The Autistic Experience and Navigating the Contemporary Music Industry (Casting Light #8)

Casting Light” is a 10-part series that explores the often invisible inequities in contemporary arts spaces. Commissioned by ACF and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to highlight the conversations that we need to be having more openly and transparently in order to build diverse, inclusive, and equitable artistic communities. Building on our commitment to anti-racism, a culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue. 

Content warning: Alcoholism, anxiety, depression, suicide

I’m autistic. I don’t go around saying it, but it is just as integral to my identity as anything else: ethnicity, gender, cultural background, the way in which I present myself. As an early-career composer having been involved in Britain’s classical, contemporary, punk, and alternative music networks, I’ve noticed the sheer prevalence of neurodiversity amongst us creatives. But despite this, it feels like neurodiverse and autistic experiences are strangely absent from wider conversations about inclusivity and accessibility — and when neurodiversity is brought up in more “mainstream” circles, it tends to be through the lens of psychologists, therapists, and neurotypical experts rather than centering autistic people in the discussion.

By sharing the barriers to entry I’ve faced in creative spaces, I hope that we can bring to light the issues of navigating a neurotypical music world. However, one important thing to note is that this is just one person’s autistic experiences, and those experiences are not universal. As the saying goes, “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.”

Many of these barriers to entry started at a young age. While I mustn’t deny the privilege of being diagnosed with autism in childhood, it was through interactions with various departments at my secondary school that I began to experience the “unwritten rules” that come with living in a neurotypically-designed world. I felt like there was something inherently wrong with me. Despite my hyperfixation on music production and composition — special interests being present in 75-95% of autistic people (and one I continue to leverage through my current field of work) — I was never encouraged to chase these facets of my creativity. My mannerisms and perceived outward symptoms of my autism — ticks, fidgeting, hyperfocus on the “wrong” things — made some teachers constantly overlook me for opportunities, not take my contributions seriously, and downright ignore a lot of the endeavours I wanted to focus on.

I was seen as a troubled kid. Autistic burnout — the “intense physical, mental, [and] emotional exhaustion” many autistic people experience when forced to adapt to a neurotypical world — was misinterpreted as laziness. Lack of eye contact was attributed to absent-mindedness. Misreading of social cues and performing cultural “faux-pas” were read as being “difficult.” At university, I was almost kicked out of my undergraduate degree entirely for “missing classes” — the institution not knowing there were many mornings where I was simply too overwhelmed to go in. (I recently learned of the phrase “executive dysfunction,” which has really helped me come to terms with how all of this manifested.) This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, either; in the UK, there are “currently no regulations in place” to make sure teachers are equipped to deal with neurodivergent students, resulting in many of us being left behind, unsupported, and unable to reach our full potential in academic environments.

Sadly, the challenges we face don’t stop after we leave educational institutions. In 2020, the UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) discovered that only 21.7% of autistic, working-age adults are in some form of paid employment — despite a survey conducted by the National Autistic Society showing that 77% of unemployed autistic adults actively want to work. While I’ve needed to work a variety of jobs during my progression as an artist — particularly in fields such as hospitality — I’ve struggled to find a day where I wouldn’t leave my workplace completely emotionally drained. I’ve struggled to hold down even part-time jobs for precisely this reason — and when I have somewhat held them down, even thinking about creative projects became overwhelming.

In the fields and communities I’m more comfortable operating in, it still feels like recognition and accessibility can be insurmountable obstacles to overcome. On speaking to a few people about neurodiversity at punk shows, I remember that despite punk’s inclusive ethos, some felt autism was still almost a taboo topic. People weren’t ready for a conversation surrounding mental health that wasn’t focused on more universally relatable topics like anxiety and depression (despite significantly higher rates of depression in autistic adults). In some DIY circles, it felt like I was actively shunned for displaying autistic traits. I distinctly remember getting treated very differently by a group of people at a show at The Monarch back in 2018 the moment I disclosed to one of them that I was autistic.

