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Autism Awareness and Tattoo Culture

Autism Awareness and Tattoo Culture

Lifestyle34 min Read


For Autism Awareness Week, we spoke to four tattooists and one collector about their experiences being on the spectrum.

Although Autism is spoken about more openly and accurately as time goes on, there is still a lack of real understanding about it. This is part of why Autism Awareness Week exists: to bring more dialogue around the many faces and facets of the spectrum. To celebrate and support the conversation, four tattoo artists and one tattoo collector speak on their experiences, especially as it pertains to tattooing, art, and community.

Art by sorayraysworld #sorayraysworld

Interview with Chris Morris

South Wales-based tattooer Chris Morris is known for his stunning portraits of favorite cartoon and comic characters. In this short interview, he talks about embracing our authentic selves and how having a different perspective is always a positive thing. If you'd like to learn more about Chris, make sure to check out his full length interview on Tattoodo!

How has your Autism diagnosis enhanced your life? What is it about Autism that you’d like to celebrate?

I feel that while the diagnosis itself did have something of an effect on my life it was more of a platform for me to then explore further into understanding who I am. Throughout my life there have been many instances where I recognised that my own experiences differed from those of my peers. While I could recognise this difference I couldn’t understand the reason for it until my diagnosis.

Now I’m moving forward with a better understanding and acceptance of who I am as a person and it honestly provides such a sense of relief and joy to be living without the weight of that uncertainty clouding my daily experiences.

Having a better understanding of myself has also allowed me to recognise the positives that autism has brought to my life that may not have been there if I had been born neurotypical. A distinctive expression of creativity, attention to detail, a high level of visual observation skills, and a deep focus while concentrating are all common traits throughout the autistic community but are all traits which have undoubtedly benefited my tattooing.

Outside of my work I am who I am because of my autism; it’s as much a part of me as any other. I can only assume that there are elements of my autistic self for which my friends must find appealing for them to wish to spend time in my company.

What do you wish more people knew about Autism?

I think that there’s a definite lack of awareness around the diversity of the autism spectrum. I know that before my diagnosis the only autistic representation I saw on film and television was a very specific and narrow range of autistic traits which would make anyone believe that unless you were a card-counting savant, or especially interested in trains then you must not really be autistic.

The more awareness that is spread around autism and the vast and diverse range of people who count themselves as being part of the spectrum, then the more people will learn to understand and accept what autism truly is. Hopefully this will naturally lead to old false assumptions about autism being dropped in favour of a more inclusive outlook toward the autistic community.

How does being Autistic affect your daily life? How does Autism affect art?

I think that the impact my autism has on my daily life is tied directly to the environment I find myself in. There will be days when I don’t feel like it affects me at all and then the next day I can find myself wholly unable to function. This can be especially hard if I am trying to function within a social model that isn’t made for people who aren’t neurotypical.

I am fortunate in some respects in that I can pass relatively well in neurotypical society so that I don’t outwardly show how difficult some environments can be for me. It’s extremely difficult for me to be in a situation where I am overwhelmed by light and sounds; trying to talk to someone in a crowded room with bright fluorescent lighting might not look like it’s uncomfortable for me but inside I probably haven’t understood a word the person has said because I’m too focussed on not passing out.

The flip side of this though is I don’t know how I would express myself through art if I wasn’t autistic. There’s no way of saying whether this hypersensitivity to light means that I see colours differently to how I would otherwise and that’s why I try to emulate these vibrant tones in my work. There are so many things that combine to create an artist’s distinctive style that it’s impossible to speculate as to how I would express myself if I was born neurotypical.

What do you think tattoo shops or artists could do better to more fully embrace the broad spectrum of clients with Autism?

I think that if there was a greater level of understanding from studios regarding the diverse needs of their clients then it would avoid a lot of stress and anxiety on the part of both the artist and the client. Sometimes we all have difficult days where we just have a clash of personalities with the person on the other side of the tattoo. I think it’s important though to understand that while the things a person is saying, doing, or asking might be slightly irritating to the artist who is trying to focus on the tattoo, for the autistic client these things they say and do might be the difference between them being able to cope with the anxiety of the situation or becoming completely overwhelmed.

It’s not the responsibility of the studios or artists to have to try and guess if their client is on the spectrum but perhaps including a note on the contact page reassuring anyone that if they choose to make the artist/studio aware of their autism this will be held in confidence and respect. This might make more people comfortable talking about their specific requirements to help make the whole process easier for everyone involved.

People on the autism spectrum aren’t asking for special needs. They’re only asking to be treated with the same respect and compassion as anyone else, it’s just that the way in which these needs are met might be different to a neurotypical client.

How do tattoos and Autism go hand in hand?

