INTRODUCTION

This dissertation is part of a protracted journey in search for Being, set within the context of Parallel Embodiment: a detailed study of juxtapositions of Self and Other,[1] and an examination of multidimensional interstices of dynamic, interactive reciprocities. Theoretical, practical and autobiographical, the fundamental driving force herein is yet more than the combination of these perspectives: ‘the work’ is a process that palpably, in an act of physical effort, carves a life of its own in the researcher’s mind.

 

Three central concepts are introduced:

  1. Autism as a Parallel Embodiment;
  2. The Endeavour of Empathy;
  3. Space of Mind, from which emerges an alternative empathic system.

 

Rather than looking at Autism Spectrum Condition through normative social constructs and measurements, and prevalent models of deficits arising from this system (for example the so-called impaired Theory of Mind and lack of empathy hypothesis), this thesis investigates sensory and cognitive traits unique to and inherent in autism in order to generate an alternative conception of Empathic Consciousness. Mainstream scientific literature and normative social belief about autism are countered with autobiographical and anecdotal evidence from autistic persons in a vigorous dialogue. The endeavour of empathy is approached from the premise of Autistic Parallel Embodiment, a separate yet co-existing neurological construct and functional culture. Instead of the wretched, infertile landscape as painted by convention, the autistic paradigm will be revealed as a richly endowed, multidimensional neuro-culture with a cogent alternative empathic system emanating from a sensory-elemental connected ‘Space of Mind.’

 

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 much more importantly to invite dynamic, personified communion – welcoming non-autistic Other to enter into experiential space with autistic Self – thus connecting individuals across neuro-cultural divides through mainly non-didactic, sensory empathies native to autism.

 

Encountering for the first time my research and artistic oeuvre, I am often questioned about my use of pedagogical models, and some attempt to situate the works within established frames of practice. Within which convention does the work fall? How does one ‘frame’ this work? In the preceding paragraph, I used the word ‘experimental.’ If this is an experiment, what is its ‘expected outcome’ or ‘hypothetical goal’? Some observers have described my practice as art-informed research, while others as art-practice-based, or research-focused art. Although there may appear to be overlapping areas of similarity, this autistic artist finds it difficult to explain that my creative enterprise does not deliberately set out to reflect any specific methodology, even though it may fall into one or another category, but it is merely a way of Being.

 

Stemming from the pervading preference for global thinking and exaltation of central coherence, we are taught by tradition that every explorative and creative effort ought to have in place a clearly projected hypothesis, or a well formulated blueprint from the very outset. The autistic mind, in contrast, is predisposed towards detail-focused perception, or what is popularly known as ‘bottom up thinking.’  Based on findings that indicated a marked penchant for pattern recognition and fixation on repetition[2] and a superior ability to ignore extraneous distraction while honing in on detail,[3] neuroscientists initially attributed these skills to an impaired comprehension of global perspectives: Weak Central Coherence.[4] So fixated on minutiae alone, the autist was purportedly unable to analyse and piece together fragmented components of information and ideas in logical relational order, so as to form a cohesive entity encompassing broader, significant meaning. In recent years, however, further investigations have altered the view on Weak Central Coherence. Subsequent studies suggest that this ‘weakness’ does not necessarily indicate impairment, but rather points towards an intrinsic cognitive proclivity. When explicitly required, autistic individuals are well able to perform global processing tasks at the same level of competence as non-autistics.[5]

 

The sensorial dimension is crucial and symbiotic to the cognitive in autism. Personal accounts from autists affirm that their ‘way’ of perceiving and experiencing the world reflect a strong predisposition to seek sensory channels. The sensorial pathways of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch work cogently together with related combinations of visual imagery, pattern and rhythm. Well-known autists like Temple Grandin, Donna Williams and Daniel Tammet have written and spoken extensively about their individual perceptual pathways. While the actual presentation may differ widely from one person to another, autists share a similar fascination for details, and the tendency towards systematic gathering of information on subjects of intense interest.

