Saturday, 9 July 2022

Access Rider in action!

 Earlier this week I gave a keynote presentation to the UK Acoustics Network‘s Annual Meeting. My topic was Aural Diversity and I took the opportunity to showcase the infographic that I have created that attempts to describe the entire field. Aural Diversity, rather like neurodiversity, draws attention to the wide range of differences in hearing between people (and animals, and machines). Everybody hears differently, something that is a neglected aspect of many disciplines, not just acoustics. The general assumption is that people possess a pair of equally balanced and perfectly healthy ears. The reality is that only about 17% of the population (the group of healthy 18-25 year olds) possess those. Everybody else has some kind of distinctive difference. Neurodivergence, and specifically autism, is included on the infographic.


The UKAN event involved me staying two nights in a hotel in Manchester, where the conference was to take place. This was the first time I had been away from home since the start of the pandemic. Consequently, it was also the first opportunity to try out my Access Rider. I was first asked to produce an Access Rider in 2021 by The Space, when they commissioned my Spectrum Sounds. I was assisted in its preparation by the wonderful people at Unlimited. It was a very interesting exercise, getting me to focus on my needs and find ways to express those so that others could understand. I would greatly recommend to others that they prepare Access Riders too, especially if they work in areas that frequently involve venues and audiences. Unlimited have created this excellent guide to help you.


I sent mine to the UKAN team well in advance, and they took it very seriously. It was really gratifying to find so much of what bothers me taken care of in advance. It made me feel welcome but also, rather like with disability assistance in airports, it made the whole experience much easier to manage. Special thanks go to Zoë Hunter, who made sure I was looked after and also spent quite a lot of time listening to me ramble on! Well beyond the call of duty.


The emergency contacts were well noted, but fortunately were not necessary. I was nowhere near a crisis at any point, which is a credit to the organisation. The Hyatt Regency Manchester, having been made aware of my needs, not only put me in a wonderfully quiet room which smelt of nothing, but also provided a separate lunch for me in, appropriately enough, the Turing Room. This meant I could avoid the noise and bustle of the restaurant, which was great. The lighting was appropriate, there was no pressure on me to interact any more than I wanted to, and I was able to avoid looking at the rather hideous carpet design most of the time.


There were a couple of specific things worth reporting. Like most hotels, there was a regular fire alarm test every week. This hotel did theirs on a Monday at 11.00. Fortunately, this was advertised clearly in the lobby and the lifts. My session was due to end at 11 on the Monday. With prior agreement, I was able to leave the building five minutes before the hour. Everybody took this in very good humour, and there was no problem. People asked me questions later. And I avoided the alarm, which would otherwise have stolen at least two spoons for the day.


At the end of my talk (which was the first in the day) the audience applauded. On my access rider, I had asked for no applause. The chair of the session was most concerned and apologised profusely. In fact, I was fine: the carpet and soft furnishings absorbed most of the sound, and the applause was brief anyway. But it could have been a problem on another occasion. So I took the opportunity to explain to the acousticians what the problem was. I explained that I much prefer “flappy hands”. They seized on this with pleasure and for the rest of the day there was no applause, only hands waving. I guess people are more familiar with this thanks to Strictly Come Dancing, but it was deeply appreciated and did much to ensure that I ended the day in good humour and with a decent amount of energy remaining.


To summarise: do use Access Riders! They really work! And thanks so much to UKAN for paying such close attention to mine. 


