Lisa Simone with one of her artworks that will be on show at the launch of Art 4 Autism next Tuesday.
Lisa Simone with one of her artworks that will be on show at the launch of Art 4 Autism next Tuesday.

Expressing art from the heart

When Lisa Simone was diagnosed with autism in 2007, a lifetime of wondering what was “wrong” with her came to an end.

For Lisa, a simple conversation in a coffee shop or a trip to the supermarket can be harrowing, the combination of noise, lights and colours often sending her into sensory overload. Her brain’s way of coping can vary greatly – sometimes her hands might twitch as she struggles to process what’s around her or she can go into complete bodily shut down and is unable to communicate, open her eyes or move.

“I never just see a brick wall as a brick wall – I see every brick, every groove, every shadow on that wall,” Lisa said. “My brain can’t tune out information and so I have this sensitivity to noise and visuals. A vacuum cleaner can sound like a jet plane. It can be euphoric and the simplest thing in nature can evoke ecstasy but the down side is that sometimes my brain can’t process everything that’s going on around me and it just shuts down.

“As a child I was just perceived as having an unusual personality – I was a little bit odd.”

Lisa had always drawn cartoons and doodled in sketchbooks as a coping mechanism and she now knows that art can play a huge part in enabling autistic people to express themselves.

“I would never not have a sketchbook in public places – when it became too much I would scribble with both hands. There’s so much electricity going through you, you just need to do something,” Lisa explained. “If I could sit and scribble and didn’t have to engage with people talking, it acted like a channel and I could listen to the conversation without overloading. But of course, the trouble is, people expect interaction.”

Next Tuesday Lisa will launch her project Art 4 Autism, which includes a website, 2010 calendar and an exhibition of her artworks.

The concept of the website is to create an online space where people with autism spectrum disorders can display and sell their art, while the calendar features cartoons of some of the difficulties she experiences in everyday life. She has also printed the cartoons onto a series of t-shirts, which she hopes will encourage acceptance and tolerance in the wider community.

“When I took some of the cartoons to a family day hosted by the Far North Coast Centre for Autism the feedback was immediate – both parents and children could really relate to it,” she said. “The cartoons are about raising awareness about the issues autistic people face in a simple, fun, not too in-your-face way. One parent said to me she had a shirt made up for her son that said, ‘I’m not naughty, I’m autistic’ because there was this attitude that just ‘a good hiding’ would fix his behaviour. Now when I go shopping I wear the shirt with my supermarket cartoon and the Art 4 Autism logo… it feels like I’ve got P plates on. If I start twitching people can see that there’s something else going and I’m not just on drugs or whatever. The idea is to create a bit of patience and understanding; to create an awareness of how the sensory overload can create odd behaviour.”

Lisa first realised she had autism when she picked up a book called Thinking in Pictures written by an autistic woman named Temple Grandin, because Lisa does indeed think in pictures. For every word she hears in conversation her mind has to pull up an image and she then has to put all those images and words together to form a scene in her head in order to create meaning. As a result, conversations can be exhausting.

After 39 years of being labelled “weird” and trying to fix things she perceived as character flaws, Lisa’s diagnosis came as an overwhelming relief.

“I picked up the book and everything she (Temple) said was how I felt,” Lisa said. “I just sat there reading with tears running down my face.”

Lisa’s vision for Art 4 Autism is that it will connect people with autism and provide an online forum where autistic people can showcase and sell their art. In the future she is planning a touring exhibition of art and would like to create a room that simulates the experience of autism, with visitors being bombarded by a series of visuals and noises, giving them a taste of what the world is like from inside an autistic mind.

Art 4 Autism is being launched by Lismore Mayor Jenny Dowell next Tuesday, November 24, at the South Lismore Bowling Club at 5pm. Calendars will be sale for $25 and 5% of all sales will go to the Far North Coast Centre for Autism. There will also be a series of Lisa’s artworks on display plus a performance by the Hearing Voices choir.

For more information, visit the website

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