I would say that the tattoos are intensely personal to the client having them tattooed; not just in the sense of any meaning that they might have but just for the reason why a person might be so attracted to a design that they are happy to have it on their body forever. You could line up 100 people all having the same identical tattoo and they will all have different reasons why the design speaks to them and a different perspective on what makes the design so attractive to them.

This is essentially all that autism is: a different perspective on how we live in this world to those who are neurotypical. Not a perspective that is worse than a neurotypical perspective; just one that is different.

Squirtle tattoo by Chris Morris #ChrisMorris #newschool #colorful #pokemon #squirtle

Interview with Lala Inky

Lala Inky creates stunning Neo Traditional tattoos, as well as a bevy of other styles. She's also an advocate for mental health awareness and proudly proclaims her sobriety and queerness in hopes of supporting others on their journey of self-actualization. Here, Lala speaks on how being diagnosed with Autism gave her the freedom to be her most authentic self.

How has your Autism diagnosis enhanced your life? What is it about Autism that you’d like to celebrate?

I feel like my Autism diagnosis set me free! I was diagnosed pretty late at age 31.

After getting sober 3.5 years ago, I started acting more like my ‘true self’, while rejecting the social pressure of drinking, drugs and other mainstream behaviour. This caused many of my personal and professional relationships to reject me, as I was no longer the version of myself that they were familiar with and not accept or understand the ‘real’ version. Confused, I started to wonder if the reason for the ambiguity and hostility was that I may be “on the spectrum”.

I pursued a diagnosis for myself after enduring a couple of years in sobriety being unfairly dismissed from tattoo studios, bullied by close friends and manipulated/ghosted by romantic partners. I managed to fly under the radar for 3 decades; but I mainly put this down to my ability to mask incredibly well from a very young age. Another reason is that the modern criteria for diagnosing Autism is mostly built from psychological research from the eighties and nineties, observing male behaviour and not female. Since then, there have been only a few limited examples of the full Autism spectrum in society; leading to some damaging misrepresentations of autistic people in public domain (media, books, film etc).

Although I pursued the diagnosis myself, when I got the confirmation I still didn’t believe it, I even said myself “surely not?! I’m really bad at math!” Once I came to terms with and processed the diagnosis, I began to see everything from the correct perspective and the almost constant confusion made more sense. It allowed me to forgive myself and understand myself more deeply. I had to get to know myself all over again!

As I’ve learnt to show up more authentically as my real, autistic self, I’m able to relax and open up to the rest of the world more joyfully and passionately! I’m happy to say that I have no shame about who I really am anymore, and I have no need to hide the way I used to before. Connecting with other autistic people and joining communities online has made me feel welcome, seen and understood.

I am extremely hyper-aware, hyper-focused and hypersensitive – when I respect and take care of myself, these abilities feel like superpowers! I feel and experience life more intensely, and everything feels more complex, delicious, surprising and fulfilling. I wouldn’t trade that for the world; I’ve traded so much already to be able to live the life I do now.

I’m happy to say that my journey has inspired many others to pursue their own diagnosis too.

What do you wish more people knew about Autism?

I wish more people knew that the level of empathy expressed by autistic people rarely matches up with the level of empathy we actually feel. We have a tremendous capacity for empathy, which is often hundreds of times more intense than neurotypical people. Instead of lacking empathy, we may simply lack the correct social skills to be able to express it appropriately in that moment in that particular social setting. We could also be so overwhelmed with emotion and sensory input, that we are unable to process a suitable response straight away. This can lead to us going quiet, changing the subject or shutting down; we appear indifferent, avoidant, uninterested or apathetic. When we are somewhere more safe and familiar to us, we may suffer a meltdown/overload in private and require time and energy to recover. We may also express the correct emotional response hours/days/weeks afterwards, when we’ve had more time and energy to process the event/news/social interaction fully.

We don’t want to make everything “all about us”. We just want to be included, thought of, taken care of, considered, respected and loved. Our needs aren’t special, they’re the same: they might just need to be met a little differently.

How does being Autistic affect your daily life? How does Autism affect art?

Being autistic takes up a lot of my time each day. I require lots of time alone to recharge and decompress from the massive energy drain and daily confusion of the outside world and other people. Also, I’m fantastic at masking – I have used this as an essential coping strategy and means of survival from childhood, and have used it to become the successful, self sufficient woman that I appear to be today! This takes up a huge amount of energy and can require days to recover from. Functioning every day as an autistic person means that I thrive in my own world, but struggle in the ‘real world’.

Social situations, for me, feel like being really bad at playing the videogame “Guitar Hero”, while everyone else around me seems to be really good at it! I have to work really hard to preload conversation topics and replies, think of potential subcategories of topics, premeditate difficult conversations and visualise how the day will pan out and what it will look like. I have to reprocess almost every thought and response that comes into my head when conversing with people; so that I can avoid over-explaining, oversharing or sounding too literal or blunt. This takes up a tremendous amount of brainpower, and partnered with tattooing for long hours, it can be incredibly draining and overloading.

