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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Artists on the Autism Spectrum: Improving Gallery Accessibility

   I was very impressed recently when my state of Kentucky published an article for improving the accessibility to galleries for people with disabilities. Autistic viewers were mentioned, and I welled up with pride at living in a state that shows active awareness for it's people!
   I had to write to tell them, and I asked if they had ideas for people on the Autism Spectrum who were Artists themselves, as well as offering to collaborate on some ideas I had. They said "The Arts council would love to have your insights."
  I took ideas I had and went to the people who know best. I went to other artists with Autism, and asked what problems they'd encountered, and what ideas they had that might help. I also went to my daughter who came up with some great insights, as well as numerous people who are not Autistic, yet have some of the same issues with sensory problems. I was amazed at how willing people were to help each other!
  To begin, the two main inhibitors to artists with Autism are Sensory Issues and difficulty in socializing. Galleries need to entertain patrons, and it's beneficial to them that artists and patrons socialize. Galleries are a business, and socializing means sales. As Temple Grandin has indicated, we on the Spectrum are not good at "selling ourselves." We must sell our work, our talents, expertise and our portfolios. This is the problem I hope to build a bridge of understanding over, and hopefully help to facilitate compromise that will be beneficial to artists on the Autism Spectrum, Patrons of the arts, and Galleries.
 Following are two lists. One is ideas that galleries might be able to do to improve accessibility, facilitate interaction between artists with Autism/Asperger's and Patrons. The second is some things artist's with Autism may be able to do themselves to make the experience simpler and more enjoyable, beneficial. These are only ideas. What works for one may need adjusting for another, but it's a place to begin.

 To Galleries:
     Sensory Issues: Things like a lot of noise can be enough to cause a person with Autism to lose their ability to communicate, and communication means sales. It can cause us to have to leave to regain our composure. What happens with me, personally is that when music is loud, I cannot focus on what you or Patrons are saying. I physically feel the loudness, and it's overwhelming. At the very least, I'd have to walk out. I might be shaken to tears. Those who are more sensitive than I could run, cover their ears, and scream. We are more sensitive to sound than the average person. For comparison, it might be like you standing by a 6ft speaker at a rock concert while trying to have a gentle conversation. It's not possible.
    1-Consider asking the artist what music they might prefer (I realize this is there for the Patrons, so giving the artist some choice in input might help. I, for instance, would be much more comfortable with a soft string quartet or a gentle classical CD than a rock band or country music band.)

    2- Consider having no music

       Social Issues: Most often, it's been suggested that I mingle and talk to Patrons. This is exceedingly difficult for me and impossible for some others. I and others have trouble conversing, knowing when to speak or where we belong. We can get lost if we don't know exactly what to do. Some things you might do to make this easier:

  1- A designated place for the artist with Autism. (We can leave this, but have it to return to.)Think in terms of a book signing. I need to know where I'm supposed to be/ have a place to belong. If a table and chair were set up, where others could approach me one at a time, I'd be much more comfortable and have an easier time talking to Patrons. I'd suggest this be set at the furthest possible distance from the loudest area if there is music as possible.

  2-  Consider using our written materials to aid in communication. The artist may only be able to make "appearances." If the gathering is 2 hours long, some of us may only be able to be there for 10 minutes, leave then return for 10 more. We may be able to provide you with written information about our work. Consider that a worker might field some questions for us. We may also have an assistant with us that can help with this. (see 3)

  3- We may be unable to speak. Some of us cannot at all, others like me can go mute during very stressful situations. Consider that we may have to bring a person to speak on our behalf, or at least aid us in conversation with Patrons.

  4- Short speeches or our writing read by another: Where mingling isn't possible for some of us, some may be able to do a short monologue about our work. We may even be able to answer a few questions from the crowd. While we can be as nervous as anyone in a *speech* situation, it is far easier than mingling. (The Lexington Art League at the Loudon House has an "Gallery Talk" once a month that would be a great model for this. There, the artist talks to a group of artists. This could be used for the artist to also talk to a group of Patrons at the beginning of a show, or at some point during. A quiet area would need be extablished for this.)

  5- We could benefit greatly from a private "cool down" area, as mentioned in the article (link above)that inspired me. If given this, we could take a break, relax and come back fresh to interact.

  6- Online communication: You may work with artist who simply cannot be present for shows. Often, non verbal artists can type and communicate beautifully in online "chat" situations. Consider that one or even a few computers might be set up at a show, so that Patrons could interact with the artist. (Patrons love an eccentric artist, and a good story to tell of the artwork they purchased and how they got to know the artist! They'll eat it up!)

