Artistic Collaboration Across Neurotypes: Autistic Artist Sonia Boué on the NUNO Project

M. Kelter

Earlier this year, fourteen artists (with funding from Arts Council England) presented a unique exhibition called Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO). “Unique” in that the event featured an intricately-designed collaboration between autistic and non-autistic creatives.

The project recently released a short film providing an overview of both the exhibition and the artists involved. To learn more, I recently communicated with friend and project organiser Sonia Boue about autism, creative access needs, and the relationship between objects and autistic art.

M: What was the guiding idea involved with the creation of NUNO?

Sonia: The project is really essentially about me finding professional and personal congruence by bringing together two groups of people. The autistics were my post-diagnosis contacts and the non-autistics were the artists I met online before my diagnosis. I had no idea how to bring them together but I knew I had to try it out.

M: I can’t find this now, Sonia, but I thought on social media you referred to something as being “edited with an autistic eye” and I was wondering if that was a reference to the short film or the overall project.

S: The autistic edit was about the film, but it is a good quote. It’s also in a sense true of the project as a whole in a way, so that is very perceptive of you, let’s go with that.

M: I wasn’t sure which was meant, but I thought it was interesting that “autistic eye” felt right in either usage. Does that mean you or another autistic artist filmed and edited this video?

S: A non-autistic filmed it, and Naomi Morris, who is autistic, edited it. I gave her very little direction; I wanted her interpretation. She had to use someone else’s camera work because she was too busy performing on the day we shot most of the footage—so I hired a non-autistic person to shoot it. In essence, like the rest of the project, the film is a collaboration and an act of faith across neurological types.

M: People generally think of autistics as solitary, averse to groups, but it seems like it worked well here, that mix of collaboration and accommodating different sensory experiences.

S: I feel very strongly indeed that we can lose some of our aversion to social contact if the welcome is right.

M: Another interesting thing to me about the video and the edit is the resonance it has with the issue of autism and representation. In addition to autistic characters being played by autistic performers, I’ve wondered what additional paths could be opened up, in terms of creatively finding a way to bring interior, lived experiences to stories about autism. Editing is an interesting idea, having that control over the pacing and tone and so on.

S: For me, learning to edit film really developed me as a person.

M: What do you think an “autistic eye” brings to the editing process that another perspective might not?

S: It’s not going to insist on linearity. It’s going to focus on the sensory world. It is evident in the early passages of the NUNO film.

M: The transitions and sound quality are really distinct. That’s one I feature I liked about NUNO as a whole, the work did have a lot of sensory range. It is difficult to convey to others the experience of sensory sensitivity, for example. But in the video, you could see some pieces that were textural and captured some of the intensity of how things can feel.

S: Naomi focused so beautifully on the theme of the exhibition, she cut through a lot of the usual narrative elements you might be expecting from a more neurotypical edit, which might focus on the artist biographies or creative journeys. She focused on the objects and the action.

M: That might not make sense to non-autistics, but it seems like, for people on the spectrum, objects—the intensely cherished items we can feel attached to and find personally meaningful—often are in some way our biographies and personal stories. Editing is an interesting way to creatively examine that experience.

S: Directing is a good position for an autistic I think.

M: How did objects become such a focus for you as a multi-form artist and for this project?

S: My focus is related to my autistic sensibility—some objects almost vibrate with energy and personality. And it began with my grandmother’s handbag; discovering it was such a powerful experience, it inspired me to find other artists working with objects. They are the non autistic artists who joined NUNO first. When I got my autism diagnosis, I hooked up with autistic artists and created a network. Then I asked them to join NUNO.

M: You’ve described this as a successful collaboration between people with different neurologies. The communication within the group somehow worked. What made it work, Sonia? Tell us your secrets so that we can all start doing it.

S: The secret is working with some really trusted contacts who I’ve known for quite some time—and only working with people they recommended. But my diagnosis has also been a revelation, which has enabled me to work on my communication style. I have taught myself to work to my strengths and I have such a strong drive to create that it enables me to push outwards. I guess the handbag spoke to me so deeply that when I learned my family history I had to break through. Specifically on NUNO, I feel it worked due to the level of trust and my openness about my own difficulties, which meant the non-autistics got on board with me supportively—this also meant the other autistics felt safe.

M: What is trust in a context like this? You felt you could be open without harsh reactions?

S: Absolutely. I chose to use mainly email to communicate so I played to my strengths in not trying to articulate too much in person. Because my project had arts council funding and was funded to counter ableism, people knew that. I designed the project to be a safe place. I was in charge. That’s the difference.

M: Is that the lesson? Having autistic oversight with the parameters of a group interaction?

S: Controlling parameters is a big part of it, but I also think finding genuinely inclusive partners has been key. Finally, getting the funding to be a person who can actually demonstrate professional competence gained me a new peer network with shared values. They could see that I’m good at my job and make allowances for my communication styles. Everyone knew I got my funding to work autistically and so in a sense they kind of had to cut me some slack. Within that slack genuine respect and relationships grew.

M: Did you gain any sense of what the non-autistic artists took away from the experience?

S: Some of them really valued understanding in detail how to support an autistic person through quite complex professional processes. A lot of the work was about trying to figure out how to make an experience better or more accessible. I think a lot of people on the project learned that you can really trust an autistic to take charge and run a very tight and smooth ship. I think because I need calm I am good at creating it. Some people were impressed with the depth of the exhibition and the novel way of bringing artists together through online forums (where most of us met).

M: Is there anything unexpected you learned from the experience?

S: I think a lifetime of aversive experience has an impact on our social appetites. With NUNO, I feel some of this was reversed for me and I began to experience social enthusiasm because the conditions and the social welcome were right. I love the idea of going from aversion to enthusiasm. I still experience aversion but am joyful to have encountered something new. I think this is really, really interesting. It’s about the welcome and the valuing, which we never get growing up.