My Autism is still considered “High-Functioning” and “mild”, despite the huge amount of daily work and self care required, and the level of support and assistance I need as an autistic person with an invisible chronic illness (both of which are classed as disabilities).

Autism can also be a sense of sentimentality towards things that make us feel uplifted, calm or safe – this can look like special interests, routines, time alone and stimming. Being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world is extremely traumatising for people on the spectrum – I myself suffer from long term PTSD as a result of decades of (both personal and professional) bullying, ableism, harassment, abuse and rejection. This was mostly down to a lack of awareness and understanding of autism by others and a lack of awareness and understanding in myself. Lots of autistic people struggle with trusting others and being relaxed about the idea of new people and new situations. This can come from years of trauma, and a resulting confirmation bias that unfamiliar = unsafe.

Basically, Autism can feel like being really awake (hyperaware) and exhausted (overloaded & burnt out) at the same time. I have a lifelong condition called Fibromyalgia, which I was diagnosed with a year ago. It’s a chronic illness which has been caused by complex trauma and long term stress, and has over 200 symptoms. As long as I am mindful of the situations and interactions I engage in, and the way I structure my days, I am able to create amazing artwork on people I feel I am able to creatively work together and connect with. Tattoo art and colour schemes are two of my special interests and hyper-fixations; which makes for an incredibly rich sensory experience when I’m designing/creating tattoos. I am at my happiest when I’m creating rad tattoos on rad people, in a chilled out way on a chilled out day! Feeling at my best allows me to create my best work.

Ahsoka Tano illustration by Lala Inky #LalaInky #AhsokaTano #Mandalorian

What do you think tattoo shops or artists could do better to more fully embrace the broad spectrum of clients with Autism?

I opened a private, appointment only studio 3 months before my autism diagnosis. I had been tattooing for 7 years and just celebrated 1 year sobriety. I was burnt out and exhausted, sick of mainstream tattoo studio and “tattoo industry” behaviour: heavy alcohol/drug abuse, uncleanliness, crime, bullying, misogyny, sexual harassment, racism, sexism and ableism and overworking . Self harm was praised over self care, and there were little to no professional or personal boundaries.

I decided to build my first private studio inside the gym which provided my physio at the time. I was able to exercise and prepare myself before tattoo appointments, and clean and operate the studio to the level of hygiene that I wanted for myself and my clients. I was able to adapt the room to suit my needs, and play music that was more familiar, soothing or to the taste of the client. I used much quieter tattoo machines, and made an appointment preamble that I would be sent out with each booking: including information on how to get to the studio, what to expect, what to avoid, how to look after yourself and a few handy tips for before, during and after the appointment.

I adapted the room to be more comfortable for the client, as if I were making each appointment one that I would really enjoy having myself. I installed heated seats, aromatherapy and adjustable lighting. In doing this many clients reported feeling more relaxed, safe and comfortable during their private session in a room that was shut off from the rest of the world. The biggest thing I noticed was that the nervous, excited and overwhelming sensation that tattoo clients experienced wasn’t at all dissimilar from Autism. In catering to their anxiety about the appointment and process, I inadvertently made it a generally more comfortable sensory experience for everyone.

A private tattoo room or separated tattoo area with adjustable lighting, music and aromatherapy can really make a huge difference. In the same way that installing a ramp next to some stairs in a public park does not restrict non-wheelchair users, but it does make a world of difference to the people that do use a wheelchair, we can adjust the environment to include more types of people without excluding anyone. We can offer a more relaxed sensory experience to clients which will make the world of difference for autistic clients and tattoo artists, and improve the general tattoo experience of neurotypical clients. I decided to take on a slightly bigger premises closer to home last year, and will continue to find ways of enhancing the experience of tattooing and getting tattooed when I return to work.

How do tattoos and Autism go hand in hand?

Tattoos are often immortalised special interests – people permanently decorate their bodies with their favourite movies/game/book characters, favourite quotes or song lyrics. This intense joy and nerdiness is at the core of what makes Autism feel so amazing! Our bodies are our homes, our very own world. We can decorate our bodies however we choose, by whichever artist(s) we choose. We can fill up our world up with what makes us happy, what we think is cool or funny, what we enjoy looking at and what we want to remember and celebrate. We can decorate and define ourselves regardless of what other people may think. It’s your world and no one else’s! It’s only here for a short time, so let’s do more fun things in our way, without worrying what others may think!

Interview with Yurt aka dudeles.for.days

Although relatively new to tattooing, Yurt, aka dudeles.for.days, has already gained notice for their charming illustrations, outspoken advocacy, and inclusive flash designs. In this interview, Yurt talks about how there is no specific "look" when it comes to Autism, as well as how people can be more accommodating for those who are on the spectrum.

