Why art matters 60 Years, 60 Voices ‘A beacon of light’: Mahlia Amatina on art and autism Mahlia Amatina is an acclaimed contemporary artist creating multi-sensory experiences. She was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2015. In this 10th article from our '60 Years, 60 Voices' series, Mahlia tells us about the role art has played in her life… “ It’s World Autism Awareness Day – a day that meant very little to me just four years ago. For that was the moment, a poignant moment, when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome; an Autistic Spectrum Disorder. It was a diagnosis that changed a great deal for me; how I see myself as part of the world, and how I make sense of it. I also have better self-understanding and greater compassion for myself. I know why I do things. And why I don’t do things. Not that that was a linear outcome of my diagnosis, of course. Life is never that straightforward! And then there’s my creativity. This has long been connected with mental health support and recovery, and I am another example of this - and the power this bears. Mahlia Amatina's award-winning social art project Around the World in 80 Washing Lines. I was born a creative being. And art has always been a part of me. I‘ve grown up always having that ‘creative flair’, whether it’s been for painting, photography, sewing and all manner of arts and crafts. But it’s more so my passion for these outlets and how I’ve adapted them to suit me, which has supported me in life. For instance, I’ve never taken a perfectly formed photograph or painted in a super-realist way - nor used a sewing pattern. For me, it’s more about capturing a unique angle in a photo, painting in abstract form, or simply making something up from scratch - depending on my mood. I suppose it comes back to possessing a unique perspective, which many people with Autism report having. It’s always the sheer joy of whatever it is I’m working on. But at the same time, it’s been even more than that. Art has helped me ground myself when I’ve been overwhelmed. When the world around me is too much and I’ve felt like the Earth will tilt and fall off its axis. When my senses are sent into overdrive. Too loud, too bright. Assaulting smells and people moving around too much. Too quickly. If routines have changed and there’s too much going on. The world closes in, overwhelming, threatening to engulf me. It oscillates and moves around me; unpredictable. If I’m being overridden with all the ‘what ifs?’ that are constantly racing around in my mind. When all the senses are sent into overdrive: like overloading a plug socket. When this happens, I know that my art is there. I am art. There’s no beginning and end. Start or finish. It’s like a beacon of light that gives me time and place. Mahlia Amatina How so, you may ask? Well, there’s always something very special about being in the flow – or ‘in the zone’ as people say. That special place where time stops and nothing else exists. It’s a wonderful state. And this is especially great when the anxiety sets in. when I’m fixated on thinking repeatedly about something: if I’m using ‘if this, then that’ statements and I’m going round in circles, exhausting myself silly. Art comes to collect me and saves me from this painful thinking. In life, I find the world forces me to multi-task all the time. And my brain doesn’t work that way. It’s like someone has opened too many tabs and then it all comes crashing down. It takes ages for me to restart. It exhausts me, to say the least. Art is my saviour and I know I can pick up that one activity and focus on it solely. I can breathe again. Art leashes life back into me – like a wave and breathe of the freshest air imaginable. It’s a different, novel and fresh way of looking at the world. It’s hard to describe the feeling, but I suppose it’s like a type of powerful and continuing flow – many streams of thought going off in the same, yet multiple directions; wavelike random fluctuations. Like another beat working between the normal rhythm of being – different every time in both its intensity and frequency. Creativity, focus, a different way of viewing the world. “When the world around me is too much and I’ve felt like the Earth will tilt and fall off its axis. When my senses are sent into overdrive…like overloading a plug socket. When this happens, I know that my art is there. I am art. There’s no beginning and end. Start or finish. It’s like a beacon of light that gives me time and place.” Four years ago, I decided to bring art further into the forefront of my being. After working in corporate environments as a market researcher for several years, I decided to become an artist. I now spend my time working on projects and exhibitions that reflect mine and others’ experiences of being on the autistic spectrum, as well as creating ‘autism-friendly’ art exhibitions, where visitors can gain a multi-sensory and immersive experience of art – not simply a 2D one. As well as fine art venues, my work is often displayed in community settings, as I want my art to reach wider audiences – and those that perhaps wouldn’t initially think to go to a gallery. Ultimately, though, I wish to educate people about what life on the autistic spectrum is like, through mine and others’ first-hand experiences. I’ve involved other autistic people in the past through a questionnaire, where participants have used abstract mark-making as a way to describe particular traits that they experience, for instance having a meltdown or social difficulties. I’ve even had the chance to go to New York with Arts Council funding, to visit other neurodiverse art spaces, as well as meeting and collaborating with autistic artists. 'It oscillates and moves unpredictable' by Mahlia Amatina. Part of the 'On a Spectrum' collection. This arts-led advocacy work has helped make a difference to the lives of autistic people and families who come and talk to me about how great it is to be able to see art that relates to their or their family member’s experience. Or simply with there being an exhibition about autism in the public domain, and the issues and challenges being examined, makes all the difference to them. It’s another form of support and reassurance – something that keeps the dialogue present and flowing. And to me that’s incredible. I plan to continue with spreading this work and currently have an exhibition on at Arlington Arts Centre in Newbury entitled ‘Life on a Spectrum’. Find out more about this and my other projects on my website. ” Paintings in Hospitals provides art and bespoke creative activities to centres and schools for people with severe autism. To find out more about these services, please contact us… Follow #60Voices on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram... Mahlia Amatina invites you into a multi-sensory experience of colour, line, shape and form through tactile art that explores the creative side of neurodiversity. After being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2015, Mahlia was inspired to share the unique sensory experiences of life on the autism spectrum through her art. For Mahlia, art heals and transforms, and expands the experience of living. Her mission includes creating communities through the combination of art and advocacy around the globe. She has volunteered with children’s arts organisations, undertaken residencies, and had her works displayed in both fine art and community venues in seven countries, as she pushes for artwork to be experienced by a wider variety of audiences. Find out more about Mahlia’s work at www.mahliaamatina.com. And follow her on Twitter (@mahliaamatina), Facebook (@mahliaamatina) and Instagram (@mahliaamatina).