Samantha Gurrey: Art is a therapeutic tool but it can also give everyone a voice in our society

Opening of a group art exhibition called Too Much Information held in Macrobert Arts Centres Arthouse exhibition space.
Opening of a group art exhibition called Too Much Information held in Macrobert Arts Centres Arthouse exhibition space.
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Macrobert Arts Centre recently became the first arts centre in the UK to receive the National Autistic Society’s Autism Friendly Award.

Our journey as an arts centre toward receiving this recognition has been a wonderful experience in learning how to support adults with autism through creativity. The Autism Friendly Award is distributed by the National Autistic Society (NAS) to organisations and businesses across the UK who adapt their programming and operations to support the needs of individuals with autism.

Samantha Gurrey, Creative Learning Officer, Macrobert Arts Centre

Samantha Gurrey, Creative Learning Officer, Macrobert Arts Centre

We started our journey by introducing Autism Friendly film screenings back in 2013. Since then, we’ve developed relaxed pantomime performances, launched a sensory storytelling project and developed a visual guide to visiting our venue. Along the way, we’ve developed important partnerships that have helped us learn how best to tailor our provision to the needs of people with autism.

To mark Autism Awareness Day in April 2015 we worked with Scottish Autism to deliver training to more than 20 members of our staff, and last year we liaised with the King’s Theatre in Glasgow to develop our Autism Friendly Panto. These developments inspired us to create a programme of artistic workshops that are not only inclusive, but are specifically tailored to the needs of participants with a diagnosis of autism. These workshops are more open and less structured than our mainstream provision, allowing each class to be shaped around the needs and interests of the participants, so that everyone feels supported, empowered, and able to fully participate.

My role as Creative Learning Officer at Macrobert Arts Centre isn’t to lead these sessions, but rather to take part in supporting the participants. Over the course of my time working on these activities, my understanding of the impact that autism can have on individuals has changed drastically. A lot of the work that came out of these projects evoked an urge to tell a story through a non-verbal language.

Artists tell stories through imagery and visuals and quite often this is a medium where individuals with autism can really flourish. More than anything, I believe that art is a therapeutic tool and can give everyone a voice.

One particular individual named Danny has been with us on our journey over the past year. Danny found out about the activities that Macrobert Arts Centre offers for individuals with autism through NAS. He used to be a part of the NAS Coffee Club in Stirling, a group that encouraged adults with autism to meet regularly, creating a support network for each other.

Danny came along to our pilot series of creative workshops, beginning in September 2016. Through those workshops, he joined a six- month photography project which culminated in a group art exhibition called Too Much Information held in Macrobert Arts Centre’s Arthouse exhibition space.

In this exhibition participants told stories about their painful experiences with eye contact, noise and chaos in hopes of educating their audience and communicating their anxieties. Danny had always been keen to try new activities, but he was new to the arts and hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in art classes that were catered towards his needs. These activities have strengthened his self-confidence in his ability to create artwork and have equipped him with creative spatial awareness.

We created the Too Much Information photography project in partnership with the National Autistic Society and Agilent Technologies – a local business who have raised over £3,500 this year for the National Autistic Society of Scotland through their charity of the year scheme. Professional photographer Graham Miller – whose focus is on challenging stigma and celebrating individuality – led a series of photography sessions over the course of six months.

Participants were encouraged to tell a story about their own individual experiences of being on the autistic spectrum. They took photos of their trigger points and moments that might reflect how they personally felt in particular situations. The title of the exhibition, Too Much Information became a metaphor for finding out what is too much for them individually and sharing these experiences with the community.

For Macrobert Arts Centre, supporting the project and exhibition was an important expression of our inclusive ethos. Macrobert Arts Centre was presented with the Autism Friendly Award at the Too Much Information exhibition launch on the 4 April 2017. We are so pleased to be the first arts centre in the UK to receive this award and we are looking forward to continuing to develop our venue and widen access, becoming more inclusive for everyone in our community. Coming up soon, Macrobert Arts Centre continues to host relaxed film screenings on a monthly basis and our Christmas relaxed Pantomime performance is scheduled for 
 7 December 2017.

Samantha Gurrey, Creative Learning Officer, Macrobert Arts Centre