How has your Autism diagnosis enhanced your life? What is it about Autism that you’d like to celebrate?

The diagnosis helped a LOT because whenever I brought up to my mum that I think I might be autistic she’d tell me not to be silly and that it was ridiculous I was thinking that way, but once I was diagnosed the people who did the assessing said they were shocked that I wasn’t assessed when I was very little so it was very validating. And once you have the diagnosis it explains a lot about yourself and why you are how you are.

Something I’d like to celebrate about autism is original thoughts and creative ideas because we think differently. Throughout high school people kept asking me if I was stoned and how I come up with some of the stuff I say, stories I tell or things I draw and I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know my behaviour was so odd or different to anyone else! Sheesh!

Another thing about autism that I’d like to celebrate is special interests, if you get an autistic person started on a special interest of theirs they can talk about it without stopping and I just think it’s really cool when people know so much about something and are excited to tell you about it!

Illustrative tattoo by Yurt aka Dudeles.for.days #yurt #dudelesfordays #illustrative #blackwork #heart #butt #smiley

What do you wish more people knew about Autism?

It doesn’t have a specific ‘look’ and also the terms ‘high functioning’ are pretty harmful as it diminishes any struggles those people may have with their autism, and the people who are on the other end being called ‘low functioning’ are being severely underestimated in what they can do and are basically being marked as unintelligent.

I have had a lot of people tell me that I "don’t look autistic" but don’t know that I can’t work a regular job because my autism can be so detrimental to me, I’m just good at ‘masking’ which means making myself appear more “normal” but that itself is extremely physically draining. And studios that I’ve been in haven't accepted that I can only do a few days because they don’t think my autism is “that bad”.

Illustrative tattoo by Yurt aka Dudeles.for.days #yurt #dudelesfordays #illustrative #color #flower #daisy #smile #cartoon #cute

How does being Autistic affect your daily life? How does Autism affect art?

Again with the masking at work, even as a tattoo artist, it’s so exhausting the when I get home (I live in a house with 3 other people) I can’t leave my room, I can’t eat properly and I can’t cook in the kitchen unless it’s completely empty from people because being at work, for however long it may be, is sensory overload for me.

But autism also helps me problem solve quickly as I’m able to think pretty logically and directly! I’m good at helping indecisive people make decisions based off logic (not myself.. but that’s besides the point pahaha)

I think that maybe my autism affects my art by allowing me to just draw more freely and come up with some really cool shit, I haven’t even really been posting my wacky stuff yet because it’s a lot of colour and people haven’t asked me for colour tattoos, but soon..(this is a warning, keep your peepers peeled) In terms of art in general I think autistic artists can bring out different perspectives and use interesting methods & materials in their art by doing what works for them rather than trying to pander to a specific audience.

Portrait of Jo aka latexvelma by Yurt aka #Yurt #dudelesfrdays

What do you think tattoo shops or artists could do better to more fully embrace the broad spectrum of clients with Autism?

Direction + directness is very helpful for autistic people, so I think rather than just at the end of the tattoo giving a quick once over *this is how to look after your tattoos* It's good to have a set list of aftercare as well as what to look out for if it isn’t healing well. Just being as clear and direct as you can throughout the whole process from the consultation to the aftercare is really going to help, inform them as much as you can on what to expect when they come in for the tattoo so that there's no surprises.

As mentioned before everyones autism is different so here’s some things to consider:

-People with hypermobility fidget and or stim a lot so you’ll have to be patient and take more time and care doing the tattoo but please don’t make them feel bad for moving about as it isn’t on purpose!

-Maybe tell people beforehand if your machine is very loud because some autistic people don’t do well with loud noises (they could bring sound mufflers or something if they’re told in advance)

-Some autisitc people are very specific with what they want so let them move the stencil as many times as they need to

-They might want to bring someone to sit and watch with them if they need assistance in day to day stuff

-Because of hypersensitivity it might hurt a lot more to them than it would to you so always encourage/reassure and ask if they need breaks!

-If they’re finding it hard to distract themselves you could always ask about their special interest if they have one!

Illustrative tattoo by Yurt aka Dudeles.for.days #yurt #dudelesfordays #illustrative #blackwork #sad #tear #face

How do tattoos and Autism go hand in hand?

Autism for me helps me keep my clients very organised, I have a whole spreadsheet detailing everything: the name, pronouns of the client, design, placement, size, how long I think it’ll take me to tattoo, deposit, still to pay, date, time, what goes to the studio- EVERYTHING!

