Over the last few months, I have been supporting a number of neurodiverse artists to make ACE Grants For The Arts applications. As someone who is relatively neurotypical, this has made me increasingly aware of the problematic nature of application processes / systems of gatekeeping put in place to select which arts projects receive funding. These insights tally very strongly with my experience of working with students with a range of neurodiverse perspectives (including dyspraxia, dyslexia, dyscalculia, Autistic Spectrum and others who share or experience a different way of processing information) and the difficulties they encounter when called upon to express their ideas in written form.


WHAT IS SO DIFFICULT?

Artist Sonia Boue very eloquently expresses one of the main difficulties presented by ACE application forms to neurodiverse / neurodivergent artists…

Sonia’s gestures and mode of describing this experience are similar to my own attempts to communicate the differences I have observed between the demands of a neurotypical (NT) mode of communication and neurodiverse / neurodivergent thinking patterns. NT written communication calls for:

  • expressing ideas in a simplified / concise way
  • condensing complex project ideas / modes of delivery into liner sequences
  • a process of taking something very massive (and interlinked in complex ways), and chunking it into small discreet (and seemingly non inter-related) parts
  • the prioritisation of conformity / normativity to demonstrate skill in communication or ability to deliver projects
  • expressing ideas in ways that are not necessarily true nor meaningful (eg – writing with conviction about elements / outcomes of a project that are still to be fully developed or worked out as though these are predictable or certain)

It is almost impossible to generalise on neurodivergent (ND) experience, and it’s not my attempt here to man-splain or NT-splain people’s experience. (Something that I have soon realised when questioning my own NT processes is that everybody thinks differently, and has a different way of being-in-the-world – other people are a complete mystery.) However, to help NT people better understand ND thinking patterns, these might favour things like:

  • linking (or seeing, feeling or finding links) between seemingly disparate ideas, finding inter-relationships
  • a desire, need and ability to see things clearly on macro and micro scales (sometimes simultaneously, as in the case of diagrams / maps / charts)
  • a desire for clear speaking and saying what you actually mean rather than relying on subtext
  • empathetic responses, responses grounded in tacit knowledge and experience
  • a focus and prioritisation on process rather than outcomes
  • stream-of-concisouness type writing or speaking to express the complex inter-linked nature of the ideas, and the way in which they suggest / spark off other possibilities

Once considered in this way, these approaches and preferences are very much at odds with each other. The experience of not understanding and being misunderstood, or not being able to understand why someone else can not grasp ideas that seem very straightforward to you leads to feelings of frustration. These feelings are experienced by both NT & ND thinkers, on flipsides of the same coin. However, because NT forms are the norm in the application process for arts funding in the UK, this leads to a situation that Sonia Boue describes in her blog entry entitled “The performing monkey” 12 April 2016 on https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/barcelona-in-a-bag:

“If neurodiverse artists must contort themselves thus to conform to basic requirements for funding applications (among the entire gamut of vital tasks for the arts professional) we face a complex set of hurdles.

In order: we must contort successfully (we must know the shape we have to fit) and we must do so consistently throughout a long a complex form. This is called passing. We must sustain such efforts over time – our processing is often affected by ND (or just different/slower because we are working against ourselves).

We risk psychological pain (due to re-living trauma of past contortions). We risk physical effects of contortion (I have anecdotal evidence that ND artists can become unwell through the process of application) such is the strain on us.” (Sonia Boue, 2016)


WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?

 

1. Better understand ‘neurotypical privilege’ & be aware that many application processes currently actively disadvantage neurodivergent artists

RECOMMENDED READING: Marlo Goldstein Hode (a postdoctoral fellow at University of Missouri) discusses the “socially normed rituals” of neurotypical communication in her paper, “The Tyranny of Neuronormativity: Questioning Neurotypical Privilege in Communication” (2012)

 

2. Find new modes by which ideas and projects can be proposed that are accessible to, and embrace, the full spectrum of neurodiversity

To quote Sonia Boue again, “The system as it stands needs careful unpicking in order to be truly equitable for all” and ND artists should not be expected to conform to NT processes simply because alternatives have not been fully explored. This requires consultation with a wide range of individuals who identify as neurodiverse / neurodivergent and an overhaul of current systems.

 

3. Raise awareness of access funding and assistance available via ACE for neurodivergent artists

Artists with access needs who wish to apply for Grants for the Arts qualify for paid support from ACE, you just need to contact them directly to explain your needs (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/contact-us). You will then need to find someone to work with as your supporter, who will assist you in translating your project idea into the required format for the application.

RECOMMENDED READING: Sonia Boue’s post “6 steps to surviving ACE application” on https://www.a-n.co.uk/blogs/barcelona-in-a-bag

SEE ALSO: Arts Council England recognise that many disabled people find accessing their website and grant processes a barrier (and that as a result they don’t get as many fundable applications).  ACE offers support to employ an access support worker of your choosing to try and re-dress this – for full details see the Helpsheet : Making Grants for the Arts accessible to all applicants  (Section 4: Access support workers) in the Information Sheets section of their website.

 

4. Neurotypical and neurodivergent artists need to work together to ensure all voices are heard

NT artists who have experience of successfully applying for funding could work with ND artists to help translate project ideas into the format required for the current proposal system. This might be facilitated (and paid for) through ACE’s access needs scheme, or through another form of skill-sharing / time-banking. There may also be possibilities to access mentoring support through various schemes in your area. Working through ideas in this way to clarify and record project proposals is a time-consuming and involved process that requires a degree of patience and a curious disposition, so make sure you’ve got the right person on board!

 

Please feel free to comment below or tweet me with your own experiences, observations and top tips.


OTHER USEFUL LINKS:

While writing this I struggled to find / use the right terminology, but found this page really useful for clarification >> Neurodiversity: Some Basic Terms & Definitions, SEPTEMBER 27, 2014


Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist, educator and tinkerer based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel runs workshops for students, arts practitioners and communities on creative approaches to crowdfunding and DIY artist-led activity, and supports artists with access needs to apply for Arts Council England funding – contact me for more details.