A insightful article from our peer support facilitator volunteer Katie on being autistic and creative and how creativity has been an essential tool for her wellbeing, plus exciting next steps!
My creativity has been a thread that has connected the various paths that I have travelled down during my life. As a late-discovered autistic woman in my fifties it was only when I was diagnosed that I realised having a creative output was an essential tool for my self-regulation and survival.
In my twenties I was part of a theatre company that toured all over Europe, going into schools and performing with English language students, improvising stories and collaborating with them to act them out in the round. I had a love/hate relationship to the constant travelling and meeting new people, I can now see how incompatible this was to me as an autistic person. But it also meant I was constantly having to be creative, and I discovered new ways of doing this. I wrote a journal, short stories and poetry, I sketched and took many photos.
This work also scratched the social justice itch that is a big part of my autistic spectrum, we worked in community settings in the UK, in day centres with disabled people and those with mental health challenges. I can see now that I became very burnt out after several years of touring, but I was determined to continue working with people using drama and stories. I successfully trained to be a drama therapist and developed a career mainly in mental health settings for ten years. After the birth of my second son, I found this work too challenging to continue and for a while did administrative work.
During this time, I continued with my creative writing and photography, using both as outlets for the stress that is part of having a young family. As it all settled down a bit, I began doing voluntary work and ran a reminiscence group, this developed into an intergenerational project with a primary school with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was very enjoyable to find creative ways of enabling connections between the older generation in their 70s & 80s and the 8- & 9-year-old children.
In 2017 I began an MA in Inclusive Arts Practice which enabled me to do a deep dive into how the creative process can be made accessible for everyone and the amazing benefits this can produce. I researched how photography can support women to share narratives and explore their creativity. I worked with women who were mothers of children with special educational needs and learning disabilities. The space to do this alongside being supported by the university was a good fit for my autism even though I did not know I was autistic at the time.
I graduated with my master’s degree in 2019 and setup a Community Interest Company and in 2022 I launched a community craft project. It was at this point when I was flying solo, in charge of running workshops, organising venues, social media promotion and working on a community farm that I suddenly realised it was all too much. Despite being the driving force behind this project I was floundering, I struggled to keep it running and I slowly took on board that the reason it was so difficult for me was because on my neurodivergence. The people facing aspects of the work became increasingly difficult but I successfully completed the project including a commission for a collaborative textile piece which was exhibited in Worthing.
It was, once again, the creativity, integral to this work that allowed me to continue. I could spend hours working with the wool from the sheep on the farm, dying, felting and weaving, both in workshops and in my art studio. It was a refuge that I could retreat to when I could no longer keep the neurotypical mask on. The art I create is simply there, it does not judge me or make demands of me.
One of the challenging results of doing this project though was severe autistic burnout, after more than 50 years of keeping going I had to stop. I struggled with feeling like a failure and yet I physically could do very little. I was very glad to find Aupeer at this time and started going to the online support group. I found talking to others experiencing similar difficulties very therapeutic and it gave me much needed connections that felt safe and healing.
My creativity took me in a new direction, I discovered mixed media, mono-printing and painting with acrylics. I found that I could delve into different techniques, explore them and get lost in all the possibilities with no requirement to share what I created or adhere to any restrictions. Making an image was about the process, the flow of doing it and over the last year I have developed a daily art practice which has made a big positive impact on my mental health and enhanced my ability to come to terms with what being autistic means to me.
In January of this year I heard from Charlotte of Aupeer that there was the opportunity to train as a peer support worker and to help co-facilitate the groups. I am happy to say I completed the training and am able to help run the groups with Charlotte and Anna.
Currently I am no longer in severe burnout and I feel more confident about being autistic in a mostly neuro-typical world because I know I am not alone; I have the support of a neurodivergent community and my art practice to help regulate me.
My next aim is to facilitate an online creative space for autistic people, to share some of the ways being creative can help us process and move through the challenges we face in everyday life. This would not be therapy but could be therapeutic, an inclusive place where we can express non-verbally some of the “stuff” that we carry around, where the mask can slip a bit or maybe come off altogether.
I am going to be offering a series of six weekly zoom creativity sessions on Tuesday mornings, this would be a pilot project and free of charge to those who are interested. No previous experience of drawing, painting or mark making is required, I am not an art teacher and you will not be assessed in any way. I will provide guidance about the kind of materials you would need (these are minimal, paper and whatever medium you prefer – pencils, pens, pastels, paints) and how to begin.
If you would like to receive further information about this then please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will setup a start date once there is enough interest. In the meantime I encourage you to give yourself ten minutes with some paper, to make some marks and to see what unfolds.