I know a lot of people with autism that are interested in becoming tattoo artists and I think it's because you're kind of your own boss- even if you are working under someone else's roof; it's your designs, you get to plan everything and do things in a way that suit you best. Other jobs aren't so accommodating. Not saying that tattooing is the most accommodating either by any means, but it sure is a lot better than e.g. a retail job where you may be penalised for not doing things fas fast as your neurotypical coworkers or knowing how to do small talk. So the idea of being able to learn something that may even be your special interest that you could turn into your job is really good for us!
Another trait that goes hand in hand with tattooing is a lotta autistic people have the ability to not care what other people think about their appearance- as long as they themselves like it, because what use is it to us if someone doesn’t like how we look? So we have some of the coolest tattoos B) I meself have got 30+ so far! And this isn't even my final form.

Illustrative tattoo by Yurt aka Dudeles.for.days #yurt #dudelesfordays #illustrative #blackwork #snail #surreal #cute

Interview with Charl Davies

Globally known for her role in the MTV reality series "Just Tattoo of Us", Charl Davies is a fantastic tattooer who mainly focuses on Realism. She's been a vocal advocate for Autism for ages, and has inspired many people to be proud of who they are. In this interview, she speaks on the dangers of stereotypes and her hope for a tattoo convention that is more inclusive of those on the spectrum.

How has your Autism diagnosis enhanced your life? What is it about Autism that you’d like to celebrate?

I wasn't diagnosed until 25 after years of struggling to fit in and cope with everyday life. I was a total chaotic mess to put it bluntly! Before my diagnosis I frequently had autistic meltdowns, experienced hypersensitivity with most of my senses and also had episodes where I physically could not talk around other people especially in a group. I didn't know at the time that I was autistic and so I didn't know how to help myself but my biggest comfort and therapy was art. My diagnosis has given me the necessary tools to self-help, develop coping mechanisms, help others to understand and to raise awareness. I no longer feel like I have to hide my autistic traits in an effort to fit in, the right people will accept me for being my true authentic self and I'm more confident that I've ever been!

Autism is too often misunderstood and with that, we are stereotyped and viewed in a negative light. What I want people to know is that although autism may come with it's difficulties in a neurotypical world, in our own little worlds we thrive and I would definitely say it has made me the artist I am today. Autism is my superpower, I am proud to be who I am and it took a long time for me to accept myself as a person. Some of the most interesting people I have ever met are on the spectrum, we are all very unique and although we may not fit into society's little box of expectations and unwritten rules, we have plenty to offer when you look beyond our diagnosis. :)

What do you wish more people knew about Autism?

That autism has no 'look'. I find people often challenge my diagnosis because my exterior does not fit their perception of autism and often say "you don't look autistic". Autism is a neuro developmental disorder and means that my brain is wired differently, this does not affect my physical appearance. People are also quick to assume that all autistic people are of low intellect however, autistic people are mostly average intelligence or smarter.

Not all autistic people are anti-social, I love my friends I just find difficulty maintaining friendships and to cope with the social aspect I.e eating out, parties etc. I find social pressure so difficult that I'm even reluctant to sit at the table for Christmas Dinner every year because of social pressure even though my family are very understanding of me. Society in general also thinks that autistic people don't experience empathy, that it untrue. If anything, we are hypersensitive to the feelings of others, we just struggle with cognitive empathy, it hurts to see my family and friends in pain but I also cannot imagine how or why they feel the way they do sometimes. The only person I can truly be relaxed around is my mam.

How does being Autistic affect your daily life? How does Autism affect art?

I find that autism affects my ability to carry out tasks that we take for granted, sometimes just making a cup of tea can be a challenge depending on how my day is going because of how my brain processes these things. I struggle with executive function, thought processing and appropriating my erratic emotions.

I often find myself crying in my car after a food shop because of Sensory Processing Disorder, like getting overwhelmed by excess noise, and I find being around other people generally uncomfortable although I try my hardest to hide my discomfort. Autistic meltdowns are very emotionally painful and feel unbearable, almost like you are in a trance and are unable to control yourself; it's like you're no longer in charge of your own body.

Socialising is the hardest part of my job as a tattoo artist, it's like I have a pre-planned script of what I should say and then once I've said everything I find it very difficult to continue engaging with that person because I am so busy assessing and observing my surroundings and things like body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, it all becomes too distracting and lose the topic of conversation... this leads to me awkwardly have to ask people to repeat themselves or finding an excuse to leave the conversation entirely... It's very hard to read 'grey' areas which is something I think most people take for granted. I am very black and white and it can get me into trouble for saying the wrong thing if I'm not careful!

Autism affects every autistic person differently, and so their experience of how it influences their art is unique to them as it is to most artists. To me I am far more fascinated with the technical aspect af the medium in which I'm using rather than the outcome itself. I'm a perfectionist which I think is a great quality to have in tattooing and I lose myself in my work entirely for hours on end because to me, art it much more than putting pen to paper. It has always been therapeutic to me and it is also a form of escapism from the pressure of reality. Art for me is like escaping into the comforts of my imagination where there are no pressures, it's just me and my creativity.