 

The answer I am best able to offer in response to questions on situating my practice is: Process – and its pursuit. The autist’s Process, however, should not be confused with the Process Art movement. While the latter is essentially a constructed artistic approach, the former is in fact an intrinsic and inexorable modality, an organic expression of a neurological system. Process, to the Autist, is as crucial as the final outcome. In some cases, process is paramount and finality is an incomplete oxymoronic concept in itself. The intense detail-focused mind of an autist is not necessarily unable to paint sweeping landscapes, it merely delights in the vibrant and dynamic energy of pursuit: a quest to discover vast universes within minutiae, chasing an idea through meandering tunnels with no fixed thought about the shape and form of an expected end. There is a tacit awareness of material interconnectedness – a conscious recognition of global cohesion – yet, for the autistic mind, it is the complexities of microscopic containments that fascinate and hold the keys to wider expanses of understanding. In other words, the fundamental energy behind this work is rooted in the elemental relationships that are native to the sensory and cognitive functioning inherent in Autism Spectrum Condition, as experienced and perceived from within autism. Process, thus, becomes to the autist the Endeavour, an embodied resonance that “embraces the entirety of existence, where the cerebral is in persistent, active sympathy with dynamic material.”[6] Every endeavour possesses its own vibrant personification, and for the autist, Endeavour is not theoretical excursion but rather the embedded visionary and resonant sentience of all effort.

 

The autist’s ‘process’ and ‘endeavour of process’ also often transcend arbitrary disciplinary demarcations. Transdisciplinary science-art and art-science research and practice is not uncommon: collaborations between scientists and artists produce powerful offerings of polymathic, holistic insights into our world. The challenge faced by the autist partaking actively of life in a normative-dominated domain is how to express the journey of hermeneutic discourse, empirical experience and praxis in a way that is acceptable to prevalent tradition, accessible to the non-autistic thinking, while at the same time turning inside-out that which is innate, so as to proffer a true reflection of the Creative Self. Led by a sensory-cognitive idiosyncratic body-mind functional system, the autist intrinsically engages in artistic science and scientific art when observing and analysing phenomenon and transformations as they occur in time and space. To the autist, engaging in transdisciplinary pursuit and process is not confined to collaboration with others, nor is it merely an extrinsic consequence of intellectual interest, but rather an intimate, persistent undertaking, juggling conflicting juxtapositions of intense agony and exultant joy, a dynamic coalescent confabulatory and systemic pursuit of fact, elucidation of realities, imaginative extrapolation and creative introspection. It is an inexorable modus vivendi, a way to be alive in a world full of juxtapositions.

 

“The autistic mind does not differentiate between heuristic and hermeneutic process, they are intertwined, inseparable components of ‘pneuma’, the sense of ‘being.’ The creative autistic is artist as much as scientist on an intense journey of discovery, rigorous investigation of fascinating phenomena, and innovative response.” – Dawn-joy Leong.[7]

 

My material practice draws energy from eclectic trajectories, critically observing and being inspired by innovative empirical discovery and responding with creative mind-body utterances emanating from multiple artistic disciplines, which merge into cohesive, immersive experiential spaces, dynamic concretisations of my autistic reality.

 

 

Scheherazade’s Sea 2010: establishing a premise

2010-Scheherazades-Sea

Figure 1 Photographs from Scheherazade’s Sea 2010.

 

In 2010, I premiered “Scheherazade’s Sea – a mixed media, multisensory installation and performance,” at the University of Hong Kong. This foundational work emerged from a lifelong search for Self in the midst of Other, and an innate predilection for polymathic learning and expression, that is, the inexorable undertaking of process. Scheherazade’s Sea 2010represented a summation of research into the relationship between creative articulation and autism-specific sensory and cognitive idiosyncrasies. At the same time, the opus offered an intimate and personal glimpse into the world of Autism Spectrum Condition through an amalgamation of multi-sensorial artistic mechanisms, including video, soundscape, composed music, musical instrumentation and vocalisation techniques, accessible sensory installations, story telling, poetry, degustation and theatre.

