POSTED 30.05.2023

Text and photo: Fran Trento

A Conversation on Neurodiversity and Kinship within the Context of artist residencies

In this text, I problematise some of the assumptions often taken for granted in our societies and cultures and how they affect access and inclusion in artistic residencies. I will focus on two aspects of human (and non-human) diversity that are generally disregarded or marginalised, particularly in artistic residencies: neurodiversity and non-familial modalities of kinship. This text also tangents my practice as Frame Contemporary Art Finland's social responsibility coordinator within the Islands of Kinship (ISLOFKIN) project. ISLOFKIN is a multi-institutional EU-funded initiative to publish social and ecological sustainability manuals for arts-based institutions. As part of the project, each participant institution has hired an ombudsperson. A manual holds performative power in that it can influence the practices of the ones who may read it. This post is not a manual but aims to poke institutional practices embedded with a normativity that interdicts the thriving of diversity within artist residencies.

Neurodiversity is a concept and a paradigm that refers to and praises humans' natural variation in brain functioning and cognition. It is also a social justice movement created by autistics in the 1990s that advocates for accepting and including people who think, learn, and behave differently from the norm, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or learning disabilities. Neurodiversity challenges the idea that there is one "right" way of being human and that differences are not deficits but rather part of the natural human variability. By doing so, it dislodges normalcy from the centre of human experience. Instead of seeing these body-minds as defective and lacking something that engenders them unsuitable to societal environments, material and discursive structures should be adapted to welcome all differently shaped and abled bodies.

However, many people who are neurodiverse face barriers and discrimination in accessing arts-based spaces, particularly artistic residencies, which are often designed for neurotypical people or conforming to the dominant expectations of brain functioning and behaviour. For example, some residences may require applicants to submit lengthy proposals, portfolios, or CVs. The lack of openness can be challenging for people who feel more comfortable communicating in other modalities of expression than writing or expressing themselves in non-linguistic ways. Some residencies may impose strict deadlines, schedules, or rules, which can be stressful or overwhelming for people needing more flexibility or support. Some residences may also expect residents to participate in social events, workshops, or presentations, which can be uncomfortable or inaccessible for people with sensory sensitivities or anxiety. When one thinks about accessibility in artist residencies, what often comes to mind is the physical accessibility for wheelchair users or the height and weight of specific building structures, but not accessibility for neurodivergent persons, even though physical accessibility goes far beyond wheelchair access. What are the potential aspects of the residence´s space that may cause sensory to overwhelm, how flexible are their schedules for cleaning and reporting, and what are the procedures in an emergency? In a text published in the Ruukku – Studies in Artistic Research journal issue about slowness and silence published in 2021, I discuss a few of these concerns. The text was written during my stay as a resident in ÖRES (Örö Fortress Island Residency Program) (1).

To address these issues and create more inclusive and welcoming spaces for neurodiverse artists and artistic researchers, I will draw on the concept of neuroqueerness, as defined by the autistic critical disability studies scholar Remi Yergeau. According to Yergeau (2), a neuroqueer is someone who identifies or disidentifies as queer and neurodivergent; identifies as neurodivergent but not as sexually queer yet sees their neurodivergence as queering their embodiment; and occupies spaces between and among these various positions. The concept of neuroqueerness is also a political affirmation against outdated behavioural psychology discourses that falsely connect autism to extreme maleness. In truth, the number of neurodiverse persons who do not identify with binary genders and are not heterosexuals is more significant than that of neurotypicals. Studies have found that people who do not identify with the gender assigned at birth are three to six times as likely to be autistic as cisgender people are (3). Queering is also a way to play with the refusal of fixed identities, as constant stereotyping classifies and identifies autistics sometimes as too able to develop some tasks but not able enough to others. 

In other words, a neuroqueer is someone who challenges and disrupts the norms and expectations of both neurotypicality and heteronormativity, as somebody who cannot fully attune to the normative understandings of what being rhetorical and communicative means. That means that some neurodiverse people may feel and behave differently from what a normative society expects, for instance, by feeling overstimulated by sounds, crowds, particular colours, tastes, and smells, but also by stimming, stuttering or understanding phrases literally. It is vital to agree that the misunderstandings of the meanings in shared conversations are not the fault of neurodiverse people. Instead, the double empathy theory describes how autistic and non-autistic people may have problems understanding each other. It suggests that these problems are not because autistic people lack empathy or social skills but because autistic and non-autistic people have different ways of communicating, thinking, and experiencing the world. The theory was Damian Milton (4), an autism researcher who is also autistic. The researcher Emily Stones, in a recent article published in The Palgrave Handbook of Disability and Communication (2023), argues that when people with different neurotypes interact, the neurodivergent person is often blamed for the confusion, even if both parties have limitations in understanding each other (5).

