Jon Adams, October 2020
For all my life I’ve always had to ask the question ‘how do I belong’ not where.
From my earliest memory I’ve known I was different and observed that people often did not seem to experience or see the world as I did. As a child I seemed to be a watcher, a learner and I was terminally curious – not necessarily about people – but mainly the world around me. I wanted to know what was above, below and around me and how it ‘worked’ together and why. I was lucky as my parents went away on ‘house parties’ with other military families to places like Cumbria or Norfolk so got to explore hills valleys, cliffs and beaches from an early age. I revelled in those things I could see or pick up and touch and collected avidly: rocks, fossils, bones, curiosities I could systemise into a bigger picture. I did notice that others, often to my amazement, didn’t share this hunger. I seemed to frequently stand out, which made me a target for questions I didn’t mind but also a hurtful comment or ridicule, which harmed me. I couldn’t see anything wrong in loving nature and started to become wary of people and aloof. However, my dad was interested and fed my desires with trips to museums, tales of cameras and chemistry, the latest universe theory and I discovered ‘connections’. Soon I found more and became aware there was the added forth dimension of time.
I now know as ‘Neurodivergent’ the reasons I viewed the world this way and it wasn’t chance or choice but simply my mind is wired differently especially to do this. My curiosity belonged to me and, yes, I’m autistic but also dyslexic and a synaesthete. This added in a dimension of sense cross-modality, I tasted colour, I heard smells and I could touch time passing. I picked up the ideas of history and deep time very easily as it was tactile and I imagined everyone did but soon found they didn’t. Although people seemed to be interested and come close they were never quite the same as me. Through this I found out I desperately wanted to belong and fit in with other people as it seemed necessary to be a useful member of society. Through my life I’ve tried Sunday school, churches, clubs, cubs and scouts but there was always some action or attitude that reinforced the voice shouting in my inner being ‘you don’t belong’.
I wanted to go to school, to meet others, share and learn but I soon discovered yet again I stood out and often not in a good way. I soon realised through a series of encounters with other kids and teachers I needed to observe others, not be open and hide, camouflage my true being. I was called ‘a swot’ as I had interests other than football; ‘lazy’ as I couldn’t write what I knew down; and ‘thick’ because when I did I spelt it wrong. I was told I’d never be anything or anyone, which shredded my belonging and has lasted a lifetime. I left primary school very damaged and immersed myself in learning, star gazing and making as both a distraction and comfort. Senior school came and went but I’d learnt to ‘cover up as ‘unremarkable’ and as the class clown entertained in a ‘joker’ capacity. I did have friends. I was sociable when I could. Often they let you down in one way or another but there were a few who I found myself strangely safe with. In recent years a past friend contacted me sharing the fact he was autistic and felt safe with me too but we’d lost touch as his family moved away in the second year. I couldn’t understand why, after studying the world, I knew I was human and innately belonged, but it seemed people had the last say and often decided I didn’t. I started to read about exclusion and times in history where the many decided the few didn’t fit and went on to erase them.
University was good as I was able to use my natural and learnt gifts and found mostly they were appreciated which, to me, was an unusual joy. I found my differences – especially touching time – and being able to see the bigger picture were an advantage but struggled with my mental health due to low self worth and depression bleeding through from my time at school. My time at university cemented my view that I innately belonged to the world but again people dipped in and out often causing hurt and disappointment. I longed to feel I also belonged to people and find a culture within society that valued me but it never happened. It was at university I first discovered I had an option to ‘leave’, I desperately wanted to stay but the effects of people’s actions towards you seemed to override this. I did get some respite as spent the then hot summers in Devon working with someone who I admired and accepted me, building houses and walking the local cliffs and beaches. We find belonging wherever and however we can and I kept trying to find mine in people, which spectacularly failed.
When I was 6 I told my family I was going to be an Artist. It wasn’t a shock to them as we had artists in the family but also a long history of military service which I was probably expected to follow. I chose Creativity as where I felt I firmly belonged and have stayed true to this most of my life. I left university as a trained geologist but, as didn’t want to work on an oil rig, I took the academic route but again one person stood in the way and I ended up having to take a year out while an alternative supervisor was found. I took a job in a major London gallery, looking after ‘pictures’ all day and soon realised I really belonged to that statement I made at 6 to be an Artist. Maybe we harm ourselves by not listening to what we ‘know’ to be true inside, what we feel we need that’s often more than a gut feeling. I hadn’t
trained in art but gave academia up and started drawing and designing for people. Working in a world where, in the wider sense, different people weren’t readily accepted was hard but I soon found a niche in science book illustration.
