Unlimited: Portrait of a Brain by Hayley Williams-Hindle

 

In January last year, Hayley Williams-Hindle’s In Praise of Fidgeting became the first completed project to emerge from our Reform the Norm micro-commissions series, delivered in partnership with Unlimited.

Drawing on her experiences of impulsive drawing as a way of managing her ADHD during lockdown Zoom meetings, this short film received national attention when it was selected for the 2021 Unlimited Festival. You can read more and watch the film here.

In March, Hayley was awarded a second, larger commission to develop a very different project titled Portrait of a Brain, a sculptural piece based on data gathered through an app designed to help screen for neurodivergent conditions.

With Portrait of a Brain set to be exhibited in Coventry in February, Hayley told us more about the artwork and the power of visualising neurodiversity in different ways. 

I first came across this screening tool created by Do It Solutions through my coaching practice. I studied psychology so I’m always interested in new work in this area, and I’ve been following their work for a while now. What’s great about this app is that it’s scientifically validated, as well as being very accessible and easy to use. For a lot of people, it can be really difficult to get a formal diagnosis of a neurodivergent condition (to include dyslexia, dyspraxia, autism, ADHD, dyscalculia, etc), but this app can help to start that process, and I’ve recommended it to several of my coaching clients.

Essentially, it works by asking questions to build up a picture of each individual’s strengths and challenges, and in the end it plots the results on radar charts, which look like a bit like spiders’ webs with sections representing different areas of cognitive ability. What you find is that people with neurodivergent conditions tend to have “spiky” profiles, with much more pronounced cognitive strengths or ‘spikes’ and cognitive challenges or ‘dips’ in different areas, whereas a neurotypical profile will generally be a more regular shape - representing a more even spread of cognitive ability.

A big benefit of this visual approach is that when we look at a range of profiles collectively, we start to see how people’s different skill sets can intersect and fit together like a jigsaw. Humans are naturally social – we don’t work in isolation, so rather than viewing any given person as deficient in some way, visualising this data can help us to take a broader view of how a diverse group of people can complement each other in a way that’s really colourful and interesting.

One way of thinking about it is if we plotted the strengths and weaknesses of different vehicles on a graph, we’d might end up with sports cars at one end of the bell curve and tractors at the other, and then in the middle you’ve got things like Ford Fiestas. While it’s true that the world probably needs more Ford Fiestas than it does tractors, they all have their different roles to play in the right context; you’d be no good trying to plough a field in a sports car, or even a Fiesta. By helping people to understand how their unique skills can help them contribute, this data can be really empowering.

Recently I’ve become a bit obsessed with light and colour in my creative work, and I wanted to find a way of using that to visually represent this metaphorical colour that diversity brings to our society. My original plan was to use additive light, where coloured lights overlap to create new colours, the idea being that in the centre of the piece, where lots of skills overlap, you’d end up with white light, but around the edges you’d have a range of colours and shapes where people differ from each other.

Practically, that proved to be quite a difficult thing to achieve with the sculptural form I wanted to make – I would have needed to shine lights laterally through the Perspex sheets I’m working with. So what I’m using instead is a diachronic film, which covers the Perspex and has a prismatic effect, splitting the light into different tints.

The piece that I’ve created is focused on the profile of a specific person – a real person who was never diagnosed during their lifetime, but whose spiky profile is very indicative of neurodivergence. Sadly, despite being a hugely intelligent person, this was someone who struggled for years with a lack of understanding and support, and she eventually took her own life.

It’s a story we see time and again amongst neurodiverse people – the prevalence of suicide and suicide ideation is many times higher among people with neurodivergent brains, particularly for autistic people, than it is among the neurotypical population. And among those who have learning disabilities in addition to autism, life expectancy falls by about 20 years.

The real tragedy is that there’s a widespread perception that mental health issues are just inevitable if you don’t fit the neurotypical mould, but I don’t believe that’s true. With the right support, neurodivergent people can flourish, but we often become mentally ill as a result of being constantly misunderstood, and because of the impatience and lack of compassion people tend to have around difference. These cognitive differences that people present with are so often misinterpreted as personal failing - rather than being part of someone’s neurology which they have no power to change.

This matters to me on a deeply personal level, both for myself and for my family. I am autistic and have ADHD, but like many women in mid-life, I only received my own diagnosis quite late on, after two of my children were diagnosed. Before that, my eldest had been really struggling with his mental health, because he didn’t understand himself and wasn’t getting the support he needed. That’s why now, with every last breath, I am focussed on championing difference and helping people to understand who they are and how they can contribute.

While there is now some money being invested in neurodiverse conditions at work, at the moment, it still feels like 95% of the studies are about finding ways of changing (in particular) autistic people to make them “fit in” better. What I’d like to see is a multi-pronged approach, part of which has got to be about empowering and supporting and mentoring people with different neurologies to work with their strengths and within their own capacities, rather than trying to make themselves different. That’s what I’m aiming for with my somatic coaching practice.

Receiving these commissions through Unlimited and City of Culture has been an amazing experience for me. Before this I would never have had the confidence to put myself forward as an artist, but now it feels like an inevitability I’ve been avoiding all my life. I initially approached the City of Culture Trust about working with them to improve their access provision, but after lots of conversations with Hannah Graham (Caring City producer), she ended up encouraging me to apply.

I’ve always been creative, but I think that when I was younger I tended to hide that part of myself away because on some level I was afraid that people would be able to read “difference” into my work – even before that difference was something I was fully able to articulate myself. Looking back, I think a big part of why I ended up doing a psychology degree was me trying to make sense of why I didn’t understand things that other people just seemed to intuit. But with Portrait of a Brain, it feels like there’s a lovely confluence where all the different things I’ve done throughout my career, from psychological research to venue management, have given me useful skills and experience for this project.

I do also think that being a parent has helped to make me braver: I’ve begun to feel that if I can’t own my own narrative and face my fear of being seen, how on earth can I be an effective advocate for my children? So it’s taken me a while to get here, but it’s really encouraging to see that other people feel that my work is interesting and valuable.

My hope for Portrait of a Brain is that it will serve as a tribute that celebrates the life of the amazing woman who inspired it, but also that it will help to open up conversations and encourage people to think differently, both those with direct experience of neurodivergence, and those with no grounding in the subject at all.

Portrait of a Brain will be on display at The Chapel in London Road Cemetery, Coventry, between Saturday 26th February and Wednesday 2nd March 2022.