Activism Through Art – What Autism Acceptance Means to Us

by Nicole Nicholson and Virgil S. Maday
Editors of Barking Sycamores

In the past, autism awareness efforts have at best promoted this kind of false tolerance and at worst have promoted outright lies that we are pathetic, helpless, unfeeling people or at worst tragic mistakes of nature or genetics. So, what good is awareness when it consists of fallacies, half-truths, and dangerous stereotypes? This is why the focus must shift from awareness to acceptance. During Autism Acceptance Month we at Barking Sycamores (http://barkingsycamores.wordpress.com) – a new literary journal created to showcase neurodivergent poetic voices – offer our own thoughts on what acceptance means.

First, let’s tell you a little about us. We are Nicole Nicholson, an autistic poet and Editor-in-Chief, and Virgil S. Maday, a musician and Assistant Editor-in-Chief. After her diagnosis with Asperger Syndrome in 2010, Nicole began trying to understand and explore herself as an autistic person through writing poetry. Throughout this journey, Nicole has met other autistic artists with incredible talent producing works of stunning beauty. Later, Virgil discovered that he, too, is autistic. And during our conversations about art and neurodiversity, we realized that without neurodivergent artists – profoundly creative individuals such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Robeson, Kurt Cobain, Emily Dickinson, and Hans Christian Andersen – the world would be a colorless and empty place.

We also realized that one of the best tools for activism is art – promoting understanding of autism and neurodiversity as a whole through artistic communication which opens doors to allow others to see our humanity. We were inspired by organizations such as Awe In Autism, The Art of Autism, and the Artists and Autism Facebook group, who were already showcasing autistic artists. Acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity through poetry was one of the prime reasons why Barking Sycamores was founded. It is in this spirit that we offer our views on what autism acceptance, and more broadly, neurodivergent acceptance, means to us.

1. Acceptance means that a neurodivergent artist’s voice arises unfettered, free of self-doubt or constraints placed upon the artist by other people.

2. Acceptance means that our artistic communication is not dismissed as savant ability, a fluke, or merely existing in a liminal space between genius and madness without any attempt to understand the message within the art. The lens through which neurodivergent artists are viewed must shift – instead of a call for us to change, points of view about us must change. No more Rain Men, no more assumptions that we are all like Dr. Temple Grandin, no more stereotypes of reclusive kooks or tormented, explosive creative geniuses. We are human beings with the gift to hold fire in our bosoms and turn it into whatever art it is destined to be – beautiful, raw, ugly, idiosyncratic, placid, detail-oriented, angry, or imbued with millions of colors.

3. Acceptance means we are not asked to dim our inner lights by changing behavior that is native to us as neurodivergent people. “Normal” is a lie – it is a social construct that creates an illusion of a majority population to which most belong and a minority population of outsiders who do not belong. When we as neurodivergents are pressured to conform through any means – peer pressure and bullying; behavioral modification methods which attempt to “wipe out” autistic behavior; psychology, psychiatry, and medicine which looks at us through a lens of pathology while ignoring the most important tenet of the Hippocratic Corpus – “first, do no harm”; dangerous and painful “treatments” and “cures” – we experience a similar reality to the Africans who lost their language, culture, and religion during the slave trade or First Peoples children attending “Indian Schools” in the nineteenth century who were threatened with punishment for speaking their native tongues or practicing their original faith.

4. Acceptance also means that neurodivergent traits are not discouraged, denigrated, or trained out of ordinary folks but yet tolerated or even praised in the rich and famous. Nicole used to hear an axiom in her late teens and early twenties – “he/she is rich enough to be that weird”. This is a lie. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Pharrell Williams or Tyrone Q. Public, Susan Boyle or Jane Doe, Jim Morrison or Mr. Jones. Social-economic status, race, gender, sexual orientation, and the like are neither reasons to excuse our perceived “eccentricity” nor reasons to insist that we conform to some kind of false “normal”.

Make no mistake, friends – acceptance is not tolerance. Tolerance, too, is a lie. Our modern connotation of the word “tolerance” often suggests – with a wink and a nudge – that “niceness” should be practiced to a neurodivergent’s face but yet bigotry is allowed behind their backs. This does no one any good, least of all neurodivergent people. Many of us desire open portals through which dialogue and education can occur to bring about the eventual goals of acceptance and understanding.

Virgil frequently likes to say the following: “Never allow someone outside your person to determine who you are”. We are rising up as an autistic community – and slowly, in a broader sense, a neurodivergent community – to accomplish just that. In the process, we must continue to challenge the havoc wreaked by “awareness”: stereotypes, assumptions, and demands for our conformity. We assert that we have the right to be our full-spectrum, neurodiverse selves – whether we be folks with computer minds, firework souls, and glass shatter hearts…or perhaps we exist in subtler shades of cinereal, seafoam, and cloudburst and we feel something inside ourselves closer to little sparklers or the pop and crackle of a stylus upon a vinyl record…or we find that we are somewhere in between.

To help be part of the solution, Barking Sycamores is dedicated to showcasing neurodivergent poetic voices. We invite you to “taste and see” as one of our favorite Bible verses puts it. Come read our first – and future – issues. We also invite you to send us your poetry, artwork, or essays about neurodivergence and poetics.

We are a little journal with high hopes, desiring to accomplish activism through artistic expression – one of the highest forms of communication. God willing, we will see a future in which our progeny will look back on this time in human history and laugh at the notion that there was anything unusual about neurodivergent artistic communication. But this cannot happen without acceptance – a full acceptance of our personhood and humanity.

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