By applying this concept to artistic residencies, I will suggest ways to make them more open and responsive to the needs and desires of neurodiverse artists. Again, sometimes simple and uncostly changes are effective, to name a few; employing online forms for applications instead of requesting emailing a private person many open-source alternatives for this do not necessarily go through big tech companies.

As a neuroqueer person, I refuse to apply to jobs, residencies or open calls that require sending an email because it personalises the process, and I start feeling that the process is already a piece of social interaction that can drain my energy. Also, forms often send an automatic email confirmation showing that the application went through except that I filled out a form for manifesting my interest in attending a conference in the last weeks. The website response page had the text “Thanks for the application. We won´t send a confirmation email”, which in practice sounds like the worst nightmare for me.

The second aspect of human diversity I will discuss is kinship, even though kinship can include non-human entities. Kinship refers to the relationships and connections people form with others based on blood ties, romance, sex, adoption, friendship, care, or affinity. Kinship shapes our sense of identity, belonging, and responsibility. However, not all forms of kinship are equally recognised or valued in our society. There is a dominant assumption that the nuclear family consisting of a heterosexual couple and their biological children is the natural and universal form of kinship. The queer activist Robinou, who developed the concept of queer communal kinship (QCK), pointed out that “only forty-three of 238 human societies have monogamy as their ideal. If monogamy persists in our society, it is because of its ideological function raising romantic love crystalised in the dyadic figure of the couple as the only possible prospect of wellbeing.” (6). This assumption has been historically imposed by colonial institutions such as the Christian churches (although not restricted to them). It continues to influence our laws, policies, and practices. By creating strategies that de-naturalise the couple form, both monogamy and non-monogamy, one may better understand that many human assemblages can thrive together. At the same time, many residencies do not welcome children with their parents on their premises, restricting the artist´s agency. An artistic residency is often seen as a moment of solitude and self-reflection (while complete isolation is ontologically impossible as we tend to value human relations but conveniently forget the intermesh of thingies and non-human animals that make kin with us). Still, there is a diversity of arrangements that one person may need. These must be discussed without exotifying any structure or subjectivity that defies the able-bodiedness perception and the overly sacred family.

Many people are involved in modalities of kinship that defy or challenge the supremacy of the nuclear family and coupledom. For example, some people may have multiple partners or lovers; some may raise children with friends or relatives; others may form intentional communities or networks based on shared values or interests; others may choose not to have children. These forms of kinship are often marginalised or stigmatised by society, and people attuned to them are often subjected to affective inequalities. Artistic residencies often exclude or ignore them, usually designed for individuals or couples.

To address these issues and create more inclusive and welcoming spaces for diverse forms of kinship in artistic residencies, I will draw and return to the concept of queer communal kinship proposed by Robinou. According to Robinou, queer communal kinship is "a mode of relating that challenges heteronormative assumptions about what constitutes a family; that values non-biological ties based on care, solidarity and mutual support; that resists hierarchies based on gender roles or generational status; that fosters affective abundance rather than scarcity; and that promotes ecological sustainability rather than consumerism." In other words, queer communal kinship is a way of living together that celebrates diversity, interdependence, and social justice by thinking together about a future outside the oppressive practices of the family. Residencies should be spaces where one can thrive, and understandably, there are material and economic limits to accommodating different beings and their lovers/partners/non-human companions/thingies. Still, the measures often do not significantly burden the institutions´ budget if discussed respectfully and outside the perspective of exotifying everything that does not fit the behavioural parameters of normality.

There is a vast but often invisible bibliography concerning the invisible disabilities within arts-based institutions, particularly residencies. The collection Curating Access Disability: Art Activism and Creative Accommodation, edited by Amanda Cachia, is a good source of resources on the matter. For a decolonial understanding of modalities of kinship that do not attune to the centrality of the family, I suggest Kim Tallbear's bibliography. Recently, Kris Dittel and Clementine Edwards coedited the volume Material beyond extraction and kinship beyond the nuclear family, with texts considering different theoretical and artistic standpoints on kinship beyond familial relations.

(1) Trento, F. (2021). A Diary on Slowness at Örö Fortress Island. In RUUKKU - Studies in Artistic  Research (Issue 15). Society for Artistic Research.

(2) Yergeau, M. R. (2018). Authoring autism: On rhetoric and neurological queerness. Duke University Press. 

(3) Dattaro, L. (2020, September 14). Largest study to date confirms overlap between autism and gender diversity. Spectrum | Autism Research News.

(4) Milton, D. E. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883–887.

(5) Stones, E. (2023). Cross-Neurotype Communication Competence. In The Palgrave Handbook of Disability and Communication(pp. 45–65). Springer International Publishing.

(6)  Robinou. (2023). Queer communal kinship now! (1st ed.). Punctum Books. (p. 59)