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Michael Luong: Art and Identity on the Spectrum

What does creativity look like on the spectrum? We asked four autistic artists to show us how they would like to be seen.

In observance of Autism Acceptance Month, we asked four illustrators on the autism spectrum to create a self-portrait of themselves. We asked one simple question: As a creative on the autism spectrum, what’s something you would like others to know? 

Illustration by Emcie Turineck

Emcie Turineck (she/her)
Autistic, ADHD, Synesthesia
Freelance Illustrator and Visual Artist
Instagram: @spllgirl

Becoming a professional artist is the direct result of discovering that I am autistic. For the majority of my adult life, I created art but I never fully allowed myself to pursue it as a lifelong path. Over the last two years, I have worked to understand myself as an autistic person, and I have allowed myself to meet my needs, to discover my motivations, and to fully, for the first time in my life, be my absolute self. The more I focused on accommodating and understanding myself, the more interested and motivated I was to create art. My work is a visual representation of my self-discovery, as most of my art making as an adult has been in the unmasking and relearning I have been doing. 

Being a creative on the autism spectrum has been both challenging and fulfilling. One of the challenges I face is related to communication and how my communication style is viewed or perceived. This can sometimes translate into seeming unprofessional, since I speak and move differently than other adults around me. In the past, I would have to mask the way I communicated, which led to confusion and misunderstandings for me. This communication style difference can really impact work opportunities, and it can also be tiring to communicate in a way that is more understandable to others. I can struggle with the social aspects of work, and I feel misunderstood when I do not want to participate in certain social events, like work parties and group activities. I hope for people to see that I seek connection in different ways, and find fulfillment differently than others. I would love for it to become more normalized to have different social desires and verbal expressions. 

One of the most fulfilling parts of being a creative on the spectrum is the ability to engage with my special interest on a professional level. Engaging in my passion is incredibly stimulating to me and is healthy for autistic people to do. I feel lucky to be able to do that, and I enjoy the challenges that come with being an artist. I also enjoy having my artwork speak for me, allowing me to communicate with people viewing my artwork, even when I’m not there with them.

I feel that the self-portrait I created embodies my autistic experience. What I would like people to understand from my self-portrait is that I am both a reflection and a reaction to my environment. I am both in tune and bothered by my surroundings, and I can be in awe of what I’m seeing, smelling, touching, but also be in pain from those very experiences. I am always examining what I am seeing and feeling. This, to me, is an act of play, which is essential to my process both as an artist and an autistic person. It’s hard to describe, but interacting with my environment feels natural and inescapable. I feel as though I don’t just react with my thoughts or with language, but I react with my entire body. Beautiful sounds make me wave my hands, and crunching the snow makes my ears happy. I am in constant communication with my environment, responding with my body to the things I am feeling. Like many autistic people, I have comorbidities, including ADHD and synesthesia. All of these conditions are called neurodivergencies, and they contribute directly to the way I process the world. They play off each other and provide a unique sensory experience and expression for me. In the portrait, this feeling is evident in the way that the colors and subjects interact with each other seamlessly. The colors are vibrant, the details are heavy, the atmosphere is vast, and I am immersed in this world. 

I have always let my imagination guide me, as I see my experiences and surroundings as stories. It’s a type of daydream that I can’t snap out of, and for a long time, I tried to hide from that. This self-portrait is a celebration of my process and the world I live in. 

Artwork by Em Goheen

Em Goheen (they/them)
Illustrator and Designer
Instagram: @owlprince

I laser cut a lot of my work; it’s a mechanical process that uses vector computer graphics. I have every opportunity to feed the machine straight lines and mathematically perfect shapes, but instead I choose to draw every piece by hand, with all the wobble and awkwardness that comes naturally. It reminds me that I could be perfect, I could keep pretending, but it will always feel robotic and sterile. I want people to know that art has made a space to express myself outside the bounds of what is expected of me.

There’s so much masking when it comes to being an autistic adult, especially one working in the professional world. So much energy is expended on following scripts and hiding behavior that’s not acceptable, that it’s easy to lose focus on who’s underneath that mask. My sense of identity can become murky, formless, so creating something new becomes a way of solidifying my identity, embracing it for what it is, and seeing it flourish in worlds of my own creation. Each piece I make is an extension of my true self, with all of the flaws and mistakes embraced as they are, and I become my art rather than the person in front of you.

Illustration by Kier Wise

Kier Wise (they/them)
Visual Designer and Illustrator
Instagram: @kierthewise

Something I want people to understand is that there isn’t one way to be, look, or “seem” autistic. The common view of autism doesn’t consider that autistic people come from every walk of life. I’m a queer physically disabled trans autistic person, and all of these aspects of myself influence how I experience the world and how I utilize my creativity. I draw people who aren’t often represented in art. This is me. This is one example of what autism looks like. I also use art and design as a way to advocate for some of my passions, such as autism pride, trans pride, Black Lives Matter, and queer disabled pride.

Illustration by Nikki Lane

Nikki Lane (they/them)
Genderfluid, Queer, Illustrator, Neurodivergent, Peer Support Mentor, and Photographer
Illustration: @laneandlucia
Peer Support: @nikkilanecreates
Photography: @foundreedphotography

I found out I was multiply neurodivergent at 30 years old. I’m Autistic, I have ADHD, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, and OCD, all of which were undiagnosed and overlooked while I was growing up. Learning that my brain processes information differently than others has allowed me to show myself compassion and abandon the internalized ableist commentary I had been holding onto for years. I now can understand my weaknesses and see my strengths in a new light. I love that I’m Autistic, and I wouldn’t change who I am for anything.

I’ve always been artistically skilled. Throughout my life, I’ve picked up on different mediums very quickly. Without a doubt, being Autistic and neurodivergent helps me in that respect. I notice small details and sensory experiences that others might miss. I can spend hours hyper-focusing on the things I’m passionate about, and my love of learning and collecting information keeps me motivated to continuously grow as an artist.

Many Autistic people have special interests. They are like an intense hobby or passion; it’s something that sparks so much joy and curiosity. Some people have one major special interest, some people have none, and some people, like me, have too many to count, because their ADHD keeps them jumping from one special interest to another. One of my big special interests is being in nature and identifying and learning about plants, trees, rocks, and minerals. My self-portrait is of me in my happiest place, surrounded by wildflowers and trees.

MICHAEL LUONG is the associate art director at YES!.

First published in YES! Included in Vox Populi with permission.

One comment on “Michael Luong: Art and Identity on the Spectrum

  1. Susan Berlin
    April 28, 2022

    What a wonderful, insightful article! Thank you so much for this insider’s view and the information it contains. The artwork is amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

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