   7-Video and photos might be provided by the artist where possible. If the situation is such that the artist is verbal, but cannot attend a public show, consider that the artist might make a short video discussing their work and provide it to you. It might be shown to patrons as part of the display.

  To my fellow Artists with Autism Spectrum Disorder:
   As you've read above, I've only covered a few things. Other sensory problems like various smells from perfumes, foods that may be served, people that may bump into us, talk too loud...all of these things are causes for potential melt-downs or shutdowns. Here are some of the ideas I've gathered from my experience and from others on what we can do to make the experience more pleasant. (Those who may be going to assist the artist, can help be sure these or some of these are available.)

   Sensory Issues:
1- Eat about an hour before the show. Nervousness can do terrible things to our stomachs, and many of us have food allergies. Best to leave the snack table to the Patrons.

2-Bring or get water. A dry mouth is not good for talking. Bring lip moisturizer as well. Anxiety can rob the mouth of much needed moisture.

3- Keep a comfort object with you. Mine is a kneaded eraser that I can roll and squeeze. Anything that gives you comfort and a sense of familiarity will do. (I never worry about what others think. They expect artists to be a little "eccentric" anyway, and I can even have some fun with it. The point is to take care of me first, then I can be there for them.)

4- Never wear new clothes, rather wear what is clean, and comfortable to you. Look nice, but don't over do with things that are going to cause discomfort. Itching, tugging at uncomfortable fabric or wrestling new shoes is going to make it all more stressful. Be true to you, and don't try to look or act whatever you may think "normal" is. Just wear what you like, and feel good in.

5- Consider long sleeves or a jacket/sweater that you can remove if need be. Like many I have touch sensory issues. NT's love to touch my arm when talking. Long sleeves help buffer this, so I don't feel imposed on or invaded suddenly. I'd also suggest a pair of light gloves if hand shaking is a problem. Remember, you can opt not to shake hands too. Have something in your hands like a bottle of water in one hand and painting in the other, and no one is going to try to shake your hand.

6- Lights: Gallery lights are often low key, and fortunately aimed at paintings rather than us. Still, if they are an issue of pain or discomfort, consider wearing light sunglasses. It's a small buffer, but it often helps me in stores.

7- If you're someone who wears hats, these may help buffer some of the noise and sensations around you to help you focus on the patrons.

 8- Be realistic about how much time you can tolerate being around people. Never say to yourself, "Well I know I can do ten minutes, but I'm sure I can push it to twenty or an hour." Do your ten, take a break and do ten more. If this is repeated, you may be able to stay much longer than you think. If you are only able to do a few minutes, then you have succeeded. If all you can do is send the work, you have succeeded. Be realistic about the expectations you put on yourself, and do not push. Consider what you'd ask an Autistic friend to try, and only go that far. Be as good to you as you naturally are to others.

   Social Issues/Communication:

  1- Have someone who knows you and your work go with you. This person can help with questions, give out information, and help you in a panic situation.

  2- Go to the gallery before the show, even days before. Note where exits are, and where you might go to get away from the crowd for a time if need be. Spot the restrooms and the water. Ask questions. Consider going to a show at this gallery before your show. See how things go, watch and listen to what the artist says and does. See if you might implement some of these ideas.

 3- Make a list of all of your works, and write a little bit about each one, size, price, what medium you used. Write a short paragraph, even two or three sentences about each work. These might be posted beside the work. Also, when a Patron asks you about that work, you can speak a little, then hand them a copy of this note just for them to keep and hold. This can make the experience personal to them. (and they like that) Have business cards: Simply having your contact information written down to hand your Patron can help.

 4- Write or get help writing a paragraph or two, but keep it to a page, about your art. If there is a theme in your show, write it down, and make sure the gallery has a copy of it well before the show. It will help them in promotions. I'll include a list of questions commonly asked of me by Patrons, and my own answers. This may help you form a *script* of what to say in these often awkward situations.

5- Consider an Artistic Autistic duo. Think of times when you had someone to look after. I've felt more confident in those times, so having shows with an other person with Autism my be highly beneficial. Consider group shows as well.

6- It's easier to cheer on another artist. Many of us feel very uncomfortable chatting up our own work (it feels fake, and the work should stand for itself, right?), but we can be champion's for one another, often speaking with much more ease.

