As an art centre with a focus on autistic explorations, Mediamatic naturally has an interest in the experiences of neurodiverse students in art academies throughout the Netherlands. After asking around in art schools in the Netherlands, Mediamatic's director Willem Velthoven got the impression that the percentage of neurodiverse students in art schools is disproportionately high compared to generally estimated percentages of neurodiversity in the general population. However, most art schools in the Netherlands don't currently offer any additional support to their neurodiverse students. One exception to this is the HKU Utrecht, where Claudia van den Hoeven and Gerard van Wolferen started an initiative for autistic students. We invited them to this roundtable evening, which started with Claudia explaining more about this project.
Claudia and Gerard’s initiative at HKU
Claudia shared that she and Gerard, who is an HKU staff member open about his autism diagnosis, had a lot of conversations about what the needs and experiences of autistic students at their school might be. They then got in touch with a few tutors in order to reach out to autistic students and asking they would be interested in meeting as a group to discuss the simple question: “What is it like being an autistic student at HKU?“
The students liked the idea, and during the initial meeting it became clear that while the students were for the most part enthusiastic about going to art school, they were at the same time all dealing with problems regarding their education, some of them individual but others common among the group.
Researching the needs of autistic art students
Claudia went on to pursue a masters degree in special education, during which she decided to focus her research on autism in order to become a specialist on the topic herself. Her research worked as a follow-up to the initial community meeting they had organised, this time asking autistic students the question: “What could the HKU offer you in order for you to be able to study better and be better prepared?“ Some of the feedback she received was very straightforward, concerning for example the clarity of assignments. Other remarks were more complicated, addressing the flexible structure of the curriculum, which allows for a lot of freedom and independence on the part of the students after the first year. In practice this often results in confusion, with students feeling overwhelmed. Claudia and Gerard noticed that many autistic students would start skipping lessons because due to feeling overwhelmed, which would in some cases lead to their dropping out of the programme.
Some of these issues are relatively easy to resolve, for example by informing teachers about autism and allowing students to explain their situations, so that teachers can then provide more clear-cut guidelines on assignments. Others require more care and consideration, as for example the process of guiding students in the transition between studies and internships, or helping them navigate the flexible study system.
The problem of unclear assignments
One of the roundtable guests inquired further about this issue of unclear assignments which students struggle to make sense of.
Claudia explained that in art schools, assignments are of course less clear-cut than in other fields of study. Assignments could go something like “Take a topic out of nature and make a movie of 1,5 minutes about it, and try to think outside of the box!“. These are very difficult instructions, because what does “out of the box“ mean? Autistic students may be frustrated and think “Please just tell me what to do, be more specific!“.
Artist Jenny Konrad added that they also experienced this frustration over unclear assignments during their communication design degree in Düsseldorf, and only learned that it’s okay to break the rules after explicitly being told so during their ERASMUS exchange semester at Artez university for the arts in Arnhem. There, students were let in on the secret that assignments are meant to be just starting points instead of strict rules, and that it was even okay to do the opposite of what the assignment asks you. “I thought that was crazy!“, Jenny said.
Creating a community
Something the students really needed, Claudia went on to tell us, was a sense of belonging in the form of a community within the school. This is exactly what she and Gerard decided to build, by hosting regular get-togethers as a group. At first, Claudia organised these sessions herself, also inviting guest speakers to talk about different topics. However, it quickly became clear that this wasn’t necessary: there were many experts among the autistic students themselves, and they were happy to come up with discussion topics and prepare presentations.
How did you find out that these students wanted a community?, project lead Maartje Koch asked - “Did they tell you this?“ Claudia explained that it wasn’t so straightforward. She was conducting her research during the covid-19 pandemic, so she had to invite students for online meetings. It turned out that many of the students were very comfortable participating from their own rooms, and this was how they discovered that they really enjoyed talking to each other and sharing their experiences as a group.
As part of the research, Claudia asked the students to rate how they were feeling on a scale from 1 to 10 both at the start and at the end of each session. She observed that many of the students’ scores improved over the course of the meeting, with students feeling significantly better after a session than before.
“Just talking to people who understand your experience can be very healing“, Claudia said, and added that many students have told her that they had never been able to talk about autism with other autistic people before and really appreciated the opportunity.
The students also have their own group chat, in which they can ask each other for help or advice or just chat with each other in between the regular meetings. While Claudia as a staff member is not part of this chat, she did share the impression that a real community is growing out of it.
