Why I Enjoy Things Over People
When Autistic leads to Artistic
A while back I wrote about my experience having undiagnosed Autism for over 50 years. For half a century, I didn’t know why I had always felt different, I just knew I didn’t exactly fit into groups. I still don’t. The truth is, group dynamics baffle me. I never know who to look at, what to say or when, and I get really nervous when a lot of people look at me when I talk (by “a lot of people”, I mean more than one).
The whole group experience just makes me want to lie down and take a nap. Correction: Throw up, then lie down and take a nap.
I always assumed the artistic side of my personality just preferred to stay separate, to stay removed - to remain in the observer role lurking on the outskirts of any group activity. Artists have to be observant, after all. It made sense. So discovering there was more to my group aversion than I could rationalize through creativity has been eye-opening.
I’ll begin by clarifying that not all artists are autistic, and not all autistics are artists. I can only relate my own experience hoping it resonates with others.
Why, you might ask, would someone who cares so little about being with others give a damn about resonating with others?
The answer is complex. And, for me, it starts with art.
In elementary school, we didn’t have an art room, we had an art teacher with an art cart she’d wheel around from classroom to classroom. That squeaky cart was stocked with a rainbow of construction papers, those trusty dull rounded scissors, Elmer’s glue, glitter and Crayons worn down to varying degrees (some with teeth marks).
I got butterflies on art days because I was in love with art. I was in love with the experience of using my imagination to create. Art let me tap into my inner world and bring forward the parts of me that, on most days, remained hidden.
I was a total rock star on Art days.
Moving through junior high and high school, the situation only improved as we had dedicated Art spaces with skilled instructors. Best of all, most students who signed up for Art class were those who preferred Art over other electives like Marketing, Business or Public Speaking. There was a definite thinning out of non-creative types. Perhaps related, there was a thinning out of people who like to talk.
Typically, artists aren’t big talkers. You can’t talk and create because creation requires thinking. You can’t talk and think at the same time. Art is driven by intuition and you can only hear yourself - your inner voice - when you’re silent.
In high school, I distinctly remember sitting in pottery class working intently on a large coil built pot. I was gently paddling two vertical sides of the pot flat so I could use them as a canvas on which to paint scenes. The room was silent except for the radio playing softly in the background. All of us were intensely focused on our own work, competing only with ourselves to convey the imagine in our mind’s eye outward with as much beauty as we could muster given our limited skills. For a long while, the mood was trance-like.
And then the trance was broken.
“I’d like to think I’m just a little bit more than Dust in the Wind,” Michael whispered softly above the radio. The entire room burst into laughter.
We’d all been totally zoned into our own little worlds and yet simultaneously hypnotized by the soft hum of Kansas singing through the radio….
Same old song
Just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do
Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
Now don't hang on
Nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won't another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind
(All we are is dust in the wind)
When Michael spoke, we all knew exactly what he meant and that made it hilarious.
In that moment I experienced true communion, harmony and unity - in a group setting. Those moments are rare for me and I wish I had more.
That moment epitomized the ideal state of existence for me, as an Autistic person: to be with others - to be beside one another, sharing the same space - but each of us doing our own thing. For me, that is joy. That is why I loved, and still love, art classes.
I feel as if I have been in an Art class for 50+ years, only I just looked up from my project and everyone else has left the room.
Where did they go?
Slowly, over the course of life, most people discount the value of creativity and imagination. They forget and tell themselves, “I’m not creative. I can’t do that.” They veer off onto different paths, like Public Speaking and Business, and start learning how to do things “the way things have always been done” instead of inventing new ways to do them.
Our world pays the price.
This period of amnesia seems to last for about 40 years. Maybe it takes that long to stop caring what other people think of your inner world or maybe it takes that long to get tired of hearing other people talk - I can’t say. But you see it when people retire and start looking for a hobby, or when someone suffers a loss and starts to go deep. They get quiet and start to hear their inner voice. Finally.
For me, and perhaps a lot of other artistic introverts and/or autistics (the two are not mutually exclusive), we didn’t suffer that time gap. We kept at it. Maybe because we had no choice. And keeping at it, artistically, pays off.
I’m not suffering the delusion that I’m a world-class phenomenal artist, but I’m not bad either. I can do things because I’ve been doing them for a very long time. When someone asks me how long a piece of art took to make (which they always ask…), I usually respond in years: 52 years - because skill is cumulative. I believe it’s the same for many other autistic people - artistic or not. We’re usually really good at some thing that surprises neurotypical people.
The skill doesn’t even have to be spectacular. A middle-aged woman I worked with once asked in amazement how I knew how to hang a picture. She was serious. I answered her rather flatly, “How do you not know how to hang a picture?”
There I go again, making friends. Not so good at that interaction part, remember?
Anyway, while this woman spent years interacting with friends and doing all the normal life stuff, I was probably alone in a room teaching myself to hang pictures - and thinking that was a perfectly normal way to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
That’s my normal.
Working with things has always been easier, and more enjoyable, than working with people. Things don’t have expectations and they don’t read into your expressions. Things aren’t impatient or emotionally complicated. Things are always there where you left them and you don’t have to look them in the eye.
More importantly, working with things (art or otherwise) gives autistic folks a chance to demonstrate their skill which can compensate for their lack of other skills, like social interaction. Plus, my Art gives people something (besides me) to look at.
Often we think that when someone wears odd clothes, has tattoos or an unusual hair color, they’re doing it for attention. Experience tells me the opposite may be true. Dressing in unusual ways can serve as a form of deflection or distraction away from the person themselves. For instance, I used to wear some crazy shoes. I find shoes really fun, but I also used them as a distraction: Don’t look at my face - look down here! Talk to the shoe!
I actually wore these shoes to my husband’s family reunion many years ago. His family is so huge they actually had their own parade in the town. These were my Fourth of July Parade shoes - and, yes, I walked the entire parade in them. They were fun but, more importantly, they gave people something to focus on besides the fact that I didn’t really say much. I looked fun, and that was enough to help me fit in.
At the time, I didn’t make the conscious decision to use my shoes as a distraction, I just knew from experience that fun shoes somehow made me feel more at ease. I wore crazy, beautiful shoes a lot because we tend to repeat patterns that make us feel good. Now, years later, I understand why I did that.
Of course, not everyone who loves shoes or has tattoos or blue hair is autistic. But if they’re diligently and quietly working on a piece of art and they pretend not to notice that you’ve walked in the room and are talking to them, they might be.
Paradoxically, Art has served through the years both to shield as well as reveal my personality. I’ve used Art as my protective forcefield and as my voice.
I feel like it’s time to share my art with you.
As I write this, John is busy framing in a wall in the upper loft of the barn to divide a storage space from what will soon be my art studio. Our loft has been full of “stuff” for three years and we’re finally getting to it. We’ve finished most of our big projects and we’re starting to have more time for the luxury of leisure.
I’m excited to have a workspace again where I can imagine, build and become entranced again in the magic of creation. Out here, of course, I lack the comradery of fellow artists - the communion of souls each lost in the pursuit of translating their own vision outward - so I will do the next best thing: I will post online.
I recently started a Facebook page for my artwork which I hope you will follow (if you’re already on FB). I started an Instagram page as well and the addresses are below.
I’m not doing much commentary on Facebook - I’m just posting images of my artwork and occasional peeks into my process of creating. I’d love for you to join me there and be part of my “silent, creative community” - in which comments are always welcome!
Here’s a preview of what you’ll see there:
If these intrigued you, follow me on these sites to see more. See you there!
Facebook: G. Latchford Art
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