 

The title, “Scheherazade’s Sea,” was chosen as a symbolic intimation of progressive and continuous unfolding empathic and sympathetic investigation and performance. In the Persian epic, “A Thousand and One Nights,” Scheherazade preserved her life by captivating the Shahyar(Persian King) through an epic series of dramatic narratives that flowed seamlessly one into another. The character of Scheherazade preserved her life through an epic series of dramatic narratives that flowed seamlessly one into another, which is analogous to the autistic existence within the wider social milieu, where survival depends heavily upon how well the autist is able to ‘perform’ a continuous librettoin what is often a harsh, exacting and unsympathetic ‘operatic theatre of normality’ based on neurotypical social constructs alien to intrinsic autistic existence. The sea connotes a vast realm, physically tangible while maintaining a whimsical element, a domain that is alien and contrary to the norm of human physicality, requiring careful study, regard, respect, as well as clever invention in order to access, and containing fascinating real and imagined mysteries yet to be revealed and explained.

 

The compositional structure of this current treatise is an interfacing hermeneutic-heuristic tapestry of analytical exposition, introspective extrapolation, and sensory-based creative expressions from the paradigm of autistic modality. The materials include critical examination of current scientific evidence and interpretations, autobiographical perspectives from within autism – my own, as well as that of other autists across the spectrum – and supporting perspectives from the fields of disabilities studies and inter-artistic practice. While maintaining a global cohesion, the presentational approach for the written and practice components shall reflect elements of a detail-focused cognitive style: beginning from the inside of neuro-specific consciousness, working outwards in concentric progression towards a transcultural panorama.

 

Co-existence

 

Within. Living. Embedded. Entrenched. A private space, unsullied.

Order amidst chaos. Oasis buried in desert sands.

Unseen, but always known and felt.

Sacred trench. Deep liquid sea.

A slumbering Scheherazade, cognizant yet dormant.

Until summoned for the next performance.

(Scheherazade Awake – Dawn-joy Leong, 2014)

 

In the unfolding chapters, I will discuss and compare the traditional deficits-perspective of autism, with the rise of the collective autistic voice providing a distinct interpretation of autism from the vantage point of lived-experience, and the relatively new concept of “neurocosmopolitanism.”[8] The subsequent discourse around my practice is positioned within the framework of a compelling transdisciplinary approach to creating ambient physical-mental social spaces, fomenting better understanding, acceptance and reciprocal communication across neurological predispositions.

 

Although much more is now known about Autism Spectrum Condition than was the case twenty years ago, the currently pervasive interpretation and assessment of autism remains grounded in a strongly pathologising approach, juxtaposing and measuring Autism Spectrum Condition with neurotypical social-focused paradigms and measurements. The medical/deficits model has the propensity to pronounce any deviation from the pre-set ‘norm’ as impairment, presenting autism in a largely negative and discriminatory light. Neurocosmopolitanism, however, suggests a more human-centric focus, calling for inclusive methods of scientific investigation, taking into serious consideration autobiographical observations of autistic individuals across the autism spectrum, and encourages reciprocal understanding and assimilation.

 

Eclectic expressions

 

My artistic practice has evolved from eclectic influences. Music offers the underpinning architectural structure and remains a substantial driving force of my oeuvre. Many aspects of musical thinking and execution are sympathetic to my autistic senses and cognition: apart from the highly organised constructions and dynamic rhythmic propulsion across time and space, my auditory senses are drawn to the sonic nuances of tonalities, atonalities, and melodic-harmonic juxtapositions. The use of visual art concepts and components – small, interconnected installations in particular – resonates with sensory-seeking aspects of visual attraction, tactile, olfactory and gustatory communication. Narrative – worded, symbolic or implied – is important to the explicit storytelling aspects of my expression.