What do you talk about during your meetings?
At this point, there are 37 students on the mailing list for these meetings, Claudia told us, and about 20 students attending each time, with meetings organised once every two months.
Examples of the topics discussed so far range from the very general questions of “What do you think neurodiversity is, and how do you feel about it?“ to the topics of relaxation and finding balance in your daily life and over-and under stimulation and the topic of stimming. The next evening will be about “autism, identity and relationships“, Claudia told us, with a guest speaker who is interested in how to manage jokes about autism.
There is no shortage of topics, she also said, as students come up with new ones each meeting and there is a growing list. A challenge for the future, Claudia told us, will be to collect recordings, literature, events and updates around the meetings on a digital platform.
More and more of the participating students also involve the topic of autism in their artistic projects, Claudia said. One student, tasked with the assignment to “think about a minority community within HKU who could be more represented and try to do something about it“ decided to focus on the autistic community at HKU. The student created a survey and asked 30 teachers at the HKU to fill it out. Among the responses was a staff member who anonymously stated that autism was not an issue in their department, since there were no autistic students studying there.
Someone chimed in: “so they said that they don’t need to handle autism…“
“… because it doesn’t exist in their department.“, Claudia agreed.
This caused some outrage among the students. The community is becoming more and more active and even activist, Claudia shared, and there is a strong desire to make clear to the rest of the school’s community that they are also just students who want to study and become good artists.
In trying to achieve this, they have to walk the line between visibility and stigmatisation. Not every student in the group is comfortable with sharing their diagnosis with the wider HKU community. However, showing the school as a whole that this community of autistic students exists already creates a valuable ripple effect.
Autistic student ambassadors
Claudia further shared that the HKU has two designated student ambassadors for autistic students, whose contact information can be found on the HKU website. Other students can approach these student ambassadors with questions or feedback on their courses and experiences at the school.
“Are these ambassadors put in this position by the school, and are they paid for it?“, Willem asked, to which Claudia responded that yes, the student ambassadors are compensated by the school - with a small sum, but nonetheless this is a sign that the school is officially making room for them.
Up until now these initiatives are only directed at autistic students, not neurodiverse students as a whole, although there have been discussions about offering similar things for students with ADHD, Claudia shared. The overall aim, however, should be to create an overall inclusive system that supports all students, not only those with specific neurodiversity diagnoses, she also acknowledged.
Lead by example
Artist and co-curator Annelies Wina Doom asked whether the HKU could inform other art schools in the Netherlands and lead by example. Claudia said that she believes it could, and that she and Gerard have in fact managed through networking managed to inspire the beginnings of similar initiatives at other Dutch universities for the arts, which are currently in their early development and searching for funding.
Trend towards flexible study planning
Artist Luciano Pinna shared how the school where he is teaching, St. Joost School of Art & Design, is shifting towards an even more flexible curriculum which will allow students to “shop“ for classes across departments. He asked for Claudia’s perspective on this trend, adding that he feels quite worried about students having to face this overwhelming freedom of choice, when for many of them it is difficult to even gauge where they will be in a year's time, let alone which courses would strategically help them most in their academic and professional development.
Claudia agreed that the general development in art schools seems to be towards this more flexible approach, and that this can be a challenge for students. It all hinges on the right guidance, she added: “How are students guided in the process of choosing their own curriculum? Starting from scratch here is very difficult, so guidance is really important.“
However, some of the artists around the table shared that they had the opposite experience - being able to work well with a lot of freedom of choice, and struggling when there is an imposed structure. Jenny told us that they experienced both, with a very flexible curriculum in their degree in communication design in Düsseldorf and a more structured one in the Master Nonlinear Narrative in the Hague. “The flexible programme worked for me“, Jenny said, “because I was able to design my own schedule how I liked it.“ The planned out masters doesn't work so well, “because it imposes a structure onto you which doesn't fit your needs, then doesn't always stick to it and you get all these emails about last minute deadlines, schedule changes, and so on...“
The role of trainings for staff
Knowing that a group of neurodiverse students exists in art schools is important not only for the students themselves, but also for the teaching staff. Claudia told us that other staff members have reached out to her asking if she could give them a training on how to support autistic students. “I always take one or two students with me to those trainings in order to get the conversation started.“, she shared.
In response to this, another guest asked whether in the Netherlands there is also officialised training for staff that would educate them on these topics.
