Art was a release for my emotional overload

Cork people diagnosed with autism later in life are using art as a way of expressing themselves, writes SHAMIM MALEKMIAN
Art was a release for my emotional overload
Elaine Chapman with her artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

WHEN doctors diagnosed Cork artist Ann Burns with Asperger’s Syndrome at 42, she let out a sigh of relief.

She describes the experience as similar to “putting on a warm coat”, which ended three decades of cold confusion.

As a young girl, Ann excelled in creative topics but never mastered the art of small talk and did not have a single friend, not that it ever bothered her.

“I was quite happy on my own. I never look back at it as a lonely time,” Ann says.

Her classmates, however, found her behaviour unusual and teachers thought her appetite for solitude was alarming, referring to her as a “daydreamer” in school reports.

By the time she entered adulthood, her ears were attuned to hearing the word “strange”.

Ann, now 48, whose smiling face is framed by short, grey hair, has two daughters who have been both diagnosed with Asperger’s.

While soaking up information about their diagnoses, the Cork mother began to realise that she was sharing similar traits with her children.

“Are you an Aspie too, mum?” Ann recalls one of her daughters asking.

Artists taking part in the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.
Artists taking part in the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

“My daughters are both quite different, and they both are a mix of me,” she says.

“One girl is very sociable, and the other one is very introverted, but both are very creative.”

Because Asperger’s was not widely recognised in the ’80s and ’90s, many adults — like Ann — who always had trouble fitting in socially, are only now coming across an explanation for their lifetime struggles with daily human interactions.

The diagnosis reorganises their lives, putting them in the right frame of mind to compensate for it.

Ann’s diagnosis inked a revoking stamp on her stubborn feelings of unease for being different.

“I always knew I was different, but I was definitely never rewarded for being different,” she says.

She told her daughters, however, that being an Aspie, a term people with some people with Asperger’s like using, meant owning superpowers — a brain full of creative notions.

Ann bursts out laughing, relating how one of her daughters couldn’t wait to share the news of her diagnosis with her classmates.

“People need to understand that autism doesn’t always mean rocking in a corner,” she says.

Autism now encompasses a broad spectrum of conditions, from the classic case of a child who is difficult to reach, to people with Asperger’s who have normal intelligence and often superior skills in certain areas.

However, it is believed that all people with autism share a similar trait: an inability to interpret body language or similar cues necessary for socialising with others.

Ann Burns with her art piece at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.
Ann Burns with her art piece at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

Ann, who has studied Ceramics Art at Cork’s Crawford College of Art and Design, and has been an educator at Enable Ireland for 15 years, became interested in learning more about her condition.

When she enrolled at an Autism Studies course in UCC, she met an incredibly articulate lecturer. His name was Stuart Neilson.

Before he was diagnosed with Asperger’s at 45, Stuart had undergone an array of psychiatric treatments.

The UCC lecturer, who holds a PhD in Mathematical Modelling, was bullied and beaten to the point of hospitalisation at school. During the course of his pre-university studies, he had to change schools 11 times.

“I was either kicked out or my parents were trying to protect me from bullying,” he says.

As an adult, Stuart, now 55, was admitted to psychiatric wards on five separate occasions, having to spend thousands of euros on treating a mysterious mental ailment.

Stuart Neilson with his artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.
Stuart Neilson with his artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

During his times in mental wards, he went through a series of electroshock treatments, a controversial type of therapy used for treating severe psychotic disorders.

In recent years, the efficacy of such treatment has been widely questioned by medical experts.

A highly accomplished lecturer of Medical Statistics at the time, Stuart was not insane.

He too found sense in his anxieties, after his son, who was identifying as female at the time, was diagnosed with Asperger’s. Soon enough, Stuart received an official diagnosis as well.

One day, Ann suggested art therapy to her eloquent lecturer.

“‘I told him ‘Why don’t you do art?’ because he was very creative in the way he was explaining things,” she reasons.

Stuart who has also authored a few books about autism, considered the student’s proposition.

“They say an autistic child would never be able to do art or play music,” Stuart says.

