Navigating the Art World with ASD, An Interview with Sara Sousa

Sara is an artist and photographer focussing on photography of an autobiographical nature. In a brief conversation, we discussed how her ASD impacts her creative output, both positively and negatively and the challenges associated with this, both personally and for the art industry.

Q How does neurodiversity personally affect you as an artist?

A As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been drawn to art. As a child, I loved playing around with play-doh, clay, paint and drawing. Art was the one thing that made me feel like I could be myself. Through art, I can navigate my complex thoughts and emotions visually which enables me to process what is going on in a reflective manner that also makes sense to me.

One of the perks about my ASD and my fixed interests is that it helps me improve on my communication as I can talk about the things I love with people who appreciate, and resonate with the artwork I make in a comfortable, safe environment. Whilst it can be difficult sometimes to maintain conversation due to my ASD, the people who I talk to understand the way I function and are very supportive in helping me navigate through any obstacles I face.

I was heavily engaged within my field (Fine Art) throughout my degree, strengthening my research by interviewing professionals and students. When I interview people, I am presented with data that is controlled and broken down by questions to simplify the way I gather the necessary information. By using interviewing as a prime method of research, it helped give me the confidence to approach people whilst strengthening my professional skills. It helped form connections with professionals within my field who taught me so much about the various areas of research I covered throughout my studies. The more I strengthened my networks, the more it energised me and gave me motivation which I could translate into my artwork.

Another great thing about my ASD is my high attention to detail. This meant that whenever I conducted research and made artwork in response to that, I would notice so many intricate details and become so engrossed in the process. It felt like I was forever in my own world surrounded by extensions of my interests. There is honestly no other time in my life that I have felt happier than when I was studying Fine Art.

Whilst studying for my degree, it became apparent that I made huge quantities of work. I can never make a few pieces of something – I always make large quantities. I would say this is down to how driven I become with repetition and the limitless energy I have when I make artwork. So no matter what I do, it never feels like it’s enough. Of course, the downside to this is the burnout which I can never tell I’m going through until it’s too late. Even though I went through burnout during my degree, it never stopped me from making as much work as I made because I often found that producing the artwork helped me recover. Plus, when I’m not doing something I enjoy, this makes me anxious, overwhelmed, dull and fatigued so there’s no way I couldn’t do what I loved doing, even if it meant that I had to combat the lethargy in order to make the most out of my degree.

I will say that the one thing I find particularly difficult is navigating through public events such as gallery openings or museum exhibitions. Whilst it is true that I love being in a creative environment, there is often so much going on during these events such as loud noises, unfamiliar smells and bright lights. In the past, I forced myself to attend these events in an attempt to meet new people and discover artwork. In doing so, I caused more harm than good because I would feel over-stimulated by everything going on around me. I only just discovered what mirroring/masking is, which helped me understand why I behaved the way I did during openings etc. Now that I can understand this part of my ASD more, I can find ways to control how I respond to environments by choosing to go to galleries with people I feel safe with and during quieter times of the day so I can still engage and interact within these creative environments.

Q Speak a bit about how ASD is a "valuable asset" to the photography that you create

A I believe my ASD is a highly valuable asset to the photography I produce because it helps capture how I feel inside without pressuring myself to use words when I don’t know how to express myself. Photography helps me process what’s going on in my head by capturing moments in a freeze-frame. This helps me reflect on these moments without any fuzzy noise because all there is, is stillness. The portraits I conduct help communicate what’s on my mind, the intense energy I feel inside which is so overwhelming. Photography acts as a platform for me to express myself freely with no judgement, no pressure, no heavy burdens and no negativity whatsoever.

It’s also an easy way for me to communicate with people. As much as I love taking self-portraits, I also enjoy taking portraits of other people. This helps me combat my anxiety with communication because I can control the environment and direct the individual to pose a certain way or do a certain thing during the photoshoot.

Photography keeps me calm, it helps me to collect my thoughts and look back on all the difficult moments I’ve gone through in a way that makes me feel proud to be who I am.

Q In what ways do you think creativity can help other neurodivergent people? Use yourself as an example if you like.

A I have met a lot of Neurodiverse people throughout my life, and they are often very, very creative individuals. Neurodiverse individuals navigate their life in a way that is unique. Even if two people have the same condition/learning disability that falls under the Neurodiverse category, they will have different ways of utilising their abilities. For example, I have met several people who have Dyslexia and whilst they’re all creative, they execute this differently.

I believe that Neurodiverse people are incredible. They have a different way of thinking, navigating and applying their ideas throughout their life. I enjoy being around Neurodiverse people because we get on so well, we understand each other, and we energise each other. We are an amazing community and we do so much for the world and yet, we are faced with continuous, unnecessary obstacles that cause more harm than good. I want to see this change, because it’s about time that Neurodiverse people receive the appreciation they deserve.

I believe that creativity aids Neuro-diverse people because it can help create a more inclusive way of learning that is both enjoyable and beneficial to us. I believe that creativity enables Neurodiverse people to express themselves and portray their strengths as opposed to having their weaknesses being used as the only thing to define them. When you use creativity as a tool to break down ideas in an interactive way, it helps people create perspective. This creates an opportunity to bring people together from all walks of life and form something unique, powerful and inspirational. This is the sensation I get when I see Neurodiverse artists make artwork because I recognise the obstacles they go through to reach their goal, whatever that might be. Once they achieve whatever it is they intend on making, it’s a heart-warming and rewarding experience. I have worked with Neurodiverse people before and I have seen their potential when they fully embrace their creativity as their strength, because that’s what it truly is. Therefore, I really do believe that Neurodiverse people should be encouraged to pursue whatever creative path they want if this is what they want to do. No one should ever be prohibited to pursue their lifelong dream, and if creativity is what enables someone who is Neurodiverse to be happy, fulfilled and content, we should guide them through making this dream a reality because honestly, we are the people who can make unique changes to the world.

Q What do you hope that people can learn from artists/creatives with ASD?

A The main thing I am hoping for is for artists on the ASD spectrum to have their needs facilitated for them to flourish within their creative sector. I also want to see more representation of artists who have ASD because I haven’t seen enough of it, and I believe this needs to change. I want to see more artwork published by artists who have ASD.

I would say that people can learn so much from those who have ASD, but I don’t feel that this is the case right now because their behaviours can be judged, which has a negative impact on the individuals with ASD. Personally, I believe that people can first learn what ASD is if they don’t already know to get a better understanding of what ASD is. You never know who you will come across and whether the individual(s) you come across have ASD because it is so diverse. Therefore, I think that’s a good place to start because if you happen to meet an artist who has ASD, the research you conduct can help you understand them better and offer support to them in any way they need it.

I also think that people can learn to appreciate how creative, intelligent and insightful artists with ASD can be and how unique they are because of how they communicate their thoughts, feelings and ideas throughout their artwork. We have so much to offer, and so much to embrace because of how much our interests mean to us and how they are crucial for us to navigate a world that doesn’t often accommodate our needs.