Painting by Charl Davies #CharlDavies #painting #portrait

What do you think tattoo shops or artists could do better to more fully embrace the broad spectrum of clients with Autism?

I would absolutely LOVE to attend a tattoo convention but I just don't think I would be able to cope because of my Sensory Processing. So an autism-friendly convention would be fantastic for someone like myself so we can feel more inclusive within the industry.

I think reducing noise level alone would be beneficial in studios and just to be mindful of autism. For me, walking into a busy place without any expectation can be very scary, so seeing the place before hand would make things easier. Also just to be very clear and thorough when speaking and explaining things.

How do tattoos and Autism go hand in hand?

Sometimes, they don't! The social aspect of my work life is the hardest part, but when my customers get to know me I am much more at ease and my work is only positively influenced by my autism. Being my own boss and having more control is less pressure and I get to do what I love everyday which is to tattoo without limited creativity and I don't think I could have chosen a better job to suit my autism. I dont have to worry about getting fired if I can't make it into work sometimes so theres less pressure. Being a tattoo artist is the best job in the world!!

Interview with Aubrey aka thespectrumartist

Aubrey, also known as thespectrumartist, has a knack for creating artwork that hints at the magic underneath the surface of everything. Aubrey not only focuses on scar cover up tattoos, including nipple reconstruction, but also focuses on working with the trans community. Here, Aubrey kindly opened up about how their art and Autism are inextricably linked.

How has your Autism diagnosis enhanced your life? What is it about Autism that you’d like to celebrate?

Discovering that I’m autistic and receiving the systemic validation of a diagnosis was one of the most liberatory turning points of my life! Being autistic and presumed neurotypical was like trying to build my life based around the survival needs of an entirely different species, at times. The cliche of having the wrong game instructions is always handy when trying to convey feelings of frustration, defeat and bewilderment. Like trying to play monopoly with go-fish instructions. Diagnosis allowed me to seek out the autistic, neurodivergent and neuroemergent communities to learn more about what my actual parameters for well-being and safety are.

Three of the autistic traits I celebrate most frequently are direct communication/honesty, the sensitivity of perception and emotion, and that autistic people resist assimilation into the status quo inherently.

What do you wish more people knew about Autism?

There are SO many things I wish people knew about autism. Foundationally, I want people to understand the difference between the medical and social models of disability. The medical model of disability is focused on the individual “medical impairments” that supposedly make up a person’s disability. These are treated like a static entity. While there are some conditions and illnesses that make more sense when interpreted under this lens, autism is not one of them.

The social model of disability looks at the ways in which society’s structure takes otherwise autonomous, functional, stable people and creates a disabled person. A fantastic example of this has emerged through the pandemic, with how many jobs have been made available remotely. Many people who experienced barriers in commuting or functioning in work environments that don’t support their accessibility needs were able to shine, by working remotely from home, and reporting feeling far less “disabled”.

So, what does all this mean about autism? I want people to know that it’s not an autistic person’s job to let themselves be disabled by the status quo. It is your job to ask us what about the status quo (systemically or interpersonally) is creating more disability in our lives, more barriers, and help us create new systems that allow us to flourish in our strengths.

Celestial cat tattoo by Aubrey aka thespectrumartist #aubrey #thespectrumartist #cat #galaxy #stars #colorful

How does being Autistic affect your daily life? How does Autism affect art?

Being autistic really impacts one’s battery cycles. This manifests differently for each autistic person, but it’s a fairly universal commonality. How quickly we expend energy, what it gets spent on, how it gets recharged, how long that recharge takes and how many cycles we have before we burn out impacts pretty much every aspect of life. For me, being aware that high sensory environments drain my battery faster, requiring very specific kinds of rest throughout the day, keeps me from getting into hot water (most of the time).

Autism and my art are totally entwined. I feel like I will spend my life exploring this concept, so it’s a struggle to condense something so broad, intricate and meaningful into a manageable response.

Autistic people tend to have a unique relationship to patterns, including visual. A significant portion of autistic people have a distinct relationship to color and light. This relationship can be a source of profound discomfort or pain, or the right combination could stimulate intense feelings of pleasure. Autistic people are always looking for ways to communicate non-verbally with the world, and to modify the world around them to be a more pleasurable sensory experience, two qualities that I think make fantastic artists.

I imagine that a lot of autistic artists also seek out creative processes that offer the artist a positive sensory experience, instead of being driven wholly by the promise of an end product or piece. There might be just as much art in the creation of a piece as there is in the outcome.

