It is 2011 in the psychiatric ward at Canberra Hospital, the dingy and oppressive and thankfully now long-closed ‘PSU.’ There is a new patient, a woman who doesn’t say much, looks agitated and scared and who wanders around all night looking at the linoleum tiles which have sparkles in them. She constantly listens to music on a tiny green iPod. Her diagnosis is indeterminate at this point – Asperger’s syndrome and some kind of psychosis. Doctors say she is hard to place diagnostically. The other patients remember her coming in a few days previously, wearing a suit, nice jewellery and heels. They asked her if she was a doctor but she didn’t respond. Rumour has it she is a public servant and her manager drove her to PSU from work. She is quiet and doesn’t bother anyone. When she is not pacing the corridors she is in the art room. She sits and paints and paints. Her room has artworks spread everywhere, and she squirrels away blu tack like a precious gold. When painting she is less agitated and very focused. She seems calm and present when she paints.
You may already have guessed this, but she is me.
I was born creative. I wrote evocative poetry form the age of seven years. I won an art competition for school children from the entire region I lived in when I was ten. My prize was a book voucher for fifty pounds from the bookshop WHSmith – which I believe now sells the books I write. I have a Masters degree in Visual Art and have exhibited around the world. I am and will always be a creative. Writing, art, music, theatre, public speaking are as natural and easy to me as walking to the shops on a warm spring day. With creativity, when I want to do something it is effortless. I rarely need to force anything. I sit down and write or paint and meaningful, heartfelt things just appear. I must admit it is quite a pleasant gift to have.
But writing, art, music and theatre serve another purpose for me than mere enjoyment. Many other Autistic people experience this too. I have alexithymia, or as it is also known ‘emotion blindness.’ It does not mean I don’t feel anything rather that I am often unable to know what I feel or describe it. Most of my life is spent not being all that conscious of what I am feeling. I have relatively recently learned to notice what is happening and relate it to my mood, but for most of my life I have only known what I am feeling when it reaches an extreme. This is not good for managing my mental health. When I sit down to draw or paint or write poetry or even write non-fiction like this post, I still don’t feel the emotions but I express them through what I do. Creative output is emotional communication for me. It is a sort of emotional release valve and essential to my sense of wellbeing and ability to navigate life. I am not alone in this. I understand many Autistic people use creativity to communicate their feelings and thoughts where they struggle to through verbal communication and conversation.
Communication through writing and public speaking serves a great propose in my life. When I’m having a conversation with a non-autistic person I am usually at a loss. I see things are happening for them which aren’t what I have communicated. I get it ‘wrong’ or send a contradictory message. We are inadvertently speaking different languages to one another. But if I sit down at the laptop to write or take the stage to give a presentation, that communication mismatch seems to somehow disappear. While many neurotypical people say that written communication misses out a bunch of context and richness from the dialogue, for me it is a lot clearer to write – and for that matter to read.
There are some unhelpful and rather silly stereotypes which persist around autism and creativity. The idea that we are emotionless automata who only understand computers or if we do a painting it can only be a photo-realist rendition from a photo. This sort of thinking perpetuates misunderstandings and assumptions. And actually, from what my friends who enjoy coding and design show me, there is a strong creativity within technological things as well.
There are some very autism-friendly kinds of creative – and often social – output which I am enjoying learning more about. Things like Cosplay, game design, fan fiction. These are often the domain of younger people but not always. I love the idea of Autistic people ‘owning’ their art forms and creative expression. I was at an event the other day. I regret to admit I do so many events that I have forgotten which one! What I do remember is that an Autistic friend and I were talking about our interests and there was a neurotypical person sitting near us. She said ‘So I guess creativity is a big part of being Autistic?’ And it really is to so many of us.
My former self who was in hospital under difficult circumstances used her creativity to escape those places. It didn’t happen quickly and there was a lot of stress and self-doubt along the way, but by being able to express the things which I could not in conversation with the doctors or psychologist through painting, poetry and prose helped build my strength and address some of those dark things.
For me to be able to access my emotions, usually only happens through writing and art. I can communicate more clearly through typing and telling stories than I can one-on-one in a conversation. For me creativity is not an added extra. Without it I am diminished person, less than me. It is the essence of who I am.
About Jeanette Purkis
Jeanette Purkis is an autistic author, public speaker and autism advocate who also has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She has worked full-time in the Australian Public Service since 2007 and has a Masters degree in Visual Arts. She is the author of three books on elements of autism and hosts an internet radio show. Jeanette has presented at TEDx Canberra in 2013 and at many autism events and conferences, including alongside Temple Grandin in 2015. Jeanette has been facilitating a support group for women on the autism spectrum in Canberra since 2011. Jeanette was the 2016 ACT Volunteer of the Year and a finalist in the 2017 ACT Woman of he Year awards. She lives in Canberra, Australia.