“Everything could be art, including my own experience and intimate being”
Jon Adams is a British artist and geologist who only discovered that he had Asperger’s and dyslexia as an adult. Today he is a Cultural Ambassador for the National Autistic Society (NAS), a champion for the Autism Mental Health project at Coventry University and an Associate Artist of the New Theatre Royal Portsmouth.
Autistic digital artist, poet and neurodiversity campaigner, Jon Adams trained as a geologist and his work references his Asperger’s, dyslexia and post-traumatic stress disorder. He is also a synesthete, meaning that he experiences synesthesia, a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sense leads to automatic, involuntary responses in a second sense, for example ‘seeing or touching sounds’.
The artist’s work explores sense and sensitivity through the ‘hidden’ and plays with perceptions of normal and the inaccessible. Adams is also the founder of the ‘Flow Observatorium’, creating safe places and attitudes for neurodivergent artists and performers to show their work, which is based at the New Theatre Royal, in his home town of Portsmouth (UK).
“I always wanted to be an artist but never went to art college because, when I was 10, a teacher had torn up a picture I had drawn, mocking me in front of the class because I had spelt my name wrong”, remembers Adams.
“I’ve always drawn, created or made ever since I can remember, but I was especially drawn to understanding the natural world. My early years were busy watching and challenging the world around me in an attempt to make sense of things, especially people. I had no idea then that this was through the lens of an autistic dyslexic person with the gift of synesthesia”. Aged 22 after finishing his geology degree, one exhibition in London, a retrospective of the Danish artist Asger Jorn, rekindled Adams’s desire to represent the world around him in alternative ways. He started working as a book illustrator soon after.
“My first milestone was being diagnosed as dyslexic in 1999. I started writing poetry in response to hearing ‘you can’t do this writing lark’ and soon was both published and winning international competitions. One judge, the Poet Laureate at the time, took me aside at an exhibition and told me ‘never to stop writing’. I understood that everything was, or could be, art, including your own experience and intimate being. This was a very liberating experience, and had been triggered by others who seemed to think I was capable of more. This led to a realisation that I was a synaesthete, answering the questions of why I experience the world differently and why the world sometimes treats me differently”, tells Adams.
Since 2013, many diagnoses of autism in the UK have also included a range of sensory issues, among them aversions to certain textures, sounds, smells and tastes, as well as a deep dislike of sudden noise. In Adams’s case, these seem to blur into a complex kind of synaesthesia.
“The world of people often seemed unfathomable and I always seemed to be an outsider by several degrees of difference. The way this ‘difference’ and ‘ability’ are not accepted or understood by the everyday person on the street soon leads to exclusion and mental health issues. In the arts world, I’ve learnt seeing the world differently and being Asperger’s is a talent, a gift, not a disability. People tend to only see autism as a very negative thing.
‘We need visible autistic role models given real opportunities as you do not change people’s minds by telling them they have to. You change people’s minds by example”.
The Konfirm Project
Jon Adams was formally diagnosed at the age of 52, at an NHS clinic run as an offshoot of Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre, after he was referred there by his GP. The initial spark had been a meeting with the centre’s founder and director, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, who asked Adams to work with him as resident artist at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge.
This meeting led to ‘Konfirm’, a project funded by Wellcome Trust, a personal, artistic and scientific journey where Adams processed conversations, observations and experiments through his Asperger’s filters. He worked with poetry, image and sound to illustrate how autistic people may have talents in systemising, breaking autism stereotypes and myths. He took the intrusive sounds of an MRI machine, split them into millions of fragments and reassembled them into coherent music. This was mixed with sea noise and synthesiser parts and has been used as a soundtrack for several films.
When this project highlighted that he was autistic, the world and his journey through it suddenly made sense. “It explained some of my social difficulties and the gifts I had with time, space and connecting. In a way I felt complete; not because I had a ‘condition’ as an excuse, but rather because I knew who I was and that I belonged to a ‘tribe’ of like-minded people. I didn’t feel ‘outside’ any more”, he affirms.
In early 2015, Adams set up Flow Observatorium, a national project recently granted initial funding by Arts Council England. The aim is to become a hub for neurodivergent artists, campaigning for recognition and providing support. Neurodivergence is about being ‘wired differently’ and experiencing the world through a ‘differing way of thinking’ from the ‘neuronorm’. It’s about celebrating an innate part of our wider neurodiversity and the talents it may bring, rather than looking at dyslexia or autism simply as being a deficit. Being different shouldn’t hold you back; it’s only people’s stereotyped attitudes that do. At ‘Flows’ core is a concern that the next generations of autistic people do not have to suffer the setbacks of traditional misunderstandings of being autistic and will be able to work, live and play in a world they really belong to.