com­mu­ni­ties in each but ended up being ostra­cized in both places. Now I live in a big city and hes­i­tate to get involved with any groups. I just do my own thing and if I find sim­patico people I feel blessed.

    I’m so sorry you had this hor­rible expe­ri­ence and hope you have found another craft or art form you enjoy. Please don’t let them win by shut­ting down your cre­ativity. There are lots of online com­mu­ni­ties now around art and craft, even ones just for us. Totally wishing you the best!

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