7- Consider making attainable goals for communication. If you are verbal, a goal might be to say, "Hi." to three people. You can say, 'Hi" to more, but make a goal plan. This way, we know what to do from the time we walk in the door. ie. I belong at this table. I can go anywhere, but that's my anchor/safe spot, I need to say, "Hi" to three people. These will be small goals for others, but they can be big for us.

8- Establish a panic signal for the person you have assisting you. It can be a simple word or a tug on your own ear. Anything that you and they establish means, "Get me out of here!" or "I need help." Make sure both of you understand this. This person may need to play "linebacker" to get you through the crowd and out to a place to decompress.

9- keep a note pad with you to write down any ideas you may have for a better experience at the next show, questions that you got asked that weren't on your list, etc.

10- Provide the gallery some photos. Photos are hard. Consider taking a few yourself, and providing those to the gallery for their promotions. If the concept of even taking a photo yourself is too much, say so. If you are unable to attend a show and can speak, consider making a short video of yourself talking about your work. Offer this to the gallery to show Patrons.

11- Eye Contact: It's up to you, but Patrons do like it in small bits, no staring. Here is what I do. Eye contact has always been extremely hard for me, but I can use what I have. I'm an artist! I mentally *paint* people while they talk to me. I look at their eyes, then their forehead, their hair, then their chin, nose, back to the eyes. It's my nature to focus if anything on their mouths to try to lip read what doesn't get through to my ears, but I try to move all over the face. I think in terms of colors I might use, or shadows and light. People are really quite beautiful, and I find they warm up to the attention. If they catch me, I simply tell them the truth. "I think the light on your hair is beautiful." or "I was noticing how the shadow lies against your jaw." or simply, "I was mentally painting you." They can be very flattered by this. Be ready to hand them a business card. I've gotten several commissions by accident this way.

12- Listen: The world is full of people who have never had anyone truly listen. Patrons will often ask you a question, get an answer, then they want to talk a while. This is great news for someone like me who can go mute! I can give them a listening ear. No pressure on me to talk, and I can learn things like what kind of art appeals, what about my work touched them, and what I may need to do more of next time. You can even ask them questions:  "What kind of art do you usually like?" "Have you ever tried drawing/painting?" Patrons often want a personal connection with us, and nothing makes this easier than simply listening. If there is a break in their words, nod, say, "oh," "wow," "that's interesting," etc.

      I offer a heartfelt , Thank you to my daughter, Eve Kotter who helps me keep things simple, and to the wonderful people at "Artists and Autism" They put a lot into helping me gather ideas to help us All. Their Facebook page is here. They are of immense support to many artists of all ages on the Autism Spectrum,

Lastly, here is a list of common questions I'm asked. You may want to keep them, and write your own answers down for when Patrons ask.

1-How long have you been painting? Many of us, have always. You can state your age if you like. It will be true, but they'll think it's humor, and a smile from them is good business. You can also say how long you've been painting/drawing/sculpting, etc. in this particular way. If you started a year ago, say so. They'll be impressed.)

2-What medium do you use? Oil, Acrylic, Watercolor, Ink, Clay, Fabric, etc,,
Are you self taught or did you take lessons? (It may be for some of us that it's built in.  We just do this, no lessons, no self taught, but "self taught" is clear and understandable to others.)

3-What inspires/influences you? (mom, dad, Picasso, nature, etc?)

4-What are you trying to say/communicate with this work?( Tough one for me. I'm usually communicating some technique, but some may want to communicate a feeling, a stance on an issue, love, etc.)

5-Is there a book or site on art that you'd recommend? Any that you like will do. If there are none, ask what they like.

6-Do you paint ____(fill in the blank), Many may be interested in your style of painting say, Landscapes, but would like a painting of their dog by you. Be realistic about your abilities, and be prepared to hand them a business card.

7-What would you charge for_____? Answer: "I have my price list here." Hand them a price list or a business card where they can find a price list. You might also direct them to the Gallerist who can assist with this, or the person who is assisting you.

  Remember, listening is key. If they ask about you painting their dog, then ask about their dog. I've heard many wonderful stories this way, and it's a chance to enjoy their company. Lastly, take breaks from the crowd before you think you need them. Schedule them if it helps. If you plan 10 minutes in the crowd and ten out, then stick to it. Again, don't push yourself. This is work, but it doesn't have to be mountain climbing. Be gentle with you, and that will transmit to your Patrons.
  Feel free to add to this list in the comments. You know best what works for you.
Best wishes and happy exhibits to All,

tina jones.



  1. Superb advice, Tina-- very glad to see you taking this on!

  2. Thankyou so much, Landon. You are always an inspiration!