Autism can also create challenges for artists, beyond the discussions of executive function or possible disability struggles. Autistics are not meant to be “well rounded” in their skills, and the requirement of most artists to also be entrepreneurs, networkers, social media marketers, have social capital, and be digital whizzes is a distinct barrier to many autistic artists. We are beings meant to excel and flourish in our areas of strength, and in an ideal world this would mean we would be able to deep dive into our creative endeavors without having to be such multi-taskers. Autistics that have spent their lives masking as a requirement of survival may have a harder time finding their unique style or voice artistically and may tend to lean on their over-utilized skills of mimicry.

Candy heart tattoo by Aubrey aka thespectrumartist #aubrey #thespectrumartist #heart #candyheart #realtalk #sparkle #glitter #pink #blue

What do you think tattoo shops or artists could do better to more fully embrace the broad spectrum of clients with Autism?

First and foremost, we need to scrap the tattoo shop model where all clients and artists share one giant room. This is a sensory nightmare for neurodivergent folks. The last thing we need when we are getting tattooed (especially for those of us who are touch avoidant and sensory avoidant) are the overheard conversations of everyone else, whatever shop music is playing, the sound of walk-ins and consultations, the feeling of being on display, etc. In my experience, the vast majority of autistics are more comfortable in a private studio setting where the only people present in the room are the artist, themselves and perhaps one other support person. They get to determine the music/entertainment, access sensory supports without feeling observed and judged, and focus on sitting well for the tattoo instead of needing to stim through an overwhelming experience.

Set up your tattoo space or shop so that someone doesn’t need to disclose their neurological or disability status to you in order to feel able to advocate for their unique needs. You will never be able to anticipate everyone, but you can send a clear message that this experience is a collaboration and that their input is welcome.

How do tattoos and Autism go hand in hand?

I guess it depends whether we are talking about as a client or an artist! 
Getting a tattoo as an autistic person makes SO much sense to me. Not all autistic folks are sensory-avoidant all or most of the time, so when a spectrum person is in a sensory-seeking place, tattoos can be incredibly satisfying. Since autistics sometimes engage in self-injurious or painful stims to regulate their sensory experience, tattoos totally fall under that umbrella. Neurotypicals and autistics alike can agree that alchemizing or processing an intense emotional experience with an intense physical one can be very liberating. 
Auties tend to be highly aesthetic, and tattoos are a fabulous way to add color, shape, form, and other pleasing aspects of aesthetics into daily life, without having to burden the wearer with constant wardrobe choices or unpleasant sensory fashion experiences. Once the pro
Autistic and queer folks share a love of flagging their identities to other members of their communities through non-verbal cues, and this often spills out into our aesthetics and fashion choices. Tattoos can convey a lot about a person without having to speak or out ourselves in an unsafe situation. I know I’ve found a member of my community when they notice and compliment my “flagging” tattoos, and they know that I know. That connection can be incredibly comforting in situations with new people. 
Plus, auties tend to love collecting things, but we also get overwhelmed by our environments if there are too many “things” in them and struggle to manage our sensory lives in those conditions. Tattoos are a really fun thing to collect, you get to show them off to EVERYONE, and they don’t make your space inaccessible for folks who struggle with clutter and organization.

Auties make unique tattoo artists! We are highly empathetic, especially to non-verbal communication, which can be so helpful when working with a client’s body. Our unique relationships to light, color and form allow us to approach tattoos in new, unusual ways. Most tattoo shops, spaces and collectives are designed with the able-bodied, white, straight, sane and neurotypical bodies. Theres a real need for offerings that de-center the dominant experience, and center marginalized bodies. Our experiences of “otherness”, disability and/or oppression give us an opportunity to shape our tattoo practices around inclusion and accessibility.

Tattoo by Aubrey aka thespectrumartist #aubrey #thespectrumartist #galaxy #symbol #stars #watercolor

Interview with James Sinclair

Journalist, spokesperson, and author, James Sinclair is a passionate advocate for Autism Awareness. His website, Autistic and Unapologetic, explores many different topics ranging from beloved cartoon characters, marriage, and even advice for those on the spectrum in finding employment. Here, James talks about why someone with Autism will never fall out of love with their tattoos.

How has your Autism diagnosis enhanced your life? What is it about Autism that you’d like to celebrate?

I’ve always been autistic and seen through the perspective of an autistic person, so it’s hard to say what it is about being autistic that I would miss if I wasn’t. With that said though, I like that the way I see the world is so different from the people I speak to, especially those I regularly see.

For example, I can share an experience with friends, like going to a gig, and while the average mind is exceptional at tying everything together and seeing a scenario play out as a whole, the autistic one loves to break everything apart and focus on the little bits. This means that, when everyone is talking about how great one particular song may have been, I could be really pumped from a split moment in which a band member might have interacted with a photographer in a certain way that I see chemistry in - and that makes me think of how everyone involved in the show loves what they are doing and that energy becomes really infectious.