There’s always that fear of being known as “the autistic artist” — or that being open about your neurodivergence turns into a professional black mark — that can almost feel paralysing; or that being open about autism and neurodivergence automatically makes you a spokesperson.

I’ve found the contemporary music world to be quite intimidating despite the leaps and bounds I’ve seen some organisations go to try to be more accommodating — particularly in regards to networking. It’s been hammered into me time again that “it’s about who you know, not what you know.” This puts many neurodivergent creatives at a disadvantage, especially in circumstances where those who know how to leverage their connections get commissioned over those who find the social requirements of our industry more difficult. It often ends up feeling like there’s a hidden black magic involved that other people seem to get and I don’t. The same can be said for the way in which funding applications are worded — I’ve found it very hard to navigate, or understand, arbitrary questions such as “What can you provide for us?” or “Why you deserve this [funding] more than other applicants?” It’s more than often become an unbearable experience to even write a few words on a page when trying to second-guess what exactly an organisation is looking for.

Yet through all this comes another conundrum. Many neurodiverse artists I’ve spoken to have brought up concerns of how our conditions end up getting commodified in contemporary music circles. There’s always that fear of being known as “the autistic artist” — or that being open about your neurodivergence turns into a professional black mark — that can almost feel paralysing; or that being open about autism and neurodivergence automatically makes you a spokesperson. At the same time, I’ve also experienced a fear of needing to “market” being autistic in a way that doesn’t alienate a neurotypical audience. It’s no surprise that many autistic people have become accustomed to masking their autistic traits in neurotypical situations — whether that’s a conscious decision or through years of conditioning — in an attempt to blend into their respective fields of society, despite the emotional fortitude required to do so.

This masking has led some neurotypical people to characterise our condition as “mild” or “high-functioning.”However, “mild” autism doesn’t mean I experience my autism mildly. It means that you experience my autism mildly. There’s been an untold amount of times in music communities that I’ve been told “you don’t look autistic” — like the fact I’ve been forced to conceal my “difficult” traits from the neurotypical landscape is some kind of achievement, or badge of honour — which, although I’m sure it’s well-meaning, is also deeply unsettling.

That kind of mask-affirming behaviour sets quite a dangerous precedent: that contemporary music spaces arent for us, that in order to survive in this environment, we must conform to the standards set by neurotypical convention. The burden is placed on us to change ourselves, or bury traits that aren’t socially acceptable deep down — and subsequent coping mechanisms can have a severe impact on both physical and mental health. Sadly, this manifests in a lot of ways. Some autistic people have used alcohol as a way of numbing the feeling of sensory overload or the anxiety-inducing nature of social situations. There are also multiple studies showing the links between autism and rates of severe mental health issues, drug addiction, and suicide — statistics I’m too overwhelmed to link in this article.

What’s important to note is that the fact I’m autistic doesn’t make me lesser or “defective.” Though there’s still much debate over this topic, I don’t consider my autism a disability. As Steve Silberman writes in his book Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and How To Think Smarter About People Who Think Differently, “Just because a computer is not running Windows doesn’t mean that it’s broken.” Where the difficulties lie is in navigating a world I know is inherently not meant for us.

So whats to be done? I dont feel Im qualified to give answers. However, I’ve recently read some incredibly hopeful articles (including one on this very site) about how contemporary creative spaces can be more accommodating to neurodiverse artists. There are a plethora of autistic-led record labels and collectives such as Tiergarten Records and Neuk Collective — not to mention organisations such as Drake Music and The Musical Autist — all doing fantastic work for self-advocacy. Nevertheless, more work needs to be done on an institutional level, outside of the echo chambers we’ve created. And if we’re to build an environment where we can truly feel safe, heard, and able to thrive, the inclusivity we advocate for must be an ongoing process. As Robin from Tiergarten Records once told me, “Access to opportunities isn’t just about getting your foot in the door, but whether you can stay in the room once you step through.”

**All of the works featured in this article were created by neurodiverse composers.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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