Wednesday, 18 May 2022

Equality, Diversity and the REF

The REF2021 results have just been published. The REF (Research Excellence Framework) is an assessment exercise that rates the quality of research across the whole of higher education in the UK, institution by institution, discipline by discipline, and even person by person (although that personal information is hidden in the published results and has to be decoded). There is a lot riding on this exercise. The better your research is deemed to be, the more funding your university receives and the higher up the academic league tables you go. The results are given here https://results2021.ref.ac.uk 


Apart from the academic review panels, there is also an Equality and Diversity Advisory panel, whose remit may be viewed here https://ref.ac.uk/equality-and-diversity/ They focus mostly on: “the environment for supporting research and enabling impact within each submitting unit”. (Environment accounts for 15% of the overall outcome awarded to each submission and is assessed against two criteria: vitality and sustainability). Their report makes interesting reading. As James Coe points out, the following passage gives pause for thought (my italics):


“Although the EDAP’s review of institutional and unit environment statements revealed much good, and some excellent, practice across the sector, it also showed that this was far from widespread. Although many institutions had successfully implemented several gender-related initiatives, there was much less attention given to other protected groups. The panel therefore had little confidence that the majority of institutional research environments would be sufficiently mature in terms of support for ED within the next few years to totally dispense with a circumstances process”.


This reflects my own experience of ED in Higher Education. Despite the best efforts of disability groups and individuals (such as myself) in universities, disability remains the poor cousin of gender and ethnic diversity. “Equality” is normally code for gender equality, and “diversity” is normally code for ethnic or racial diversity. The various other protected characteristics (disability, religious beliefs, age, marital status and maternity) tend to get added as an afterthought at best. 


So it is really alarming to see only gender being seriously considered as part of the research environment at most institutions. Given that disability is defined (horribly!) under the Equality Act of 2010 as “a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities” and given that there are 14.6 million disabled people in the UK (according to the charity Scope) it seems quite absurd that such little account should be taken of its consequences for academic researchers. 


To be more specific, I have an admittedly unscientific suspicion that the actual numbers of autistic academics greatly exceeds the reported numbers. I am certainly aware of many colleagues who I imagine are autistic but who have not been professionally or personally identified as such. Given the extent to which autism can affect one’s interactions with the environment, it seems likely that this is a significant factor in the performance of such researchers, whether for good or ill. An exercise such as the REF really needs to take account of this. After all, we try to do the same for our students, so why not for the staff?


Sunday, 17 April 2022

Ageing autistically


This is a tricky topic to write about, because from my autistic viewpoint I cannot see what my nearest and dearest can see, so I am relying a lot on feedback from my wife for these comments. People often remark on how young I look, given that I am 65 this year. I’ve heard it said quite often that autistic people tend to look younger than they actually are. I don’t know if that is really true, but what I can say is that time passes at the same rate for everybody.


My experience of autism has been all about fitting into the neurotypical world as best I can. I’ve found a job in academia which I can do well (I couldn’t do anything else, I think) and I go to work vigorously, whether travelling to campus or working from home. I have routines which I follow relentlessly every day. These routines drive me forwards. I walk briskly. I work in bursts of highly focussed energy, usually petering out by early evening as the spoons run dry. I achieve a lot: teaching, books, articles, papers, compositions, consultancies, advocacy, strategic initiatives, administration, leadership, committees, etc.  The list goes on. I joke that I am semi-retired and part-time, but that is meaningless because “the university” requires me to do a full time job. That is only partly true. The full truth is that, even if the university did not make such demands on me, I would still work to the same level. That is the internal drive created by my autism. It’s what gets me up in the mornings.*


For the benefit of neurotypical people reading this, I should try to explain that this is quite different to just being hardworking or ambitious. Even on days off (e.g. Sundays) I will construct a routine to fill my diary. An empty diary page may induce anxiety, even panic. My self-imposed schedule is really a form of stimming, designed to calm me and give structure to my existence. The world is such a challenging place, that this provides a sense of purposeful forward motion. It’s almost like aesthetics: what Kant called “purposiveness without purpose”. The mind’s absorption into this activity is the highly focussed state that people call “flow”. In other words, I can make my daily life an autistic “special interest”.


But a problem is emerging. There is a certain reality that is now overtaking me, to do with changes in my body. As bits of it stop working properly (the process really started in 2009 when I was diagnosed with Ménière’s) I can understand that this is just the natural aging process at work. I simply do not have the energy that I used to have. The problem is that adjusting to this new reality involves changes in routines.


