Scheherazade’s Sea – autistic parallel embodiment and elemental empathy

Paper presented at UNSW Art & Design Postgraduate Conference, 17-19 June 2015.


My Ph.D dissertation, tentatively entitled, Scheherazade’s Sea – autistic parallel embodiment and elemental empathy, is part of a protracted journey in search for Being: a detailed study of Self and Other, and examination of multidimensional interstices of dynamic, interactive reciprocities.

This research and practice rests upon three fundamental concepts:

  1. Parallel Embodiment,
  2. Endeavour of Empathy, and
  3. Space of Mind, from which emanates Elemental Empathy.

The theoretical foundation for this work is constructed from documented studies in neuroscience, anthropology, the arts and humanities, and personal anecdotal evidence from autistic individuals. At the same time, my artistic practice acts as concretising agency by creating experimental ‘sharable’ spaces that serve not merely to display autism but to invite dynamic, personified communion; connecting individuals across neuro-functional divides.

Parallel Embodiment and the Endeavour

Scheherazade’s Sea –autistic parallel embodiment and elemental empathy presents Autism Spectrum Condition as a Parallel Embodiment, a separate existence that resonates gently alongside the perceived ‘norm’. For many autists, life within the context of the wider social world is an arduous journey, grasping for juxtapositional comfort within the confines of an alien and hostile landscape. In fact, despite variation in individual circumstances, an over arching sense of perpetual performativity is shared by autistic individuals. The title of autistic author Liane Holliday Willey’s autobiography, “Pretending to be Normal,” succinctly captures the performative demands upon autists striving to live inside a non-autistic paradigm.[1] To such, myself included, the pressure is immense: our social survival requires us to master the appearance of neurotypicality, that is, “performing the unnatural as naturally as possible.”[2]

While the majority of autists do not deny the tangible challenges and disabling aspects presented by autism, nevertheless pervading perception is not conducive to forging deeper bonds of understanding. Current psychiatric diagnostic frameworks are based on a pathological deficits-focused model, assessing autism with the same methodologies used for disease and sickness, and hence, traits that are functionally innate are deemed abnormalities in need of ‘correction’ and ‘redirection’, or even ‘cure’. Some examples of characteristics deemed unacceptable, which popular programmes (such as ABA) set out to ‘rectify,’ include not wanting to engage in eye contact; not desiring to spontaneously share discoveries, thoughts or feelings; delighting in inconspicuous details in patterns, repetitions and transformations; intense focus on subjects of interests; acute sensory abilities and responses; and self calming repetitive movements (commonly referred to as “stimming”) etc. In other words, what is natural and comforting to the autist, and even some exceptional talents, are deemed defects or aberrations. We are often accused of “living in a world of our own,” as if that were a terrible travesty: but what is it about the neurotypical social world that makes it so attractive or welcoming for the autist to actively desire to be in it?

This is where the study of empathy is crucial. Simply put, how is it possible to design and implement effective support, if there is no deeper existential understanding? And how may an inclusive social environment be constructed if there was no apprehension of the functional paradigms of the people to be included? Perhaps, with greater awareness of Autism Spectrum Condition, now may be an appropriate time that the neurotypical world embarks on some rigorous training or re-programming, similar to the kinds that autists have been subject to, with the aim of achieving a functional measure of empathy for the autistic existence?

Why use the term “Endeavour”?

Empathy is not a magical clairvoyance, it is an Endeavour: a conscious and deliberate act to connect with a realm that is not one’s own. One of the most damaging myths presented about autism is that of empathy impairment. In reality, the autist is not devoid of empathy: in fact, a growing body of literature is emerging that indicates the existence of a richer and more intense tapestry of empathic resonance. The Endeavour of Empathy is an overwhelming feature of autistic undertaking, one that “embraces the entirety of existence, where the cerebral is in persistent, active sympathy with dynamic material.”[3] This dissertation examines empathy from within intrinsic autistic modalities, thus challenging the Theory of Mind and empathy impairment hypothesis popularised by neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen.

Space of Mind and Elemental Empathy

For many years now, autists have been talking about sensory affinity to animals and nature. Neuroscience has in recent years confirmed specific aspects of this phenomenon, attributing to it the peculiar sensory-cognitive complexion inherent in autism. World famous animal behaviour and lifestock scientist, Temple Grandin, has written and spoken extensively on this subject, as has anthropologist, Dawn Prince, and mathematical savant, Daniel Tammet. What do cows, apes and numbers have in common with autistic empathy? The answer lies in their elemental approach to relating with the world. I refer to this as “Space of Mind,” a system of mentalising different from the socially-focused neurotypical Theory of Mind.

The Theory of Mind test is primarily based on being alert to deceit and manipulation. Given that autistic minds operate more literally, while sharply focused on sensory details and nuances, it is not surprising then, that the autist is less inclined to tune in to the exploits that occupy the neurotypical fluid social-moral mindscape.

From Space of Mind, emerges the presence of an alternative autistic empathy, an ‘Elemental Empathy,’ which is the foundational focus of my artistic practice. To illustrate this concept, I shall read an excerpt from my paper, “Thinking through the body – a multimodal approach from autism.”

We sense, and therefore we exist. We exist in conscious relation to matter. We communicate with and through the elements that constantly impact our senses. We seek sensation, at the same time as we recoil from it. To the outside world, we may seem to live in a vacuum, but it is actually a busy vortex of intimate corporeal-cerebral conversation with the material universe. (We)… taste colour, touch rhythm, smell timbre… thoughts, emotions and physical states… profoundly affected by minute and subtle changes in light, temperature, wind direction or… a plethora of sounds and smells. … intuition … is … embedded in our fingertips, inspiring the rhythm of our breath, communicating through the sensation of dust particles upon our skin, or the sound and feel of water running from the tap.

Contrapuntal, harmonious or symphonic, even at times ponderous, we enunciate… from our sensory eclecticism: painstakingly rigorous visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory impressions and compressions. …we are inexorably driven to evince the palpable universe within us, with us and without.


As a cadence, I shall discuss in my dissertation the relatively new concept of “Neurocosmopolitanism,”[4] as introduced by Ralph Savarese and prominent researchers in neurodiversity. This shall propel the work beyond the confines of autism, and position the discourse within the framework of developing a compelling science-art / art-science praxis for creating ambient physical-mental-social spaces that foment increased understanding, acceptance and reciprocity across all neurological predispositions.

In closing, I’d like to read a poem of mine that summarises, from a sensory, evocative dimension, the essence of Parallel Embodiment.

Wake up in my Dreams

Dancing with my shadows

Whispering, “Good Night”

Humming silent wishes

Smiling deep inside

Dancing with my shadows

Jarful of moonbeams

Come, lay down beside me

Wake up in my dreams

(Dawn-joy Leong, 2010.)

[1] Liane Holliday Willey, Pretending to be Normal (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1999).

[2] Dawn-joy Leong, bunnyhopscotch blog, “distance.” 30 May 2015,

[3] Dawn-joy Leong, “Thinking through the body – a multimodal approach from autism.” Paper presented at The International Conference for Research Creativity: Praxis, Baptist University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 21-23 November 2012.

[4] Ralph Savarese, “From Neurodiversity to Neurocosmopolitanism: Beyond Mere Acceptance and Inclusion,” Ethics and Neurodiversity. Eds. C.D. Herrera and Alexandra Perry. Cambridge Scholars Press 2013, 191-205.