I don’t know if that will make too much sense because, like I said, it’s all to do with how we personally view things, but I feel that comparatively I get to have my own unique relationship with the world and it often feels like one that lets me hone in on its best bits.

James Sinclair aka autisticandunapologetic #JamesSinclair #autisticandunapologetic

What do you wish more people knew about Autism?

So many things. I really wish that people were more aware of just how big the spectrum is, but the biggest challenge when it comes to helping people understand autism is that most people will only spare a little bit of their attention to listening.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course (as we can’t all give our concentration to understanding everything about everything), but sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that, if we’re not looking for more, then there isn’t anything to find.

This is even tougher if someone isn’t interested in the first place as, at that point, most will simply switch themselves off to learning more. I mean, I really didn’t like Game of Thrones and that meant that no matter what, when someone was trying to tell me about its ‘depth’ and ‘character development’, I didn’t care - because all I saw was an 8 season slog about a bunch of families, getting naked and saying ‘winter is coming’. Similarly, people have their own ideas of what autism is and they struggle to see more than a caricature they have concocted in their head – which is usually a young, white boy who struggles at school. 
This is a shame because autism is so diverse in gender, ethnicity, sexuality and age and it can be quite damaging to someone’s identity if you are viewed like you don’t exist. So, while I understand that a wish for a better awareness of diversity on the spectrum would never be granted, I do wish that people would be open to knowing that there is more than the image they may currently be thinking of.

Editorial by James Sinclair aka autisticandunapologetic #JamesSinclair #autisticandunapologetic

How does being Autistic affect your daily life? How does Autism affect art?

My autism is very routine-based, not so much that I have to do things in the exact same way, but that I expect the world around me to behave in the exact same way. When it inevitably doesn’t, I can become incredibly stressed which is why, for myself and the other autistic people who have these challenges, we can often learn to protect ourselves by overthinking and trying to read every possible scenario before it happens. This helps us try and make sense of all the world’s constant uncertainty, and it can even be used to help us make our way through conversations (which are also a cause for high anxiety due to their unpredictable nature).

I think this ability to overthink and analyse definitely impacts the way we relate to art, as we can either see it as a puzzle to be solved or we will apply needless levels of depth where it might not exist. 
This is great though, because it often feels like we have an appreciation for things which others don’t and, for the artists, I think it can be really rewarding as we give a new life to their works in ways which they might not have intended.

Editorial by James Sinclair aka autisticandunapologetic #JamesSinclair #autisticandunapologetic

What do you think tattoo shops or artists could do better to more fully embrace the broad spectrum of clients with Autism?

It’s often said that ‘Autistic people can struggle to see the big picture’, but I would argue that we see it better than most: noticing every individual aspect that goes into an experience and giving each part equal weighting.

I think for most autistic people, that makes the tattoo experience not just about going in and getting a design, but about everything that happens from the first consolation to the aftercare. Having shops and artists nurture this whole process would really go a long way to make us see the final product not just as good, but it would also better allow us to remember it in a great light too (which is arguably more important).

I’ve got the Tiananmen Square Tank Man on my ribs and, while I originally liked the concept because I thought it would remind me to stand up for what I believe in, I now love it because I can still feel the enthusiasm the whole shop had for it when I came up with the idea. Similarly, I’ve got a German postcard on my arm, which was supposed to remind me of my time living there but, instead, it reminds me of how, when I got to the shop an hour early, I wasn’t just ignored whilst they got on with other stuff (which they totally would have been in the right to do), but instead that all the team started speaking in English so I could be part of their conversations whilst they set up.

Of course, whilst this may also mean that many autistic people will want to be so involved with every aspect of the process to the point that we may seem controlling/obsessive, it’s also worth keeping in mind that we are respectful, yet totally oblivious to our faux pas. So, being honest in return and openly telling autistic clients when you need space or just want to be trusted is encouraged (and much better than if you suddenly slump away and give us the cold shoulder).

So, yeah, while a tattoo is a big thing for a lot of people, I would say that it’s the small things around that big moment that should really be focused on to make the ideal situation for autistic people.

Editorial by James Sinclair aka autisticandunapologetic #JamesSinclair #autisticandunapologetic

How do tattoos and Autism go hand in hand?

I’ve joked before that autistic people like tattoos because we are so literal – so a tattoo is like the most literal translation of something we love or something we feel, but really I imagine it’s as varied as it is for everyone else: It could be that we respect the art form and want to experience it first hand or it could be that it’s just something on our bucket list that we want to try out.

With that said though, I do think that one way that autism and tattoos go hand-in-hand is how adverse our community is to change – so, it’s very rare you’ll meet someone on the spectrum who has fallen out of love with their ink or how permanent it is.

Editorial by James Sinclair aka autisticandunapologetic #JamesSinclair #autisticandunapologetic

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

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