My autistic brain will make no allowances for these changes. I know that it should, but I just cannot make it cooperate. So I continue to drive forwards as though there has been no change. This drive fills both my waking and, as far as I can tell, my sleeping hours too.  There is no let-up in the need to structure and organise things. I’m afraid it is quite a cliché: the autistic urge to hyper-systematise everything. I do not know how to be any different to the way I have always been. 


My body is an inconvenient necessity that challenges me every day. My mind, on the other hand, continues to seek and learn, delighting in everything it discovers and creates. I am told there is danger in this scenario. My alexithymia** makes it difficult for me to know what I am feeling, and my interoceptive differences*** mean I cannot always tell what is going on internally. It seems there is a potential collision course emerging between my physical need to slow down and my mental need to keep going.


___


*  I have had some periods in my life when the above was not true and I fell into lassitude. Looking back on those times - many decades ago - it is really a miracle that I survived at all. I became very poor and aimless. Even suicide was thought about. So, the present version is much more sustainable.


** Alexithymia is the inability to identify one’s own emotions.


*** Interoception is the ability to perceive what is happening inside one’s body. Many autistic people, myself included, experience difficulties with this sense.



Monday, 20 December 2021

Navigating awkward situations

Christmas is coming, that time of year when social interaction is not just encouraged but required. From an autistic point of view, it is challenging, as I have mentioned before.

I’ve been reflecting recently on the strategies I use to navigate awkward situations. These situations mainly occur at work. In general, I can manage them because there are rules of engagement for academics, such as disagreeing without it becoming personal (“disputation”, as it was once called). However, those rules do get broken and sometimes situations become highly charged and even personal too. 

I have three approaches to any interaction: silence, scripting, or casual. 


Silence occurs when I find myself confronted by complete unpredictability (for example being approached by a stranger, or too many people all at once). In such situations, I can get quickly overwhelmed. It is mostly involuntary. I don't choose to be silent - silence chooses me.


Scripting involves anticipating every likely path a meeting might take and being ready with a response. It’s like branching literature, or computer code. I find myself “reading” the dialogue in my mind as if it were written on the pages of a book, complete with “he said/she said”s. I was talking to a colleague the other day, who commented that I seemed to have anticipated every possible way in which the conversation could go. This was scripting in action. 


Casual interaction can only happen if it follows the pattern of something I have experienced before. Since I am now of fairly advanced years, many situations fall into this category. Even so, things can quickly shake me out of casual mode. Sometimes just the question “how are you?” leaves me floored, especially if I don’t know the person I am speaking to. I never really know how I am. I also know that people who ask that question do not really want to know how I am. It’s a minefield!


Whichever mode I adopt, there is always a possibility that a situation could take an unexpected turn. This can be very difficult to deal with. To try to manage these more awkward situations I have spent a lot of time over the years studying strategies. I read books of theory so that I can at least give the appearance of understanding what is going on. I can’t pretend that this approach is always successful, but I do try hard. Let me give two examples.


Back in the 1980s, Gavin Kennedy wrote a terrific book called Everything Is Negotiable, subtitled “how to negotiate and win”. I have not used it much for getting deals, as it intends, but I have deployed some of its principles in other situations. For example, there is a technique called “the Lazarus shuffle” in which you refer to someone who is not present in order to apply leverage. I have used that many times and it is often successful. The advantage of an absent authoritative figure is that they cannot easily be challenged. At the very least, you can achieve a delayed resolution with this technique.


Another idea I have studied and used many times is Bruce Tuckman’s theory of group formation, which basically goes: forming, storming, norming, performing. I am currently experiencing this scenario in an academic setting and, once again, it is proving to be incredibly accurate. It really helps my autism to be able to analyse the situation when we reach the “storming” phase. That way, I can avoid getting too distressed by the fraught social interactions taking place. It fulfils a similar function to being able to see photographs of a place before I visit, rendering it more predictably familiar and so reducing anxiety.


