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My Journey Back to Art

Updated: Feb 23

Autistic visual artist Kay Nyx describes what it is like to discover you are Autistic and return to Art as a form of communication.

Wearing my sunglasses, I stepped out into the luminous light of summer 2021. For some reason, there were still autumnal leaves on the ground. When you force ancient trees to survive in a concrete coffin outside St Mary's Mental Health Hospital you should expect to see death on the floor.

I pulled my hood up around me, shivering at the thought as the light began to pierce the back of my head. Just another one of those "nice sunny days" that cause me excruciating pain. Oh well, I am used to this routine by now.

I headed out of the hospital grounds, knowing I finally got an answer to my lifelong difficulties. I had just been told I have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This felt like a celebration at first, but finally, answers! But I was immediately reminded of the 30-plus years I had lost not knowing. I was reminded of all the support I might have been able to ask for, all of the explanations I could have given people, and all the research I could have done to understand myself. Like the ancient trees; I had been trying to survive in a concrete coffin.

You see, up until that point, I had entirely given up on art. I had always drawn as a child, I did well in my GCSE and A-Level Fine Art courses. I had been offered a place at the university and allowed to skip the foundation year. I was excited about creating. Books and art was all I had because I couldn’t understand all the people around me. The things they said never seemed to make any sense. There seemed to be some kind of social rule book that everyone else had access to, but I didn’t even know where to begin finding it.

I packed all my things, ready for a new life at university. Perhaps I will understand other artists better. Maybe it’s not me, maybe I just need to be around other artists. Unfortunately, when I got there, I found the experience to be the same as nursery, school, home, Brownies, and Youth Club - I just did not understand these social rules. Burnt out and exhausted by constantly trying to guess what people were talking about around me, I left university within weeks. My difficulties seemed utterly at odds with my academic life. I left university not knowing what to do with my life anymore. All I wanted to be was to be an artist, and I thought I had to complete a degree to achieve that, so I stopped creating.

I took on meaningless jobs that I could not cope with. I tried to pretend I could understand instructions from my bosses. I would carry a notepad everywhere, trying to scribble down what was hurriedly being spewed from an increasingly frustrated manager. I ended up in an abusive relationship as well at this time, which only compounded my feelings of utter confusion. The world just did not make any sense to me. Why were people so difficult to understand? Why are words so hard to remember and process? Why was I having migraines from blue lights and bright sunny days?

Everyone kept telling me this was all normal. It’s normal to be stood in a room of your colleagues and not even know how to begin a conversation despite seeing these people every day - at least, that was what I kept being told. It didn’t seem quite right to me, though, so I kept seeking an answer from doctors. All they saw was a disaster in front of them because, behind closed doors, I was being sexually assaulted, financially abused and psychologically tortured daily by my partner. It was easier for doctors to just listen to my abuser and hand me medications that I constantly reported were not helping me understand what people were saying or what all these rules I was missing.

In all of this mess, I didn't draw or paint. I had no desire to do anything I had loved as a child. I was trapped within a 1970s Milton Keynes experiment housing experiment made of concrete, my coffin.

I eventually left this relationship after nearly ending up in an actual coffin. Instead, I met a caring, patient man who urged me to be myself. He knew when I was younger that I loved art. He knew I found lights, noises, smells, touches etc., challenging to process. He knew I couldn't understand written and verbal communication well. Not once did he tell me I was unwell. Not once did he call me stupid. This man could see I couldn't keep up with society's expectations of Neuro-normative behaviours. He knew.

And yet, we still had no words for my difficulties.

My new partner could see my passion for everything creative. My eyes would light up, and I would become animated with pure joy. He would ask me constantly, why did I stop drawing and painting? I didn't know what to say except, I didn't know how to anymore. This is true for so many artists who, for whatever reason, have had their creativity stifled. It had, at this point, been a good decade since I had done anything with art. I hadn’t even visited art galleries anymore. It was too painful.

My partner persisted and supported me throughout seeking an answer to my difficulties. Because of him, I was eventually allowed access to an NHS Psychologist - it only took ten years of being in the system before accessing one! Nothing, I guess *cue eye roll*.

Within these appointments, I was appropriately supported in expressing my thoughts and feelings - and that's when it happened.

"You do know you could be Autistic, right?"

Sorry, what? This came entirely out of the blue for me. I was not expecting it at all! I left thinking about what he said: "You do know you could be Autistic, right?" How did I miss this? How had everyone missed this?

Through a few painful years of waiting for my diagnosis, I came to learn a lot about myself, what I struggle with and what helps me manage things. The only thing still packed away was my creativity. It felt like I couldn't open that box yet; it was too precious and rare! It was a Christmas present that I could only admire from afar until the big day - the diagnosis.

So that brings us back full circle to me walking away from the hospital, diagnosis in hand. I felt relieved! I felt free. I finally had the actual answer to the things I found so hard! I could finally open that creative box up! I could live again!

I immediately threw myself into art, sketching, painting, exhibitions, poetry, playing instruments, life drawing sessions, and screen printing. Anything I could lay my hands on was there to be taken. I would never again let my difficulties stop me from achieving my dreams of being an artist. I would never again let people bury me alive in that concrete coffin.

Something dawned on me whilst exploring and playing with mediums. The very essence of my creative style is Autistic!

The way I crush charcoal, enjoy making a mess, and see naturally occurring patterns appearing in the paper as I draw - is frankly utter Autistic joy! Feeling the paint glide or resist various other wonderful surface textures is sensory heaven. Even the way I think is image-based, so expressing myself so freely visually feels like the correct way to communicate with people. Words, both written and verbal, just feel so alien to me. I needed to find a way to express my feelings when words just didn't do the job.

Since the summer of 2021, I have been practising, refining, and playing with drawing. I've been trying to find exactly what my voice is when I am communicating through images. My visual thinking, combined with my sensory needs, dictates the subject matter and how I move across a page. Writing this now conjures so many ideas for me to try out later. There don't seem to be enough hours in the week to get it all done.

What I am hoping to achieve with my artwork, in the end, is a way to use imagery as a language. I want to communicate to others what it feels like to be Autistic. This desire to be heard when I cannot speak up for myself verbally drove the inspiration behind the zine "How It Feels To Be Autistic" (2023) and the ever-expanding work coming out of that. I am excited about this year and where it will take me creatively. I hope to see more accessibility in the art world, too, especially within Fine Art - but we shall see. I am content with knowing that Autism can and does drive my creativity. I have my answers which brought art back into my life and nourished my neurological difference.

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