Normalizing Dis-Ability This National Autism Acceptance Week

Mar 28, 2024 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Nate Atoyebi (the author’s son), Mixed Media Collage Art, 2024. Washington, DC.

This week is National Autism Acceptance Week. National Autism Acceptance Week, also known as World Autism Acceptance Week, takes place from March 27 to April 2 with the aim of promoting autism awareness and acceptance. Autism, formally called autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or autism spectrum condition (ASC) is a neurodevelopmental disorder marked by deficits in reciprocal social communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects mental, behavioral, and social development and symptoms can appear within the first 12 months of life and can last throughout life.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the “ratio of males to females with ASD is generally quoted as 4:1, though it is believed that there are biases preventing females from being diagnosed and that the true ratio is lower.”  

Interestingly enough, within the context of autism and gender, “gender” “refers to the range of characteristics, behaviors, and social structures that define the broader culture’s experience with femininity and masculinity. “Sex” (female or male) is based on chromosomes, gonads, hormones, and genitals and is a biological description which does not consider lived experiences or the influence of social and cultural structures,” according to the Autism Research Institute

As a mother of a son (Nate) with ASD, I can attest to the fact that it is indeed a very wide spectrum of communicative abilities. While my son was growing up, I noticed that he was not only drawn to color, but he was also using it through his toys as a way to express his emotions. When I noticed it, I was able to calm him by incorporating muted tones into his play space or adding yellows to help lift his mood. I started taking him out into nature so that he could learn to describe the changing colors of the leaves through language. At first, it was simple and repetitive, but it evolved into so much more. We also would hike as a family deep into the woods and listen to the birds and water flowing along the creek. The combination of sight and sound had calming effects on his often-overstimulated nervous system. These days he is more into electronics, but during those early years, nature and art were crucial. 

Autistic Woman Artist and Rule Breaker, Morgan Harper Nichols Making Creative History

Dr. Nancy Bagatell, Occupational Therapist, at UNC Autism Research Centers explores creative ideas around the diagnoses of ASD and states that the autistic community should decide if it is something to be solved, a spiritually evolving condition, or one that is filled with many gifts and is simply to be lived with. 

Bagatell’s viewpoint leans toward standpoint theory, which gives power to the narrative of the individual with autism, and rejects the biomedical paradigms rooted in “sociocultural environments that fail to support difference” and seemingly construct disability. I believe that these are the patriarchal norms and are a result of social conditioning and we are only now learning to challenge them.

The idea of heightened spirituality and its correlation between autism and creativity is not fully understood. It is also one that is complex and deserves deeper introspection and scientific study. One may argue that on the surface, individuals on the autism spectrum may lack empathy because of how they communicate directly and boldly, however, they may possess a strong sense of justice and awareness of fairness as well as a deep connection to animals and nature. 

For instance, they may possess a heightened sense of justice and fairness, and some exhibit deep connections with nature or animals.

As a spiritual artist and writer, I tend to view life through the magnificent at all times. I believe that in as many ways as life is very logical, there is still a great deal of meaning and imagination to be derived from the unknowable. 

Wassily Kandinsky, a legendary Russian painter and art theorist, had profound thoughts on the relationship between spirituality and art. In his book “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, Kandinsky explores the spiritual hunger artists exude when making art and when audiences admire it. He also believed that color played a strong role in art’s creation noting, “Color provokes a psychic vibration. Color hides a power still unknown but real, which acts on every part of the human body.” It can be assumed that any sensitive creative person, on or off the spectrum, who is attuned to color and creation, may be experiencing a heightened spirituality.

This Autism Acceptance Month is a great opportunity to explore the concepts of nature, spirituality, color, and even how to think about dis-ability in our society. The latter is a personal quest of mine. I have been giving great consideration to what it means to be “normal” or even to be “marginalized,” and what will the womb-men of the world do to raise their voices in humanity’s defense. How will visual culture, art, and text, shape the rhetoric of tomorrow?

What are your thoughts? Will you bring any of these things into your art practice?

Today women like MIKAELA SHELDT, a former math teacher turned painter turned poet, are changing the idea around autism and creating art figurative art that is inspiring and breathtaking. Check out her work and poetry here: