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Opinion Neurodiversity could be a powerful tool to help re-shape the world

Artist AlanJames Burns on how his personal experiences led him to create work challenging narratives about disability.

IN 2018, I was diagnosed with a learning disability, having severely struggled for decades with my relationship to language, words and printed text.

The diagnosis came as a relief in some ways, as learning I had double deficit dyslexia allowed me to describe and articulate my experience. I found that people had a clearer understanding of how I see the world when I was able to put a name on my difficulties.

I’m a visual artist, and so you’d imagine that I spend most of my time creating art. But in fact I spend about 90% of my time on administration; writing proposals, managing project budgets, compiling reports and answering strings of daily emails.

So my neurodivergence makes these aspects of my career extremely energy-draining and time-consuming for me.

But there are benefits to my neurodivergence too – it’s also the reason that I’m a good project manager with strengths for collaborating with people, connecting with audiences and understanding how to create emotive, multidisciplinary sensory events.

All of these strands have come together with my latest work, after I received funding from Arts and Disability Ireland Connect scheme, which is managed by Arts & Disability Ireland.

I put this funding towards a project I called Augmented Body, Altered Mind, which helped me delve into my interest in the connections between environmental degradation – climate change – and neurodivergence.

You see, climate change affects everyone, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally.

Climate change and equality

It disproportionately affects people with disabilities, such as from the lack of accessible information, and increased vulnerability during extreme weather events.

Many communities such as indigenous and young people rightly play a vital role in climate action discussions. However, people with disabilities have, until recently, been largely excluded from this greater discussion.

In 2019, for the first time, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on climate change and the rights of people with disabilities. This was a crucial step towards acknowledging the specific needs of people with disabilities in regard to climate change.

I wanted to explore this with my new work. Augmented Body, Altered Mind throws open the diversity of perception by presenting cognitive divergence as a powerful tool to re-shape the world. It’s underpinned by ‘complementary cognition’ theories of cognitive evolution.

Human brains have evolved to process information in ways that are specialised and divergent from each other. This encourages collective and creative problem-solving which can be useful in the face of the environmental crisis.

And neurodivergence provides the ability ‘to compete on the basis of innovation’ and engage with new ideas ‘from the edges’, as Robert Austin and Gary Pisano wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2017.

The huge variety of neurodivergent communities can lend a richness to the climate conversation, and set a tone of empathy and respect for difference, researchers have found.

Look at Greta Thunberg – she is the perfect example of how neurodivergence can enable people to challenge the status quo and lead to momentous progress in areas such as climate activism.

Building on this, Augmented Body, Altered Mind, which I’ve created in collaboration with writer Dylan Coburn Grey, composer Michael Riordan and digital artist collective Ibragim, is an interactive artwork.

It’s not your typical project: it weaves a brain-computer interface (BCI) with projected audiovisual environments.

I’ve brought all of my interests together with this work – exploring behaviour, neurodivergence and individual agency within global systems, focusing on climate change conversations and technological growth.

Augmented Body, Altered Mind positions cognitive divergence as a societal advantage and a force for positive environmental change.

When you visit Augmented Body, Altered Mind, you wear a special headset called a brain-computer interface (BCI) headset. This headset helps the audience become immersed in evocative imagery and soundscapes as your brainwave patterns guide a set of undulating audiovisuals to shift and merge.

You’re effectively co-creating and controlling the artwork in real time.

As the artwork is affected by audiences’ brainwave patterns, this means it implicitly values and equalises all people, whether neurodivergent or neurotypical, to change and shape the audiovisuals.

The resulting effect will be as individual as the people who experience it.

And I want to make sure my work is accessible to as wide an audience as possible, so I’ve been incorporating image descriptions, open captions, ASD-friendly invigilation and mobility considerations. 

I want the work to question repetitive and singular narratives about disability and climate change – to remind people that there is a diversity of perception out there, and that having a disability, being neurodivergent or thinking in a different way can help us reevaluate ongoing shared problems to co-create a diverse and sustainable future.

I’m hoping that people who engage with Augmented Body, Altered Mind this weekend, and who in doing so become co-creators of their own unique experience, find it a thought-provoking way to think about how embracing difference through collaboration might hold solutions for tackling the climate crisis.

Written by AlanJames Burns with writing support by Marie Farrington. Augmented Body, Altered Mind was commissioned by Carlow Arts Festival and supported by the Arts Council of Ireland Arts and Disability Connect Scheme managed by Arts & Disability Ireland. Augmented Body, Altered Mind is being exhibited at Carlow Arts Festival 10-12 June, 2022. 

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