Artists with autism work with the University

Local autistic artists have opened up about their experiences of loneliness through a series of animated videos produced in partnership with University of Brighton.

The artists behind the four short films have been supported to learn animation skills over the past year as part of a novel partnership between University of Brighton and local arts organisation Figment Arts, led by Dr Gemma Williams, a Research Fellow in the university’s Centre for Resilience and Social Justice.

stop motion puppet being manipulated by artist

Chiming with the concerns of World Mental Health Day (10 October), the animations shine a light on the experiences of autistic people in a world that often fails to understand their perspective. The project also recorded personal reflections by the individual artists – Eleana Re, William Hanekom, Ryan Medlock and Debbie Caulfield – on the themes of loneliness and autistic communication.

In Cafe Faux Pas, Eleana Re dips into a cafe chat with a friend over the shocking price of the coffee, before sharing her unfiltered opinion with the barista…. In Ryan Medlock’s Bear, meanwhile, the central character tries to hang out with both humans in a bar and bears in the wood.

Eleana said: “The project was great. It was really good to collaborate on an art project using research from someone that knows so much about autism. I found that I learned a lot about autism which was useful as autistic people aren’t always educated about their condition – they are just diagnosed with it if they are lucky. Misconceptions about autistic people are often that their social skills are crap, that they have no empathy, and are rude! This can be the case – but if they are rude that’s not always because of their autism…

“Loneliness can be a problem in our society more than ever – or maybe people are reaching out more now. I think people with autism often aren’t accepted as friends because people who aren’t autistic don’t give them a chance, they assume they are too different. People are afraid of breaking conventions on ‘normality’, but I think they should open their minds and accept people with autism into their lives – because then they may see things from another angle, and experience new experiences.”

Tackling misconceptions

As part of her research, Dr Williams teamed up with local autism support organisation Assert to set up conversations on the subject of loneliness between different pairings of people – such as two autistic people talking together, or an autistic and non-autistic person talking. Interestingly, when two autistic people spoke to each other, there was a significantly greater sense of flow to their conversation than in conversations between autistic participants and non-autistic people – a little like an encounter perhaps between two people who don’t share a common native language.

Research from the National Autistic Society found rates of loneliness up to four times higher in autistic than non-autistic individuals. Autistic people also felt greater vulnerability to the negative physical and psychological consequences of loneliness – something that is linked to increased depression and anxiety. It is also associated with a greater risk of self-harm and increased suicidal thoughts and behaviour.

Yet despite this, there remains a persistent damaging stereotype that autistic individuals are not as motivated to find meaningful social relationships as others. Dr Williams found that autistic people spoke to her about two different kinds of loneliness: a practical kind created by barriers to accessing social space, including sensory challenges in public spaces; and a deeper yearning for meaningful connection with others. However, many autistic people also revealed a need to spend time alone, as spending lots of time with non-autistic people could be quite overwhelming.

Dr Gemma Williams, Research Fellow in the Centre for Resilience and Social Justice at the University of Brighton, said: “Working with Figment Arts and the autistic artists on these videos has been a dream project. It was really important to me to make sure that my research findings were genuinely accessible, as unfortunately research often isn’t. I’m a big believer of ‘nothing about us without us’.”

The animation project also worked with University of Brighton’s award-winning social enterprise and network Boingboing, which tackles disadvantage and finds ways to bring genuine change to people’s in the UK, Europe and Africa. Researchers cross the fields of healthcare, sociology, media studies and arts practices, and the team includes academics, social workers, teachers, experts through experience, and service users.

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