Social Impact

Activating Serenity

Dr. Dawn-Joy Leong opens up about her experiences as an autistic artist-researcher.

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B-Side Learns: this Op-Ed is part of an ongoing dialogue on disabilities.

When I was a child, I dreamed of living in a cave somewhere far away from humans, with only animals as companions. Of course, this utopian dream was short-lived. The moment I realised that I would have to dig my own latrine, without modern sanitation, I capitulated. Nevertheless, a deep-seated appreciation for solitude followed me throughout my life. I had a polymathic early upbringing. Father was a dental surgeon, mother a teacher, and together they built an ideal learning world for me. Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear and Moominland intertwined with painting, drawing, crafting, playing with the dogs, and experiments in my miniature chemistry and biology lab in the backyard to form an endlessly fascinating, multi-textured cocoon of grace around me.

However, everything went pear-shaped the day I was bundled into an ‘itchy-scratchy’ uniform and unceremoniously chucked inside a noisy, crowded classroom with forty other smelly bodies. It was called ‘school’. My fragile body protested, my senses exploded, and I developed a painful, lifelong autoimmune disorder.

The longing for that ‘safe space’ in my childhood never died, it remained an aching, smouldering ember throughout what I call my “survival years”. It was not until I finally found the courage to break free from the tyranny and manipulative oppression of normativity at the late age of forty-two, that I began to embrace and nurture this crucial part of Selfhood once more. 

Quietude is not punishing isolation, but a doorway into sumptuous wonderment. Retreating into restfulness is a sign of strength, not weakness.

In 2007, I embarked on an MPhil in music composition at the University of Hong Kong. Propelled by a conflagration of bizarre situations, I discovered the reason behind my distinct existence: Autism. I am Autistic! It was a watershed moment that determined the trajectory for my research and multi-art practice henceforth. In 2010, I premiered Scheherazade’s Sea, an interdisciplinary performance, about my autistic world and journey of self-discovery.

Subsequently, I was awarded a PhD scholarship at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Crossing over from music to visual arts, I began to create immersive experiences informed by research in Autism and my own Autistic sensory realm. I acquired an assistance dog, Lucy, to help me mitigate sensory-anxiety. Like me, Lucy was also a survivor. Rescued from the cruel Greyhound racing industry, she became my closest companion and the inspiration behind “Clement Space”, a term I coined in my PhD dissertation to denote a peaceful, secure haven for the whole Being, that required tenacious determination to own, inhabit and maintain.

I returned to Singapore with Lucy by my feet in the cabin of a Qantas flight. It was a smooth flight, and we were taken meticulous care of, from Sydney all the way to Singapore. The bumpy turbulence began, however, as soon as we stepped outside the magnificent bowels of Changi Airport.

All of a sudden, our international right for public access ceased. Lucy was not welcome anywhere else in Singapore. Assistance dogs for the disabled have been in existence for decades, yet this feature was somehow left out in Singapore’s progress towards “first-world” status.

People helming social enterprises asked me to speak at their events. When I requested an honorarium, I met with various kinds of opprobrium, for example, I should be “grateful” for the “exposure”, and experienced artists like myself ought to speak for free to “inspire” younger artists etc. How uplifting is it to aspiring young artists to see a senior disabled artist being treated in this way?

Exploitation also stared me brazenly in the eye. I was offered a piteous sum for a signature art work with a contract that demanded perpetual co-ownership of copyright and disallowing me to work for any other arts organisation for an entire year without the organisation’s permission.

It is difficult being a freelance artist by any measure. The hardship is compounded when one is a disabled artist. The non-disabled glibly say we should not be defined by our disability, but their actions determine for us, without our consent or consultation, how we ought to exist, they hijack conversations around our disability, and determine how much (or little) we need to earn for a living. It seemed to me that disabled artists are relegated to the bottom of this sorry heap.

All is not bleak and dire, however, despite the initial homecoming drama. The horizon began to brighten when I met a few key people who believe in respect, equity, and that disabled leadership and representation are crucial factors in progress towards access and inclusion. While new to the paradigm, they are sincere in intent and action, willing step into unfamiliar territory and walk the talk. Supported by the Disabled People’s Association, I founded the Disabled Artists’ Collective in 2019. Soon after, the National Library’s library@orchard opened their doors to my leading Singapore’s first neurodivergent artists’ residency.

In January this year, two disabled-led works commissioned by the National Gallery opened: a completely new iteration of my Clement Space was installed; and Something About Home, Singapore’s first promenade theatre featuring a cast of disabled artists (myself included), conceptualised and directed by theatre veteran, Peter Sau, opened to full capacity.

Amidst my elation, there were many lessons to learn, some unexpected, but all willingly embraced.

My immersive spaces emerge from a staunch belief that art should be accessible to all—disabled and non-disabled, persons from all walks of life and ages, from the homeless to the successful bankers in crisp suits, from little children to the elderly, and even dogs. However, provision of access and inclusion is no license to treat art with contempt and no-holds-barred coarse abandon. I have exhibited in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom, and Australia, where visitors danced with delight on my fluffy rugs, wriggled gleefully inside cocoons, and fell asleep snoring, while the canine guests participated in joyful yet gentle exploration.

Nothing in my previous experiences prepared me for the ‘Singapore-experience’. Each time I visited Clement Space, I would be greeted with a chaotic haptic mess: cushions flung willy-nilly; bean bags rearranged into crumpled piles; the blue velvet cover for the sofa-bed ripped off; and the plush replica of Lucy torn open. Visitors also ‘donated’ some of their belongings, including a half finished cup of bubble tea, water bottles, and Gallery stickers attached onto cushions, blankets and furniture.

As an Autistic person, I am unsettled by the disarray. As an artist, bewildered: thrilled that my work is enjoying so much attention, but appalled at the abuse. As a researcher interested in neurology and behaviour, I am intrigued, especially by the repeated, almost determined, stripping of the sofa-bed. I eventually gave up re-dressing it and decided to leave it stark naked in its fuchsia pink birthday-suit. 

What is it about visitors in Singapore and their reaction to my work that sets them apart from others I’ve encountered? What causes the same people who stand obediently behind erected barriers gazing politely at art on the walls, speaking in hushed measured tones, children neatly in tow, to suddenly go berserk inside a dedicated calm space? Is it the unfamiliarity of freedom and autonomy juxtaposed against an abrupt cessation of frenetic ‘busyness’ that leads to this demonstration of shorted circuitry?

Perhaps, what is needed is compassionate education, to show people how to enjoy emancipation in peaceful engagement and relaxation. Yet again, society can benefit from the Autistic paradigm. Order need not be a draconian imposition, but a reassurance of security. Quietude is not punishing isolation, but a doorway into sumptuous wonderment. Retreating into restfulness is a sign of strength, not weakness. Together with repetitive self-calming, they form a cogent, dedicated effort towards essential wellbeing. What does one do in a calm room? Why, be calm, of course, and relish it with reverential gusto! Sensory equilibrium for the Autistic person is not passive, it needs to be constantly activated and practised with care and consideration. We Autists are committed to the process of Becoming, and we will help you too, if you let us lead the way.

Dr. Dawn-joy Leong is a researcher, multi-art practitioner, and consultant for Autism, Neurodiversity and disability, emphasising the Arts as a foundation for learning, communication and inclusion.

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