This post is in the Rationale category

This research covers two aspects of my life that are so closely related within myself as to be almost indistinguishable – music making and an atypical cognitive profile. The key question I examine in this study is:

How do I, as a musician with heightened autistic traits, function in music and collaborative creative contexts?

This broad topic generates a number of related questions:

What are my particular autistic traits, and how does this mix affect my musical work, both positively and negatively?

How do I “naturally” conduct my communication and collaborations, and is it possible to further optimise this?

What are the implications for others “like me” and those who work with them as educators and creative colleagues?

Implicit in the questions outlined is the assertion that autistic traits can be defined and in some way measured, and that they do indeed affect the way an individual functions in such situations, influencing the process and perhaps the creative product itself.  These questions have strong implications for my own life and creative practice and for others engaged in musical activities, in creative institutions and workplaces, and beyond music into general and special education, and into the study of autistic psychology.  There are a growing number of autobiographical publications by autistic individuals which have the subject of study and analysis by researchers (Ariel & Naseef, 2006; Fleisher, 2002; Grandin & Scariano, 1985; Hall, 2001; Lawson, 2001; McCabe, 2002; Schneider, 1999; Willey, 1999; Willey, 2001). More specifically, first person accounts of autistic engagement with music as listeners have also been sought directly for study by Allen, Heaton and Hill (2009) and their findings, particularly in relation to emotional arousal and response, have been cited elsewhere in this document. However, to my knowledge a first person observation of music creation activities in relation to autistic traits has not been conducted before. It is hoped that this account will add to the body of knowledge and prompt further investigation into emotion embodiment and transmission through music in autistic persons.

Through a developing consciousness and understanding of my own autistic traits, and though evaluation of a twenty year history of creative and collaborative practice, I am becoming aware of my propensity to make conscious, intellectual adjustment to my natural responses and behaviours in order to facilitate more efficient and trouble-free collaborations, musical and social interactions.  In the past, many of these adjustments have been made without understanding and been accompanied by considerable frustration and anxiety.  In many cases I have failed and projects have been adversely affected. Conversely, I am now aware that some of my successes in creative activity have been positively impacted by aspects of the these traits.  My continuing hope is that by observing, evaluating and understanding a range of interaction-in-process that occurs in my chosen profession I will be able to systematise, learn and develop the positives of my own condition and to pass on that insight to others.

My creative practice has frequently placed my process and output directly in a contextual and collaborative relationship with musicians and artists from other disciplines. Examples of this include composition for theatre and dance (e.g. Zen Zen Zo, Queensland Theatre Company), film and television (e.g. ABC TV, SBS TV, Becker Entertainment), song-writing, record production and audio engineering, and the teaching and facilitation of these skills at tertiary level. This type of collaboration is not unusual in contemporary practice and the skills required to function effectively in collaborative environments are of increasing importance in a society that consumes multi-media content at an increasing rate. In my masters thesis (Webber, 2005) I noted that the “points of collaboration” within my own creative endeavours were the most critical, but potentially the most vulnerable elements of the process. These points can be defined as episodes of communication and agreement upon a course of creative action. This occurred in a number of ways, but was typically face-to-face, involving speech and body activity (gesture, facial expression and other nonverbal bodily conduct). Where there was subsequent breakdown in the creative process, it appeared to be traceable to such an episode where the parties came away with a different perception that was not recognised in the course of the communication itself. Clearly something was amis in the communication of ideas and emotions in those circumstances.

Ryder (2003) quotes a number of sources in his assertion that the outcome of any collaboration may be said to be the result of the interactions within a network of “actors” or “influences”, both human and environmental. Such actors may be other musicians, commissioning bodies, directors or choreographers, instruments and equipment, or even the temperature of the room and distractions through the window. In this case, one of these “actors” is a way of perceiving, thinking and responding that is somewhat different to most other people with whom I interact. While significant research on such interactions has been carried out in the fields of ethnography, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis over the past fifty years, a clear understanding of how “whole interactions” involving speech, nonverbal interaction and the situated environment in creative musical processes appears to be relatively unexplored.

These factors, both personal and professional, provided me with the motivation to embark on this project and to try to represent the experience in a way that will provide insights for wide range of people – musicians, students, teachers, researchers, psychologists, autistics and neurotypicals.

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