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> > > The Times Cheltenham Science Festival

By Debbe Caulfield

black and white cartoon by Gabriel Hardistry-Miller & Ben Connors

Gabriel Hardistry-Miller & Ben Connors, Pig Pen. Image: Ben Connors, Snizz Up Comics

The Times Cheltenham Science Festival 2011, 7th – 12th June, held a huge mix of events on every subject under the sun, from stem cells to the psychology of war. Debbe Caulfield attended two linked events under the heading Alternative Ways of Thinking, curated by The Arts Catalyst and Shape.

I’m a last-minute guest and tickets are in short supply. As I take my seat inside the packed marquee, I congratulate myself for effectively gate-crashing a science festival. I feel like a fish out of water but I try not to worry. Be interested, take notes, I tell myself. What’s the worst that can happen?

Exploring the Autistic Mind
Kathy Sykes, a physicist from Bristol and Open Universities, opens the event with a question: Should the special mind of autistic people be labelled as impairment? As a starting point it doesn’t bode well. It sounds like a social model question but it isn’t.

The social model of disability holds that impairment is not a negative; it’s an access issue. The appropriate response is to remove barriers to inclusion. In contrast to this, the medical/charity model focuses on impairment as dysfunction and abnormality. Typical reactions vary between revulsion and sanctification. The ‘special’ label is little more than a crude attempt to reconcile these extremes.

Gabriel Hardistry-Miller and Ben Connors are an autistic-artistic duo. Together they stage performance and poetry events. Gabriel has autism. He can’t communicate verbally but understands what goes on. He has a device that enables him to answer yes or a no to other people’s questions.

Unfortunately, at the start of their presentation Gabriel has a seizure, which puts him out of action; so Ben, (technically Gabriel’s PA, funded by Direct Payment) does all the talking. He admits to not feeling good about this.

Ben says lack of speech is no barrier to achievement and a full life. Labels are irrelevant; they turn people into specimens. It's about valuing each other. They’re a good team. Ben is an artist while Gabriel is a talent spotter, good at getting bands to perform. Last year United Vibrations, a successful jazz ensemble, performed at one of G & B’s Pig Pen nights.

I like the sounds of all this. G & B look good together and clearly have a good rapport. How sustainable the arrangement is depends entirely on funding being available. Disabled people having interesting lives – as opposed to merely existing - is in danger of becoming a luxury the government doesn’t want to afford.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre (ARC) explains that research shows that autistic people aren’t good at interpreting facial expressions and this is why they score badly in empathy tests. The autistic brain is built for counting, categorizing and systematising. He believes people with autism ought to be regarded more positively and valued for their strengths. He doesn’t say how to make this happen. More research, perhaps.

The Prof thinks that while science has its place, for example in providing explanations, it shouldn’t make people feel like specimens. This seems to me to be a somewhat disingenuous remark. To be a research subject is to be an object of medical or scientific curiosity; there’s no way around this. The issue is one of weighing up the long term benefits against the potential disadvantages to the person concerned, particularly when the study period is over and the subject is popped back where he/she came from. Outside the research bubble the real world is a judgmental and barrier-ridden place.

The Prof adds that autism is actually a spectrum and everyone’s on it somewhere. The only reason for a diagnosis is where there are difficulties and support is needed. This point is picked up by a parent in the audience. She says a diagnosis legitimates a problem, which helps the child.

Jon Adams (see below) argues that labels are more hindrance than help. A named condition becomes something to blame, an excuse for giving up. Perhaps.

black and white photo of the artist Jon Adams amongst a field of flags

Jon Adams Flag Field

Jon Adams is Artist in Residence at the University of Portsmouth. At age 11 a teacher tore up his pictures.

Jon has Asperger's Syndrome and is dyslexic. His work is often a play on words, as in Fault Number 7. For one judged as having a language problem, Jon is amazingly articulate. The trauma of school informs much of his work. But he also finds inspiration in what goes on around him, ‘accidental glimpses of things quite ordinary’ as he puts it.

A geologist, Jon’s art includes diagrams, landscapes and buildings; physical and emotional places, all fantastically mind-spatial and non-linear. He uses dust-dry humour to make rock-solid points with crystal clarity. His ideas are incredibly well-connected; a sparkling interplay between imagined and actual, then and now. His mages reverberate like a shout in a cave. For example, Black Ink Pen; not so much a writing tool, more an instrument of torture.

photo of the artist in a red suit in front of a white board

3D Thinking in a 2D World, Benedict L Phillips

Benedict Phillips 3D Thinkers in a 2D World

A man strides onto the stage dressed in red from top to toe. Red, the colour of anger. On his head, a tall pointy hat with a DIV (Dislecksick Intelligent Vi-jon) label on.

As a little boy Benedict had a nice life just being himself. Then he went to school. His teachers kept telling him he was wrong. When he wrote words they would say: “We don’t do it like that!”

But Benedict was cleverer than his teachers. He knew it wasn’t his fault. The problem was that teachers had all the power.

One day it occurred to him that lecksicks were sometimes confused and disorientated; they became lost. They too had problems with language.

Despite his teachers, Benedict became an artist and an expert on learning. He lectures and trains in education establishments. He says: “Everyone can be dyslexic; they just need to try harder.” He designed a training course and eggzams, where students could self-grade according to how they felt on the day. Everyone gets a certificate, whether Dunce or Swot. He’s working on a Benedictionary, an online resource for translating lecksick into dislecksick.

Dyslexic people process information instinctively. In their 3D world, communication is constrained by having to write things down, whereas verbal/spoken language has incredible possibilities. A 3D thinker sees a room full of people from every angle. In describing it they can be very specific; everything is there in minute detail.

By all accounts, Benedict is remarkably well-adjusted. To what should we attribute this? A wise and accepting mother? A phenomenal ability to believe in himself? Or quiet rage. As the man said: Wot duzz not kill yoo makes yoo verry verry angree.

It does, too. In the Talking Point Tent afterwards I challenge a couple of teachers speaking as if they too were victims of the system. I guess up to a point this is true. As Benedict (or Jon) pointed out: The problem wasn’t their learning difficulty; it was the teachers’ teaching difficulty.

Overall I felt these events were more about shedding tears than light. Several of the audience said afterwards they’d been inspired by the artists. Now, I’m not big on disabled people being inspirational. To me that’s looking down the wrong end of a telescope.

The benefit of these events was the opportunity to see fantastic disabled artists who had made incredible journeys. I’m glad I made it. I’m glad they did too.