Now, of course, anybody could use these kinds of theories.There’s nothing particularly special about the fact that I do this. However, I think it is the rigour and consistency with which I apply them that is the autistic part. It is my attention to detail and awareness of how interactions conform to these patterns that sets me apart. I see similarities with chess: being able to anticipate moves and combinations of moves and being able to respond accordingly. Without some kind of “manual” of neurotypical behaviour like this, I would be completely lost.


Tuesday, 26 October 2021

Some more thoughts about music

Last year I wrote a post about music in which I described how my listening has been affected by my autism. I recently composed a new set of seven pieces in response to a commission from the BBC, called 'Spectrum Sounds'. These were my first compositions about my autism, rather than just a product of it. Now that the pieces have been broadcast on Radio 3 and published on the BBCR&D's innovative 'Audio Orchestrator' platform, I have had an opportunity to reflect on what I have learned as an autistic composer. There are three main takeaways: the persistence of synaesthesia; the differences between collaborating with autistic musicians and non-autistic musicians; and a question: who is this music for?

Before discussing these, I should note that the "spectrum" in the title is the colour spectrum rather than the autistic spectrum, although there are obvious echoes of the latter. The pieces were also very much about my hearing loss (thanks to Ménière's), but I will not focus on that aspect in this blog post. However, it is worth noting that each piece is only a few minutes long because I find it difficult to listen for longer than that. Each piece is associated with a colour from the spectrum and features a different musician.

The persistence of synaesthesia

During the composition of the yellow piece, I had a sudden moment of memory that I had done this before. I went rummaging in a cupboard and found an old score that I had written in my teens, entitled 'A World in Yellow'. This was for the unlikely combination of four harmoniums and voice, which more or less guaranteed it would never be performed. When I looked at the score, I found my head flooded with yellow once again, just as vividly as it must have done all those decades ago.

This showed me an interesting facet of synaesthesia (which is a confusion of the senses): its persistence. In my case, certain associations between certain colours and certain sounds formed in my youth and have never left me. An open E string on the violin is strongly red, for example, and a high F sharp on a trumpet is blue. As you can tell, I did try to grapple with this during my formative years, but eventually gave up trying because it was so unscientific, arbitrary and apparently pointless to do so. 

I'm not the only composer to have been synaesthetic. Amy Beach, Alexander Scriabin, and Olivier Messiaen are all famous examples and there have been many more. Those people were often quite systematic about their synaesthesia, whereas mine has always been a bit rough and ready by comparison. But it is no less intense for that. It also affects taste and smell to some extent. I can remember avoiding the Bakerloo line when I lived in London because the brown colour on the tube map gave me sensation that combined with the smell of bakelite (the word was obviously the source of this association) and a disgusting taste that made the whole idea of stepping on to that line revolting. Now, I could have overcome this if I really wanted to, but it was easier just to avoid the whole thing.

During my musical career, I have listened past the synaesthesia in a similar way, trying to ignore the colour sensations I was getting when listening. It has been refreshing to revisit this aspect of myself and give it renewed consideration. 

Autistic vs. non-autistic musicians

All six of the musicians I worked with were wonderful (the green piece was played by myself - green has always been my favourite colour). On a musical level, they were equally rewarding to work with. Three are autistic, and two have severe to profound hearing loss, while one is not autistic and has "normal" hearing. Some musicians needed a musical score to play, while at the other extreme one did not read music at all and worked from written verbal instructions. In some cases there was more of a compositional aspect to the collaboration than others, for example, two of the musicians worked on producing their own sounds in response to my instructions, which I then reworked to make the finished piece.

The things I noticed about the autistic musicians as opposed to the neurotypical musicians were the very rapid understanding and the mostly non-verbal nature of the communication. We would talk very little, and yet these musicians would quickly produce something that matched my intentions. I find this fascinating and observe that it mirrors my experience of everyday interactions. In general, I seem to get an instant communication with other autistic people, whereas with neurotypicals it can be difficult, even impossible, to achieve a rapport.