“We have cognitive-bias training for diversity and inclusion“, Claudia replied, “but not for neurodiversity yet, that’s something I put on the agenda in order to include it in these trainings in the future.“
Other guests with experience teaching at art schools added their perspectives. Luciano said that mandatory trainings are given, which touch only slightly on neurodiversity so far. They recently chose to incorporate a number of the sustainable development goals into their practice, however, so he expects diversity and possibly neurodiversity to be addressed more as part of that. Another artist added that while she received a lot of such training as well while teaching at an art school, the real issue standing in the way of teaching staff providing adequate support for students is that staff are chronically overworked.
Also, there is a discrepancy between offering trainings, and people actually internalising and practicing them in their workplaces, another artist added from experience.
Do we need special education?
The flipside to the question of trainings for staff, Maartje pointed out, would be the argument that perhaps, neurodiverse students should be separated in special education programmes, with their own specialised staff. “I can imagine that around this table, we don't agree with that sentiment“, she added.
Willem replied that a reimagined version of “special education“ might not be such a bad thing. Considering the trend towards a fully flexible curriculum, which makes traditional departments obsolete, why not start an autistic department instead? “If you don’t need an art discipline to be a department, you can say “We have all these people with interesting minds, let’s make a department for them, then they can do all this stuff according to your strategic planning, combining different disciplines and so on.“, he speculated.
Reimagining education more radically
Towards the end of the evening, the discussion shifted to whether we might not have to rethink the education system more radically than what had been discussed thus far. At the moment the system is designed to train us to become part of our current capitalist system, one of the artists said, but shouldn’t we want to be part of something different? What if instead, education were about teaching us, for example, to be good ancestors?
She named the example of the masters programme Practice Held in Common at the Artez university for the arts in Arnhem, which was a programme open to artists and designers from any discipline with an emphasis on working with nonviolent communication and nurturing spaces within which students would be able to do their own research and fine-tune their particular way of working on their interests. Unfortunately, this programme will not be continued, since it was so experimental in content and structure that the organisers weren’t able to legalise it as a masters programme. “Which is just tragic, right?“, the artist added.
It is famously easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism, another guest agreed and pointed to the book “Design after capitalism“ by Mathew Wizinsky, which explores the role of designers in this process. It is up to designers to come up with different systems and to world-build, only they are stuck in the same mental structures - perpetuated through the education system - as everyone else. Universities are most interested in fostering collaborations with potential future employers and training students to fit into their profiles, in order to improve their employability ratings, he also posed.
Another artist agreed that it would be interesting to think of an education that doesn’t depend on government or institutional policies, to imagine your own system from the ground up. What could happen if you are free from all of those vested interests and regulations?
As the example of the Practice Held in Common masters shows, the current system unfortunately does not seem to be ready for such a reimagining.
One of the guests offered the example of her young daughter, who was recently diagnosed with dyslexia. Following this diagnosis, the school offered extra courses and resources in order for the child to catch up and fit back into the regular system - which she would inevitably fall behind in again after a while. No efforts were made to adapt the learning to the child instead of the other way around, giving her the impression that she is the problem, instead of incorporating the possibility for different kinds of learning into the system.
Willem mentioned Visual Thinking, the new book by Temple Grandin, which covers exactly this topic of different kinds of minds and how they learn in different ways, with an appeal for education systems to change and adapt to this. We decided to read this book and discuss it during our next roundtable meeting.
Towards a system of radical care
Another guest shared her experience of working as a study coach at an art school. Every student had the right to at least one meeting with her, which students made use of to different extents. Just having one study coach for the entire programme is another example of a structural overload on staff, she said, which reflects a general issue in our society with regard to priorities and care for mental health. She continued: The harsh capitalist system we find ourselves inside is mirrored in the way the education system is structured according to a logic of scarcity and competition. “We really need to practice care and bring that into the classroom“, she added, care and collaboration being needed more than ever in today’s world of many overlapping crises.
“Yes, we should radically care for neurodiverse people, with our neurodiverse set of glasses on“, Maartje agreed.
While there are clearly many people who care within the education system, Claudia and Gerard being excellent examples, it is the people who are pushing the system towards more care, and not the other way around. Time and resource constraints make it difficult to practice care in the current system, even though, as many of the artists agreed, there are many teachers and staff who would be happy to provide better support for neurodiverse students - and students in general.