Using Art to Help Your Autistic Mind
As an autistic individual, my mind has a lot of thoughts and I experience a lot of emotions. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.
For most of my life I didn’t know I was autistic. I didn’t understand why I seemed to have more ups and downs than others or why seemingly simple things were much harder for me… and yet some extremely challenging things were much easier for me. There was a lot that didn’t make sense.
Since I didn’t have the tools (i.e. accurate information about autism) to figure it out, I did my best to cope and understand in my own ways. I hear this from late-identified autistics over and over again - that they developed their own strategies for working with their minds even though they didn’t know they were autistic.
For me, my primary strategy has been art. I use art for different purposes at different times.
To distract me when there are too many thoughts on my mind.
To express my emotions when I’m feeling something especially extreme.
To develop understanding when I’m upset by something but can’t quite figure out why.
To tease out complexity and bring order when I’m feeling and thinking multiple things at once.
So how do I do that? Across my life I’ve done it in many different ways. I’ve made giant abstract paintings (greater for expressing emotions). I’ve created realistic family portraits (perfect when I need to focus and not think about other things). I’ve made cartoon books (which help me to process and articulate what I’m feeling). I’ve basically gravitated toward an art medium that will best help me in the moment.
In the past 2 years though, I’ve been pouring myself into a medium that can provide multiple benefits: collage.
For the kinds of collages I make, there are five stages.
Stage 1: Gathering images
I go to thrift stores and buy picture books and magazines. I then gleefully sit on my couch and rip out any images that speak to me. This part of the process is great for when I need my mind to focus on something else. It also develops my intuition. Sometimes I don’t know why an image is calling to me, but I rip it out regardless.
Stage 2: Cutting out images
I keep a box full of all the images I ripped out. When I’m in the mood, I then cut out the images. This is a perfect activity if I need something mindless, but also want to feel accomplished. As an autistic therapist, by the end of my work day I need some time alone with no external input. I’m not tired enough to sleep, but my brain is also not in the optimal space for something productive like writing. This is when cutting out images is perfect.
Stage 3: Organizing
I take my stack of cut out images and begin organizing them into piles. The piles are whatever I think of at the time. For example, I may look at an image and think, “Oh, this is how I feel my autistic brain thinks” or “This one is how I feel about the difficulty of making friends.”
Not everything is specifically about autism. Sometimes I have stacks related to, “Shit I’m angry about” or “Missing my mom.” I do my organizing from a gut level, making stacks for whatever topic comes to my mind. This stage is very informative for me. It helps me externalize many of the things that I am feeling. It also helps me to see what is currently on my mind. It’s like organizing the contents of my mind, which is very soothing.
Stage 4: Gluing images
I then choose which of my organized stacks looks most appealing and begin gluing images onto a page. I keep a giant art notebook for this. I think I’m on my 5th one now. I glue the images down based on my mood. Sometimes I glue one image and then keep adding one at a time. Sometimes I arrange the images and then glue after. Many times I don’t have enough images to fill the page. I trust that I will find more to complete it in time.
This process is beneficial to me in many ways. One, I get to fully visualize my feelings on one topic. Second, i get the satisfaction of making something. Third, I get to see my world come to life.
Stage 5: Refinement
In this phase I complete unfinished collages with extra images, colorign, or painting in the gaps. I love this stage because it feels like finalizing something. I can then also take images of the art to share if I later choose.
Stage 6: Review
I’m not always aware of the important subconscious processes taking place as I make art. This is similar to what I witness in art therapy with my clients. My clients are not always aware of how their art making is actively helping them. However, with time, the significance of the art and its impact can be seen.
For me, this typically occurs a month or two after, when I look back through a notebook. It’s like I have a fresh pair of eyes and I can see the things I am struggling with, confronting, celebrating, and more. I have new insights. It also helps me to develop deep compassion for myself. I am often struck by the intensity of some of my collages, and feel tenderly for my past self that had to work through difficult emotions. This also increases my self-understanding, self-awareness, and self esteem.
Most of my collages stay in their notebooks, which are tucked away on their perfectly organized shelf. Some of my collages I choose to pair with my essays. I am aware that many of my collages are not aesthetically pleasing. However, I feel the grouping of images is powerful and therefore want to share it.
While I just presented 6 stages, what is lovely about collage is that I can move in and out of stages. One day I might feel like refining my pre-existing collages and the next day I feel like ripping out new images.
Why do I bother to share this process?
First, to illustrate that our minds can find unique strategies that work with us. There is a lot of information about how challenging autism is. It is. I also want to present how creative our autistic brains can be in helping us find ways to work with them.
Second, to provide some inspiration to other individuals who might be looking for some new ways to explore their minds. Whether you are autistic or not, this process can help on multiple levels.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.