Presenting neurodiversity – some preliminary thoughts

I unashamedly have high functioning ASD (I don’t suffer from it – I embrace it and others make me suffer!). Over the past few years I have noticed my stimming behaviour, and as I’m required to interact with more and more people I am growing increasingly conscious of how difficult I find it to cope with social interaction. So – I decided to write a piece about it: Stim. However, even though I can relate to it directly, I still needed to be extremely conscious of the ethics surrounding presenting neurodiversity (and mental illness and neurological conditions in future works).

In presenting a subject such as neurodiversity I decided it was vital to not give in to any extremes. If I were to simply write a completely abstract composition I feel that I’d have absolutely no chance of provoking a reaction in the audience. For me, it implies skirting around the issue; a failure to acknowledge the reality of ASD, in favour of modernist abstraction (engaging in social issues required a more postmodernist bent in my not so very humble opinion). Similarly, if one were to just concentrate on literally depicting symptoms and situations the piece runs the very real risk of becoming pantomime. Additionally, giving into the literal somehow implies a lack of engagement, thought, or deep consideration of the topic.

So: a balance. In Stim I think I successfully accomplished this through two interrelated levels of performance, each referencing symptoms of ASD. The pure music itself engages with its own set of symptoms: the bass clarinet focusses incessantly around a singly pitch class, while the piano similarly utilises a single pitch set – described by DSM 5 [1] as ‘preoccupations, obsessions, interests that are abnormal in intensity’. These calm, monotonous passages are suddenly interrupted by ‘abnormal volume, pitch, intonation, rate, rhythm, stress, prosody or volume in speech’.

On top of the music there is a level of choreography/theatrical performance (to be largely devised by the performers after engaging with various resources/discussions). Most importantly are a series of ritualised ‘stereotypes or repetitive motor movements’ – the stimming I recognise in myself. The two performers also are seemingly ignorant of all ‘normal’ social interactions, and responses to cues, not engaging with each other, or acknowledging the audience even during applause (something I have been very guilty of myself!). This choreography deliberately acts in ‘dissonance’ with the music, movement seemingly disconnected with sound, a ‘lack of coordinated verbal and nonverbal communication’.

I have attempted to actively engage with myself and general symptoms of ASD without succumbing to mockery. Even if every symptom was not spelled out, I hope that this piece could help with increased conversation and engagement with ASD, even if only sparking a passing interest. The performers of the premier, Sarah Watts and Antony Clare, certainly demonstrated this, as did several audience members. This all plays into the emerging area of research called Health Humanities, although research on the relationship between (art) music and awareness of the neurodiverse mind seems to be almost completely lacking – perhaps I need to dig further, perhaps we musicians need to write about this more (I certainly intend to!).

[1] The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th edition (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

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