Attempting to forge a career as an artist or as any kind of creative professional presents obstacles for anyone. But neurodivergent people including those on the autism spectrum face extra burdens beyond the delights of simply honing their craft. From social expectations and unwritten rules to sensory environments. The art world, mainstream, or otherwise poses many barriers which make breaking in markedly more difficult. The fact we even use the phrase “breaking in” tells you a lot about the exclusionary nature of the art world.
Art careers seem to revolve heavily around social networking and schmoozing. Sometimes talent is also needed but it’s certainly not a prerequisite. But small talk, networking events, and selling oneself, that appears to be a necessity . This can be profoundly challenging for the neurodivergent. Differences in communication styles and social awareness. A desire to focus purely on the work rather than deal with the discomfort of “working the room” at openings can impede connecting with gallerists, critics, collectors and fellow artists. The demand to smoothly socialise is alienating those of us who don‘t naturally mingle well. In fact, just the idea of going to a private view as they are so oddly titled is an anathema to many of us. You turn up to a gallery to see work. But you can’t really see it because of all the people socialising rather than looking at the work.
If ever there was a perfect example of a minefield of unwritten social strata and rules, the private view is it. Who can one talk to and how? Everyone seems to be assessing each others level of significance in some nebulous way. It’s like a decorous, convention strewn, and very polite, street fight.
Unspoken norms and etiquette infests the art establishment. Knowing when to speak in hushed tones, how to dress or behave at elite gatherings. The “right” ways to interact with art elites assuming you can get so far as to interact. These unwritten rules seem designed to test the neurodivergent persons very existence. The world of subtle subtext and capricious etiquette mystifies those of us who understand language literally or focus on sincerity over pretence.
The sensory environment of the art world can also overwhelm. Gallery openings and crowded fairs overflow with visual and auditory stimulation. The textures of handshakes, cheek kisses and mingling in close quarters test our sensory tolerance. Fluorescent lighting, perfumes, loud voices ricocheting off gallery walls. The conventional art sphere rarely considers neurodivergent sensitivities. Navigating these spaces without becoming overwhelmed and anxious is damn hard work.
Beyond interpersonal challenges, the criteria for success in art are rarely spelled out. What earns praise from the cognoscenti can seem haphazard to those who appreciate clear frameworks. Waiting for ambiguous validation rather than pursuing defined, measurable objectives creates unease. The need for self-promotion clashes with neurodivergent tendencies toward shyness and intense focus rather than public horn-tooting. What makes ‘good’ work is now so nebulous as to be ungraspable. Is it public acclaim, commercial value, intellectual rigour, astute craftspersonship? Who knows? No-one. This lack of measurable quality makes the art world even more difficult to navigate. Why are the dreadful paintings of X better than my dreadful paintings? It is an unanswerable conundrum. Actually, it’s not unanswerable. Success still depends to a very great extent on resources, connections and class.
Photogrpahic portrait of a man sat at a table smoking, surrounded by paper and medication packets
Of course, as in any field, actual discrimination also rears its head. Ableism, ignorance, dismissal and ridicule toward those who think or behave differently from the norm. Impose unpleasant obstacles in spaces still dominated by the neurotypical.
There are, of course, now funds and programmes aimed at the ‘disabled artist’. These ironically enough are often somewhat inaccessible. Oh, access support is provided but you still have to know how to access the access support. Then find the right person and language to assist your application. This is difficult, and like with any organisation a cognoscenti appears making the whole thing feel exclusive and of course this is a problem. The idea of being all inclusive is, ultimately, probably impossible and unachievable. Humans are just clique ridden and tribal by nature, but that doesn’t mean we should not try. The general reluctance on the part of the art world to acknowledge the immense contribution made by disability to the shape of our cultural landscape doesn’t help much either.
And it’s not just the ‘real’ world that presents issues for the ND artist. Increasing reliance on online application portals and internet-based applications can also be a nightmare for those on the spectrum. I recall one autistic artist who was so sensorially challenged by one website that they ran away crying. Social media is another inexplicable area (at least to me). Apparently it’s a good way of getting one’s work onto a tiny little screen so that people can see it and interact. The reality is somewhat different not to mention distracting. When instead of posting a picture one ends up doom scrolling through 10,000 Insta reels of people dancing as if their knees are on backwards.
Nevertheless, the neurodivergent can bring immense creativity, unique vision, and intense dedication to their work. Overall, the contemporary art world remains thoroughly structured around neurotypical behaviours, capacities, and priorities. Yet the art world could benefit tremendously from our talents and perspectives if societal barriers were dismantled.
Progress needs getting rid of rigid social expectations. Making concrete objectives and processes transparent. Accommodating sensory needs. And an ethos of empowering everyone to contribute as their authentic selves. There are challenges, but inclusion and access would ultimately strengthen the visual arts. The rewards of diversity begin with breaking down these invisible and exclusionary walls.
This will require taking some fundamental steps toward inclusion. From implementing practical solutions to increasing awareness among art institutions and community members. If you’re a gallerist why not ask yourself how many disabled artists you’ve exhibited in the recent past. Curators, re-evaluate how many opportunities have gone to ‘able’ bodies. Whether disability and neurodiversity receive the same consideration you give to other identities.
Richard Butchins is an award-winning disabled filmmaker and artist. Over the last fifteen years, he has created ground-breaking work across television and art platforms that provides rare insight into the disabled experience. Motivated by the continual exclusion and misrepresentation of disabled people in society, his work aims to shift dominant perspectives. Through documentary and personal art practice, he attempts to convey the humanity, value, and self-determination of the disabled community on its own terms, rather than as burdens, objects of pity or inspiration porn.
Butchins use his lived experience as a disabled person to capture authentic narratives and imagery overlooked by ableist conventions and to push back against problematic tropes like the “supercrip” portraying disability as a multifaceted identity rather than as an anomaly.
His films have garnered praise for their unflinching yet sensitive portrayal of disability issues across genres from culture to current affairs. His art continues this commentary through more intimate mediums. He lives by the sea and does not have a cat.