I was in a meeting recently during which the mother of a non-verbal autistic son told me that my brain works exactly the same as his. This confirmed something I have long suspected, that the autistic "wiring" exists independently of standard communication methods and carries a deep level of mutual understanding.

Who is this music for?

This is a hardy perennial question for composers, and can lead to some creatively inhibiting internal arguments if you dwell on it too much. But in this case, it really did get me thinking. Several years ago, I submitted some of my compositions that dealt with my hearing issues to a journal which publishes artworks as well as academic papers. They rejected it, and in explaining the reasons the editor wrote to me as follows:

>>I would suggest to look at [the reviewers'] opinions not as resulting from some form of deficit but from a genuine position where they couldn’t see or hear what you are seeing or hearing - what’s clear to you isn’t translating well enough, and this is where some of the necessary work of articulation might lie.<<

This really sums up the problem. If you write for and about yourself, there is of course no guarantee that people will understand what emerges. I assign each piece a colour of the spectrum, but of course the vast majority of listeners will not experience those colours, and even those who are synaesthetes will not necessarily have the same associations as me. 

This is really the autistic condition. We are permanently in the situation of seeing or hearing things which others do not, and finding it challenging to communicate those perceptions. Furthermore, this cuts both ways: the rest of the world does not communicate itself well to us either! This editor made the rather ableist assertion that the problem lies with me. I can resist that as much as I like, but when it comes to writing music which I hope others will enjoy, then it remains a problem. The 'Spectrum Sounds' pieces are as authentically me as it is possible to get, something that is not true of all my compositions. As such, the pieces still stand and I hope will find an audience anyway.

Sunday, 5 September 2021

My thoughts on Spectrum 10k.

It’s been a busy few weeks, what with the first Aural Diversity workshop and the broadcast of my ‘Spectrum Sounds’ pieces by the BBC (you can hear three of them at https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000zch2 starting at 42' 06"). I’ve been aware of the Spectrum10K controversy, of course, but decided to pay it no attention until these significant events were in the past. So I have only now had a chance to sit down and take a proper look at the proposition. 

Spoiler alert! I won’t be taking part. 

I should state from the outset that I am strongly in favour of science (I am an academic at a university after all) and I am by no means against genetic research. In fact, I can really see the potential for genetics to treat Meniere’s, for example. I don't believe in conspiracy theories and I am not easily swayed by majority opinions. I’m quite happy to be anomalous if necessary. Having said that, I am not naive about science either. Just because something is scientific doesn’t necessarily make it good. Let’s not forget that it was “The Lancet”, no less, that published that awful paper linking autism with vaccines (I wont put the name of the scientist in print). Some of the most wrong-headed, poor quality and destructive ideas have been promulgated under the guise of scientific research. That doesn’t make science a bad thing. It just means we have to improve our quality mechanisms. 

I am also very familiar with evaluating scientific proposals, having considered hundreds, even thousands, as part of my work for the EU and other scientific committees. I am not an autism researcher and I know little about genetics, but I still consider myself able to make a reasonably objective evaluation of the merits of any project. However, in this case I am at a disadvantage. Normally I would have access to the full proposal, giving the aims and objectives, methodology, state of the art, full backgrounds of all the investigators, etc. Since I have no sight of these, my evaluation of Spectrum 10K is based purely on the same public information and PR campaign that has been given to everyone else. 

Spectrum 10k wants me to send them my DNA by spitting into a test-tube and to give them access to my medical records. The reasons are fairly clear on one level: they want to create an enormous database on which future genetics research may be based. On another level, the reasons are pretty unclear. For example, in relation to the access to medical records they state: “One of the aims of Spectrum 10k is to identify factors that contribute to co-occurring physical and mental health conditions in autistic individuals”, which seems quite vague. I may only speculate that there will be a correlative study made between the co-occurring conditions and the genetic markers, but there is insufficient description of the methodology to be sure of this. 