“So, my mother actually forbade me from doing music and art in school because she said it would take away the time that I needed to devote to the things I could do,” he continues.

Earlier in February, the Cork statistician, who has a distinctly clear voice, had a solo exhibition of his artwork at St Peter’s Church’s Vision Centre in Cork and was part of a group art expo called, Autism and Art, organised by his persistent student.

Ann says she decided to organise the exhibition after being approached by Fiona Quinn, the co-founder of Cork Women’s Asperger’s Group.

The art expo, which showcased the artwork of Ireland’s neurodiverse artists, was part of the country’s first all-autistic conference, AUsome. The conference and the exhibition were both held on February 24 at Cork city’s Rochestown Park Hotel.

Lucy H. Pearce with her artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.
Lucy H. Pearce with her artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

Lucy H. Pearce, an East Cork best-selling author and ceramics artist with Asperger’s, also showcased her work at the exhibition.

Lucy, 38, who is parenting a child with Asperger’s, advocates for the rights of autistic women, a group she describes as widely ignored or misdiagnosed with “bipolar disorder” instead.

“There’s a saying that with every child that’s diagnosed a parent is diagnosed too, it might be the mother, it might be the father, it might be both,” she says.

“My big issue is autism and women because autistic women are almost seen as not existing, and it feels deeply unfair.”

A recent report published by the Department of Health cites male students as four times (4.5%) more likely to be identified with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

For years, some researchers have also categorised the human mind as male and female, hypothesising that men, due to systemic differences in their brains, were more susceptible to receiving a diagnosis of ASD.

In 2015, however, a comprehensive study titled Sex Beyond The Genitalia questioned this hypothesis, revealing that humans generally don’t have brains with exclusively “female- typical” or “male-typical” features.

“It’s very scary to be visible as autistic when you’re coming up against all these preconceptions that people have of what autism is,” Lucy reasons. “Mothers are not allowed to have autism.”

All participants of the Autism and Art exhibition had channelled their unique mindsets into their art.

Stuart’s artwork, for example, is impossibly detailed and enriched with mathematical accuracies. His work Grand Parade to Patrick Street offers pixel-by-pixel spirals of a car journey in the city centre.

His Autism Ireland Map is a statistically accurate model of the country’s map while a geographical image of Stuart’s struggles with Asperger’s. The map features two Corks and two Galways, and it is filled with concerns, events and names of people significant to the artist’s life.

Renowned Dublin-based collagist and photographer with Asperger’s, Seán Hillen, had also sent a few of his collages to the exhibition.

Seán says the subject of autism is one that is “close to his heart”, and it was vital for him to participate.

Lucy Henehan-Gavin with his artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.
Lucy Henehan-Gavin with his artwork at the Autism and Art Exhibition. Picture: Shamim Malekmian.

Lucy Henehan-Gavin, a 60-year-old Cork artist whose work is such an accurate representation of her life’s daunting obstacles that her eyes brim with tears while talking about each artwork, also showcased her work.

In Petrified Self-Portrait, Lucy has painted herself looking “frozen” as the masks she has to wear to carry on hover above her head.

“In this one, I’m certainly frozen by emotional overload. I was a full-time carer at the time for both my parents who were sort of on the path downward from life,” she says. “This [painting] was my release.”

Lucy doesn’t have an official diagnosis of Asperger’s, but her son does, and the Cork mother says she is confident she has it as well. It was only when my son got his diagnosis that I looked into it and realised that the obstacles I have faced in life have been very much linked into being on the Autism Spectrum,” she says.

Lucy has also made a short film titled Racing Heads with its cast and crew either having autism or mental health problems. The film, produced by Engagement Through Art Group at Southwest Kerry, depicts the impact of “rural isolation” on mental health and premiered at the Autism and Art exhibition.

Elaine Chapman, a 29-year-old Dublin artist with Asperger’s who has mastered the curious art of making dragons out of folded paper, had three pieces on display at the all-autistic art expo. One of them, Dragons’ Fight, depicts her paper dragons, ready to tear each other into pieces.

Both the recent AUsome conference and its art exhibition ended with one strong message: “Awareness is everywhere, people with autism need understanding.”

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