It can be a rollercoaster ride knowing you belong in some areas of your life and not in others. I still had not found others like myself so the person-centred side of life often went unrequited and acted as a negative neutraliser, a barrier to my joy in creativity. The belonging in a world of nature and creativity was endangered by this seeming daily social anti-belonging and when they touched together my mental health spiralled downwards and I felt the call to leave and spent precious energy fighting to stay.
“The belonging in a world of nature and creativity was endangered by this seeming daily social anti-belonging”
During one of these times I was shown to be dyslexic, which changed my life. I learnt there was a reason I was different and I started to write, something I was told at school I’d never do. Then I realised I could be creative in the wider sense and use all that love of nature, collecting, transforming and synaesthesia in my work as people expected to see ‘different art’. I had drawn other peoples pictures up till now and I felt could make my own translation of the world and how I experienced it. I belonged to my creativity but people and society were still the issue and seemed dangerous as every time I settled in a situation with others convinced I felt I belonged it seemed to find reason to fall apart. I could not predict the behaviour of people and found they masked their true intents just as I masked my differences and the disappointment that it seemed I needed to feel ‘unremarkable’ to them. My introduction to the world of synaesthesia and autism enlightenment soon followed, which just reinforced my feeling of belonging to the natural world but widened the gap between me and society as I soon found out we can be misunderstood badly. It seemed others decided, told us how we felt and determined our narratives and futures. So I felt at last I’d found my shared culture, where I belonged, only to discover we were generally not accepted for ourselves but needed conforming to others standards. In some ways I felt we were being betrayed at a basic cultural level.
Meeting other autistic people strengthened me, often supporting me with knowing they are there in a way only other autistic people will understand. It had taken almost half a century of aloneness and self-affirmation to survive for this moment. I also found a desire for autistic emancipation and a deep care we often hold for each other; this was the belonging I needed. I have suffered trauma and elements within the autism world seem to be polarising but autistic people are at last starting speaking out forcefully, reclaiming their narrative. We’re finding allies and those who genuinely see we are simply human – not broken – to encourage and nurture the belonging we’ve been denied.
There seems a growing buzz and change in the air but I feel we can’t get complacent as there are wolves in sheep’s clothing, continuing exploitation, traditionalism and a growing polarisation between the autistic and autism worlds where autistic people are still being hurt and used. The feelings that we belong are so important because of what happens when you’re made to feel you don’t and we’ve lost too many from our community’s already. There are too many empty chairs at the table as, without our sense of belonging affirmed by action and not just hollow pretty words, there feels to be no living just survival trapped in a ‘half world’ neither in or out and definitely not our making. For example, for some, when we eventually seek mental health help, we’re denied or offered support that fails to meet our needs. Sometimes, the very thing we need to enable us, disables and reinforces our feelings of not belonging. The deep disappointment of not being able to contribute to better others or ourselves corrodes our ‘self’ and feels too much for us to personally bare. It is good that authentic research is now being directed to this fundamental and vital areas of our lives and needs to be encouraged by autistic people.
I still firmly believe autistic people belong in this world and ownership of agency, narrative and the need to be accepted on their terms is the minimum society needs to gift us. Yes, some of us older ones are damaged, our tenacity worn paper thin but we’re veteran way-finders so the next generations of autistic people don’t have to decide if they belong or not as with belonging comes our being, our fulfilment, positive self worth and the richness of idea and innovation we can bring.
“..with belonging comes our being, our fulfilment, positive self worth and the richness of idea and innovation we can bring.”
So, who or what enables you to feel you belong?
Jon is a polymath artist working cross-platform, in image, poetry, sound, performance and spoken word. His work references synaesthesia, autism, dyslexia, autobiography, science and hidden metaphor resulting in unique visual perspectives of systemizing history, time and place. His national profile includes working with a wide range of organisations and genres from Parliament to the Autism Research Centre, London2012 and with Sir Peter Brook. He also advises museums and campaigns for Neurodivergent understanding as artistic director of an equality & diversity charity ‘Flow Observatorium’ which is calling for parity and recognition within the arts and leading on Portsmouth as a ‘City of Sanctuary for Autistic people’. He actively promotes research into mental health, suicide in autism & mental health of artists alongside dismantling barriers to inclusion