Beyond Words: exploring the communication experiences of autistic children through art
By Dr Alexandra Sturrock
On the 25th of March (2023) The Whitworth gallery (Oxford Road, Manchester) hosted an autism@manchester event: Beyond Words, exploring the communication experiences of autistic children through visual arts. The event was a full day of activities, including an exhibition, workshop and talks. There were approximately 65 attendees across the day, many of whom were from local families with direct links to the autistic community. It received universal praise from the autistic and non-autistic attendees, who described it as a celebration of neurodiversity. It was funded by the ISSF public engagement fund.
The exhibition itself, included installations from two commissioned sources. Firstly, from professional Ukrainian artist, Anastasia Khmelevska, and secondly, from young neuro-divergent art students at PInc College (Manchester). In total, there were 20 images generated directly in response to our commission (one submitted after the event), all of which can be seen in our online gallery.
The images explored original quotes from autistic children collected as part of an academic research project, undertaken by event lead Dr Alexandra Sturrock. This research, titled In Their Own Words, was published in 2021. The quotes themselves were so vivid that they instantly intimated the need for visual representation. Pinc teachers described them as
“The quotes are extremely powerful and [offer] first-hand experience.”
A first wave of seven quotes were discussed with autistic community groups (Aspire and Autism@manchester). Then Dr Hannah Guest (main collaborator) developed sketches and sourced Anastasia (our primary artist), to represent our ideas in her own fantastical and otherworldly style.
Our remaining quotes were then sent to PInc College, with the broad brief that the students select any quote that spoke to them and interpret them as they chose. Over the Spring term, the teachers offered structured support to facilitate the student’s work, by breaking down the process of selecting images, colours and materials. In the end, 13 pieces of creative and individualised artwork were generated by 12 students. Two also allowed us to present their preliminary sketches as part of the exhibition. Students explained why this was a valuable experience.
“I love showing people the way I see the world around me.”
“I get to see the communication difficulties [of others] … I feel related! Very!”
On the 25th of March, the Garden Studio at The Whitworth was turned over to the event. As well as the exhibition, there was a full day of workshop activities, which asked visitors to think about the remaining quotes from the project and generate their own images along the theme. The workshop area was bustling with autistic children and adults and family members, involved in painting and drawing all day.
The event also offered volunteer work opportunities for four BSc Speech and Language Therapy students from The University of Manchester. They described learning about “Differences in girls’ presentation and masking”. They gained experience in “Interacting with autistic children, young people, and their families” and changed their professional practice.
“I will give pupils more time to [autistic children] speak, and try not to force them to speak.”
Three students from PInc College also undertook work experience at the event. They supported visitors to access the exhibition and take part in the art workshop, although one PInc College student was there primarily to photograph the event for reportage (images found in the online gallery). As this was a neurodiverse inclusive event, the volunteers were also available to help attendees find quiet spaces and work on their art in a way that best suited them.
Attendees to the event described it as “a real celebration!”. They felt they benefitted from the event in multiple ways, including learning about child experiences and understanding best conversation strategies.
“My daughter is autistic so we’re really keen to come along, it has been reassuring to see we are not alone in her struggles. The understanding of how autistic children feel and see the world has been really helpful”
There was a general feeling that the event was useful and could offer something beneficial for the future.
“I feel an event like this is key to spreading awareness and educating others in supporting interaction.”
The project was followed up by a talk at Manchester Museum, PInc college open night. There is also a legacy of online gallery material and social media streams for anyone to access.
The links below may be of some interest:
- Online gallery
- In their own words (academic paper)
- Dr Alexandra Sturrock (research profile)
This project was conceived and orchestrated by Dr Alexandra Sturrock in close collaboration with Dr Hannah Guest, who advised on key aspects of visual representation and generating images.
Enormous thanks go to the art students at PInc College who put so much effort and enthusiasm into the project. Thanks also to the staff team there, who supported their students so excellently: Lisa Albertini, Verena Kennedy, Natalie Linney, Donna Taylor, Emily Tuck, Sandra Bouguerch and Sarah and everyone else who helped behind the scenes.
Many thanks also go to Anastasia Khmelevska, who translated our quotes into beautiful pieces of art that spoke to our audience and highlighted the issues of communication experiences for autistic children.
The Whitworth Art Gallery hosted and supported the event with their excellent team, Fiona Carris and Gurusha Saini, and volunteer on the day Monica, making the day run smoothly and without hiccups.
Thanks to all our volunteers on the day, SLT students (Afsana, Georgia, Manu, Sara) and PInc students (Amelia, James and Rachel). As well as Denise from the impact team and Jackie O’Brien administrator extraordinaire at UoM.
Much appreciation goes to Poulo for supporting with the funding application and the ISSF for funding the event.
This was an Autism@Manchester event, in collaborations with advisors from Aspire, the female autism network