 

Performance and theatre are implicit indications of lives within life, personifications within person, and gesticulating visceral hyper-realities within experiential reality. The element of theatrical performance is deeply embedded in my artistic oeuvre, not necessarily as an art form in itself, but as a dynamic and cogent force within my lived-reality. Its presence is threaded through the fabric of my creative expression, whether or not the act of performance may be a visible aspect of the work at hand.

 

An overarching sense of perpetual performativity is shared by many autistic individuals despite wide variation in circumstances, the common application of which is the navigation through and survival of a social landscape that is confounding, frightening and harshly critical of unique autistic embodiment. The title of autistic author Liane Holliday Willey’s autobiography, “Pretending to be Normal,” succinctly captures the performative nature of autistic existence within a non-autistic paradigm.[9]

To such autists, myself included, the pressure is immense: our social survival in the wider world requires us to be ever consciously alert, observing and processing information, while at the same time mastering the appearance of normative behaviour: in other words, “performing the unnatural as naturally as possible.”[10]

 

In my crafting of experiential spaces, despite employing a range of artistic applications, there is nevertheless no conscious, deliberate intention to create or display ‘multi-media art.’ My intention is to present cohesive scholastic-creative work that contains concrete, innovative and empathic articulations of autistic perceptive-communicative modalities, exploring and explaining a dynamic confluence of juxtapositions and oxymoronic existences. Each creative offering is simply an intrinsic articulation of an autistic artist’s perceptive-communicative modalities, exploring and explaining a dynamic confluence of juxtapositions and oxymoronic existences. Manipulating sensory-tangible configurations of fabric, paper, personal belongings, and commonly used items from daily life, the exhibition site is transformed into a symbolic and literal diegesis, every meticulous installation a miniature thespian with a ‘life’ and ‘script’ of its own. Combined, each component intertwines in a sensorial-elemental chorus, inviting visitors into the vibrant, intense musical-theatrical domain of autistic verisimilitude.

 

After the premiere ofScheherazade’s Sea 2010, a well-known Hong Kong artist, Jaffa Lam, remarked to me, “Where is your technical framework? There is no central focus, it’s too confusing and chaotic!” My reply to her was, “Welcome to my world!”


 

Footnotes.

[1]My discussion of Self-Other dichotomy refers to the Autistic Self as viewed from introspection of native neuro-functional and individual-specific components, and the effects of internal impressions upon extrospective social-relational aspects of life. The Other is the non-autistic entity, individual and collective, bearing separate neuro-functional and personal traits, as well as adhering to a disparate social-relational code of normative behaviour.

[2]Uta Frith, “Studies in pattern detection in normal and autistic children: I. immediate recall of auditory sequences,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology76 (1970): 412-20.;Uta Frith, “Studies in pattern detection in normal and autistic children: II. reproduction and production of colour sequences,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 10 (1970): 120-135.; Uta Frith and Maggie Snowling, “Reading for meaning and reading for sound in autistic and dyslexic children,” British Journal of Developmental Psychology1 (1983): 329-342.

[3]Uta Frith and Amritta Shah, “Why do autistic individuals show superior performance in the block design task?” Journal  for Child Psychology and Psychiatry 3, no.8 (1993): 1351-1361.

[4]Uta Frith, Autism, Explaining the Enigma (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989): 97, 108-110.

[5]Happé, Francesca, and Uta Frith. “The Weak Coherence Account: Detail-focused Cognitive Style in Autism Spectrum Disorders.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders36, no. 1 (2006): 5-25.

[6]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).

[7]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).

[8]Savarese, Ralph. “From Neurodiversity to Neurocosmopolitanism: beyond mere acceptance to inclusion.” Ethics and Neurodiversity. Eds.,C.D. Herrera and Alexander Perry. Cambridge Scholars Press 2013, 191-205.

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

[10]Dawn-joy Leong “Distance,” Bunnyhopscotch blog, May 30, 2015, accessed April 14, 2016, https://bunnyhopscotch.wordpress.com/2015/05/30/distance/

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