The central problem with Spectrum 10k is one of trust. They state unequivocally that they are against eugenics. Of course they are. But there is a well-founded fear that, once the database has been assembled, it could be put to uses other than those intended at the outset. Why is this fear “well-founded”? It’s partly a matter of historical fact. One only has to read Steve Silberman’s ‘Neurotribes’ to understand the history of abuse and medically-justified torture (even murder) to which autistic people have been subjected, and indeed still are being subjected in some places. 

To try to understand the Spectrum 10k proposition better, I watched this video of a lecture about ASD genetics by one of the Co-Investigators, Dr Dan Geschwind of the UCLA Centre for Autism Research and Treatment. He explains that the aims of precision medicine are to create a personalised treatment for every individual. As he states: "Everybody will have their genome done at some point in the future". The lecture starts out talking about cancer, enthusing about the successes and potential of genetic research to target cancers in individuals. It then moves on to autism. The message is perfectly clear: autism, just like cancer, may be eradicated if the c.500 genetic markers can be accurately identified and modified. He states: "if we know the mechanism of mutation, then we can prevent it" (10’ 26”). He uses the phrase "cure the autism" (10’ 58”) and refers repeatedly to the “risk of autism”. He says “it would be great if we had something analogous to the killing of dividing cells [in cancer] for autism” (19’ 51”). If you treat autism as a disease, then of course you will seek to prevent it or cure it. But I am not diseased by autism and I don’t believe other autistic people are either. We are just a different neurotype and one that has a right to exist. What we need is social acceptance and a better environment to live in. 

There is another aspect of Spectrum 10K that I find highly problematic. The website states: “Spectrum 10K aims to investigate genetic and environmental factors that contribute to the wellbeing of autistic individuals and their families”. Well now, the “environmental factors” are of far greater interest to me (and, I suspect, the vast majority of autistic people) than genetics. So, I eagerly combed the website looking for an indication of how the environmental factors would be investigated. What are the research questions? What is the methodology? What are the anticipated outcomes? Any hypotheses? Any initial frame of reference? Any planned surveys, or experiments, or even consultations? I searched in vain. There is almost no discussion of this all-important area, as far as I can see. This absence of context is further emphasized by the membership of the research team, who are all geneticists, and the advisory panel which, we are told, exists, but whose members are unnamed. This does not inspire confidence.

And that is the fundamental problem. To be able to engage 10,000 people in an enormous research project like this, there has to be a sense of community involvement. People need to be carried along, to be convinced, to be able to see the benefits for themselves and others they care about, to be able to explain the rationale for the research. They cannot be expected simply to take things on trust because a lot of important people say that it has to be this way. 

The project seems to be on the back foot now. The National Autistic Society has revealed that they declined to take part and there have been petitions and letters and a social media campaign against it. A new statement was published yesterday acknowledging the problems and protesting good intentions. This appears to redirect Spectrum 10k somewhat towards the co-occurring conditions more than autism itself. This is certainly a more positive message. It could greatly improve lives if, for example, commonly occurring physical problems that disproportionately affect autistic people could be more effectively treated. But that still seems to be an afterthought and not the main aim of Spectrum 10k. While I am always open to being convinced to change my opinions by sustained and reasoned arguments supported by evidence, at time of writing I’m afraid my objections remain.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

How can neurodivergent artists market themselves?

 "How can neurodivergent artists market themselves"?

This was a question I was asked during a webinar entitled ‘Neurodivergent artists and practitioners discuss how they work with digital’ last week. The Space, the BBC’s digital agency, had invited me to speak because of my recent commission for ‘Spectrum Sounds’ which will be broadcast later in the year.


Autism does present real challenges in this respect and I found myself giving a fairly downbeat answer. Reflecting on my compositional life, I realised that many of my contemporaries have carved out pretty successful careers, winning frequent commissions, prizes, recording and publishing contracts, broadcasts, and generally being talked about and listened to. My compositional career has been less obviously successful by comparison.


