Photo by Mulyadi on Unsplash.comWorking as a visual artist, I quite enjoy experimenting with different art mediums. Just as I’m autistic, my art is also an integral part of me, and something that can’t be separated out within me. For my Life on a Spectrum art exhibition, I wanted to experiment with performance art and to use video as an output to showcase this. The show was an interactive exhibit that used visual art, writing, videography and performance art to involve viewers both onsite and online. The aim was to capture the imagination of people from all backgrounds to learn about, and celebrate, neurodiversity.

There are particular triggers in my everyday life that affect me, and these are largely based around my environment and therefore my levels of sensory intake, which can quickly get overloaded.

It’s important to note that most people experience frustration, stress, or anxiety in lots of day-to-day life situations, but for those of us who are autistic, the triggers can be overwhelming and exceptionally debilitating. I’d also like to add that my tolerance levels vary each day and that this is very dependent on how tired I am, my general stress levels and what I already have going on for me.

Environmental triggers for me include any type of repetitive sound (like a ticking clock), overlapping sounds (for instance multiple conversations happening at the same time around me), flashing lights (e.g. sirens or other flashing vehicles), as well as strong or sharp smells. Given that the built environment we live in is largely designed for neurotypicals, I naturally experience environments that are overstimulating to me on a regular basis, especially when I’m not at home or in an office where I’ve had reasonable adjustments made for me.

This means that I have to do a lot of planning, for instance if I know I will be in a socially charged setting for a period of time, then I need to ensure I have adequate recovery time booked in.

I also need to be able to advocate for myself, so for example, if I’m in a café and a light is broken and flashing erratically, I need to explain to staff that I can’t be around this type of lighting. When planning or finding positive outcomes aren’t possible, it can lead to me becoming overstimulated which can lead to a full-blown meltdown, or a shutdown, which is when I quickly become very exhausted and tend to experience several hours/days of not being able to function or do much as a result. Both a meltdown and shutdown arise from the same situation; when the body and mind are unable to process what is taking place. It can lead to a temporary loss of behaviour - in that I don’t have an awareness of what my body is doing, and it can be expressed verbally, physically, or in both ways. As I’ve become better at planning and advocating over time, these outcomes have decreased, but at the same time, they are very demanding and tiring to always have to work around and consider.

Video 1: Ticking Clock - I sit alone with a ticking clock for 30 minutes

In addition to sensory overload, multi-tasking is something that I can struggle with in terms of the stress it puts on my mental processing ability.

It catapults me into a state of stress and anxiety as my mind becomes flooded with too much information, and I become immobile in the sense that I lose my decision-making ability – or simply my ability to think.

In some cases, I’m basically not able to do anything. Stress and anxiety are two states that I’m very sensitive to, and have a propensity towards, so when this isn’t managed properly, it can develop into something longer term. What this translates into is having to take time off work for periods of time, low/no income - and a big knock to my confidence. In my experience, I’ve found this to be a slippery slope and one that’s difficult to come back from. It can take years. And these are just some of the examples that contribute towards the autism employment gap.

Video 2: Multi-tasking – I undergo a series of multi-tasking activities for 20 minutes

Given that these trigger situations can have such impact, the artist in me was curious as to what it would be like if I were to put myself in a controlled environment, where I’m sat with one of my triggers for thirty minutes. I was especially intrigued as these are scenarios that I would typically try to avoid or make plans around to manage. There were four videos in total that were created where I am sat with a ticking clock, overlapping sounds from different sources, flashing lights, as well having to multi-task.

Video 3: Overlapping Sounds – I sit alone listening to overlapping sounds coming from three different devices – all at the same time

I found the situations very challenging to be in, and that this difficulty level changed throughout the course of the 30 minutes.

For instance, I remember the flashing light scenario having differing levels of impact on me during this time. This ranged from the lights profoundly affecting me - to them being ever-so-slightly meditative at one point. I found this interesting (and bizarre!), as nothing was physically changing with the lights themselves in this period. Another point I picked up on when I watched the videos back was that even though I knew I was in a very anxious state, this wasn’t always evident.

I looked merely ‘uncomfortable’ when this really wasn’t the case! For me this highlights how much we internalise, tolerate our triggers and even try to minimise them.

I feel that this is such an important concept for colleagues of autistic workers to take away, whether you are a line manager or a team member. Common stressors for autistic individuals include unstructured time, communication, sensory issues, social situations and routines. And all, or some of these, may be triggers or stressors for your autistic colleagues, therefore it is always worth having those conversations to see how they can be best supported in the workplace. Everyone’s needs will be different, plus these can change day-to-day or over time. Thus, it's a regular conversation that needs to be had, and the door kept open for unexpected changes to be communicated.

Video 4: Flashing Lights – I sit alone in front of bright, flashing lights for 30 minutes

So what was creating the trigger videos like for me? I would say it was nerve-wracking, stressful, but along with the apprehension came a small level of excitement at the prospect of the art generated.

After filming each video, I was completely exhausted!

I remember on one occasion I had to go to work in an office afterwards. I couldn’t complete a single task. My mind was like thick fog, and I could barely focus. I got through the day, but that was it. I would say that the experiment of performance art with these trigger situations was a fascinating one, but not one I would repeat. I’ve not felt in any way inclined to add to these videos or experiment further.

I would also say that one big takeaway for me from these videos is having compassion. Kindness to all those people with invisible conditions, disabilities and general struggles and woes.

To everyone, day-to-day, who feel that for personal, gender, societal - or whatever reason they may have - they need to internalise and hide away all that they are going through and experiencing. And to only be themselves when it becomes too much.

Mahlia Amatina

April 2022

Credit: all videos were created by G K Field and Tim Wilson