A safe place to think about the future
She walks through the door and the manager says “How’s it going Anna” and unknowingly makes her day. Sitting in Costa drinking tea is an important daily routine for Anna. It’s a little reward, something to look forward to, and essential healing time for her. She knows what to expect and there are no surprises. Thoughts of an upcoming happy time at Costa help to counter-balance the torrential ever-building storm of anxiety. On her table near the window all things are in reach, out in the open, and ordered. Anna thrives in an environment where she’s loved for herself, where people aren’t expecting her to change and be their ‘normal’. Anna needs plenty of think-and-be-alone-time. She needs alone time much like the human body needs sleep. She needs time to process information and this is her ‘chill time’. Being autistic the more she interacts with ‘normal’ people the more chill time she needs.
Welcome. ‘I have Autism. Please be patient’.
Anna is on the autistic spectrum and has learning difficulties. At the age of 25 she was employed by a local supermarket to work part-time in their café. This is her first paid job and she is very happy. She feels part of the community, pride in being able to contribute to the community she is part of and being valued for her work provides a massive boost to her self-worth. Her face hints at nervousness, of wanting to be welcoming and do a good job, but not yet sure her behaviour is appropriate since the norms of taken-for-granting social interaction are difficult for her. Anna signals her hidden disability to customers by mirroring the RNIB bear wave of welcome and wearing her small ‘I have Autism. Please be patient’ badge. She is serious about doing the very best she can. She is brave since the bright lighting, the multi-tasking, and the social interaction, are all difficult for her. Anna is reliable, hard working and valued by her colleagues. The local supermarket is demonstrating they are part of the local community and able to make a valuable contribution to building a positive community spirit.
It’s been a long journey. For five years she worked in Outside the Box – a community café where adults and young people with a learning disability are supported and enabled to learn new skills and hence lead more independent and fulfilling lives (see http://www.outsidetheboxcafe.com/).
There is an autism employment gap. Just 16% of autistic adults are in full time work; 77% who are unemployed say they want to work; and four in ten say they’ve never worked. The National Autistic Society state:
Not all autistic people are able to work, but, with understanding from their employer and colleagues, and reasonable adjustments to the interview process and workplace, many autistic people can be a real asset to businesses.
‘I have Autism. Please be patient’.
Many photographs depicting disability are of physical disability focusing starkly or shockingly on the disability not the person. Images where the subject has a mental or hidden disability like autism are depicted less often. Few photographers go beyond using symbolism to illustrate what a mental disability looks or feels like. Few experiment and let the viewer perceive the image from their own perspective based on their own knowledge and experiences. Few construct images to encourage the viewer to work hard, to take an active rather than passive role in interpreting the content of an image.
There is limited information in this photograph of two people. The caption is telling – ‘I have Autism. Please be patient’. The two people sit closely together, there is a cup with ‘Best Dad’ artificially placed in the image. This makes it easy to conclude they are father and daughter and one or both have autism. Then the viewer might spot the badge worn by the woman which like the caption states ‘I have Autism. Please be patient’ and so conclude the young woman has autism. But Dad looks odd. Leopard skin hat, pirate socks, the ‘No photos please’ T-shirt and staring eyes suggest he is a character. But the ambiguity of the image is an open door to speculation and self-reflection by the viewer. Is he autistic (he’s not). Is he dressed to cause confusion (no) or are they his real everyday clothes (they are). What does autism look like? Does he have a mental health problem? What is the meaning of the expression on the autistic woman’s face? Why is there a space on the sofa – should I place myself there or someone I know?
The aim of the image is to make the ‘reader’ work. I want the viewer to question their knowledge – what autism looks like, feels like, and how does it show itself in this person? I hope the viewer provides a new fresh insight into autism which is not my own. I hope the ‘reader’ will question their own prejudices about autism and the significance of neurodiversity.