Why might that be? One possibility is that my music is not as good as theirs, but I would counter that argument with the evidence of all the fantastic reviews and comments I get whenever something is performed or broadcast. The most common epithet used to describe my music is “beautiful”, which can’t be too bad, right? I mean no disrespect to my friends and fellow composers now in their 60s when I say that my music stands alongside theirs perfectly well.


No, I think the real problem has been my almost pathological inability to “network” and “self-promote”. Funnily enough, I wrote about the importance of this in my book ‘The Digital Musician’, but I realise that I am lousy at practising what I preach, at least in this department. I’ve never set much store by fame, nor have I ever expected to make any significant money from composing, but I have wanted to communicate and express myself through music. 


I remember when Island Symphony premiered in 1995, a senior figure in the musical world declared it was “brilliant” and “a very important composition”. Then he said: “now what you have to do is to convince everyone else of its importance”. At that point, I realised that I had no hope of doing so. I simply lack the social and networking skills for that kind of endeavour. Island Symphony has a small and enthusiastic fan club, but it remains largely unknown, I think.


This is a facet of autism, I’m afraid. The whole system of marketing and self-promotion depends on one’s ability to get out there and talk to the people that matter. To be a presence on the scene. To indulge in the kind of back-slapping and mutual praise that makes the wheels turn. Performers rely on composers having reputations that will advance their own careers. Composers rely on commissions from organisations that can invest in them and expect a worthwhile return. Record companies and publishing houses are completely driven by marketing, of course. And then there are competitions, which form the life-blood of contemporary music these days. Panels of respected judges select works from a pool. What guides their choices? Some notions of musical excellence, no doubt, but these are surely shaped in no small measure by the reputations that precede people. Even judged anonymously, one can sense a zeitgeist in contemporary music that shapes opinion. If you do not make your presence felt, then you are not part of that zeitgeist. How do you make your presence felt? Through social interaction.


What can autistic people do about this? It requires constant presence. You have to be seen and mingling, so that when opportunities arise people think of you. You have to be visible, both online and offline, on the arts scene. How can you do this if social interaction is a challenge? I honestly don’t know. Some people say: get an agent. But that involves having constant and ongoing social interactions with the agent. Not to mention finding one in the first place. No doubt if you can get the right agent it will be great. But what happens if you get the wrong one? 


I do have something positive to say, though. Times are changing. There seems to be a new willingness to listen or to try to understand or include neurodivergent people. The Arts Council has woken up to this, but I also think wider society is engaging too. When I was young, there were very few people who identified as autistic. Now there are at least 700,000 in the UK. Many of those are working in music and the arts. It is hard to ignore so many people. 


I won the commission for Spectrum Sounds by entering a competition. That is only the third time in my life that I have submitted an application to a call like that. I would not have done so, were it not for some kind people at the Attenborough Arts Centre who pushed me into it. Of course, I am pleased to have won the commission (although still rather anxious about those who applied and were not successful). It has brought me back to composing in ways which are very rewarding for me, following my hearing loss. 


But I wonder what would have happened if the BBC, for example, had taken more of an interest in my work all along. I received several BBC commissions back in the 1980/1990s, but then they fell away. Because of my inability to network, I have never attempted to engage in any of the contemporary music festivals that run annually. Nor have I tried to get involved with performers unless they specifically asked me for something, or I could pay them from some commission money. Once I have a commission, I do hire people and pay well, but the commissions are few and far between. I’ve never had any idea how to approach a publishing house or a record company.


What’s great now is to see some young autistic composers breaking through and supporting one another. I saw it at the Sound Festival in Aberdeen recently, and I am seeing it around the place more and more. I wish them all the best and look forward to seeing the fruits of this societal shift that is going on. The increase in diversity in contemporary music can only be a good thing, in my opinion, and is long overdue.