Nesie Wang, Anna Lina Litz

Neurodiversity in Art Education

A/artist Roundtable

27 mrt 2023

For this roundtable, we discussed how we can make art institutions more accessible to neurodivergent students. Musician, educator and autism advocate Gerard van Wolferen shared his experiences with working with neurodivergent students at Utrecht University of the Arts (HKU). We also like to further discussed how Mediamatic could create a public symposium on art education and neurodiversity.


Gerard van Wolferen giving a presentation - at A/artist public meeting on art education and autism/ADD at Mediamatic

Gerard van Wolferen (b. 1955) studied Composition with Theo Loevendie at the Rotterdam Conservatory and Musicology at the University van Amsterdam where he specialized in both Theoretical Musicology and Ethnomusicology.

He has a special interest in musical structure and perception; music and education; music and anthropology. From 1992 to 2022, Gerard was a senior lecturer at HKU Music and Technology in history of music, composition, musical theory, ethnomusicology and research, and was previously a music teacher in secondary schools.

Gerard is now Chair of Vereniging Autisme Ambassadeurs, as well as Chair of Stichting Muziek en Visueel Gehandicapten. He is active in advising companies and institutions about autism inclusivity, alongside teachers and study counsellors at academic institutions.

*Note: This event is by invitation only. If you are interested, feel free to email us at We're looking forward to meeting you over a great presentation, a meal and an interesting discussion round.


Overview of the roundtable 

To begin his presentation, Gerard showed us a video recorded by the Nederlandse Vereeniging door Autisme (NVA) as part of the AutiCollect campaign which collects money for the Autisme Fonds (autism fund). In this video, he and his wife Esther answer a few questions about autism and the role it has played in their relationship. 

We agreed that this was a lovely way to start the evening, the thoughtful and honest conversation in the video being very disarming. This kind of openness and honesty is what characterises Gerard’s approach to inclusivity, as we would learn during the course of the evening. 

What is iets eten and how did it start? 

Gerard shared that he received his autism diagnosis in 2009, after already being diagnosed with ADD for a while. Out of his three children, two are also diagnosed with both ADD and autism. 

He then went on to describe his initiative iets eten at HKU. 

Iets eten is a term for what we do at HKU“, he explained. “It’s comparable to what we’re doing here right now, except we meet just once every two months and we only have bread and soup. 

Gerard then told us how he came to start this initiative: A teacher at his son’s high school had remarked that autistic children “should not be bothered with mathematics“. Gerard’s son, who has an autism diagnosis, went on to become an engineer, being very good at maths. “So why this prejudice?“, Gerard asked. “That means that there are teachers at secondary schools who think that autists can not do mathematics.“ Another instance of prejudice finally swayed him to make his own diagnosis public. “A colleague at my own school, at HKU, said to me: we think that autists can’t teach, so we don’t admit them to the teachers course.“

“That for me was the reason to come out of the closet and say: I’m an autist, and I’m teaching all the time, I haven’t been doing anything else since I was 16.“ Gerard decided to approach the executive board of the school and ask to be named autism ambassador, “to show them that there are autistic people who can do something worthwhile in a school like ours“. This was in 2016. In the meantime, Gerard has also become Chair of the association for autism ambassadors (VAA) in the Netherlands. In addition to this, he volunteers at MEE, an organisation that helps people with disabilities to participate in various activities in society and at iets drinken ('drink something'), a national network of cafes in a number of Dutch cities that organise get-togethers for people on the autism spectrum once per month. 

“I’ve been volunteering there for about seven years now“, Gerard said - “that’s why I sometimes say I know more people with autism than without.“ 

Iets drinken is also, of course, where HKU’s iets eten gets its name from. “We didn’t want to call it “auti-something“, so we used iets eten, because it’s very neutral.“, Gerard explained. 

Studying with ASS at an art school 

Gerard told the story of a former student at HKU who graduated in 2017 with a thesis called “Studying with ASS at an art academy“, after studying at HKU for ten years. One and a half years before graduating, the student received an autism diagnosis, and realised that this might be a reason why she was never able to finish her thesis. Gerard explained how every time she was close to finishing her thesis, she would receive feedback which would cause her to revise for several months, something that happened over and over. Finally, the student approached Gerard and after reading her thesis, he talked to the examiners, being chair of the exam committee of the school of music himself. In the end the teachers admitted that while the thesis may not be graded as a 9, it was maybe an 8 or a 7, and the student was finally able to finish her studies with this piece of work that is explicitly about studying with ASS at an art school. This case also showed that autistic students at  HKU are in need of a support networking in order to prevent feedback loops like the one this student got stuck in. 

What obstacles do you face? 

When they met for the first time in 2019, Gerard and his colleague Claudia van den Hoeven asked the students of the iets eten group what obstacles they face as neurodivergent students at HKU. 

“The answers were really interesting“, Gerard said. He sorted them into five categories: observations, interactions with the school, self-analysis, feelings, and solutions.


Some observations included that there are too many subjects and too much material for students to process. Also, communication is often times unclear, there is too much ambiguity in assignment instructions and a general lack of structure, and the balance between schoolwork and free time is difficult to maintain. 

Interactions with the school 

Students mentioned that sensory overstimulation and problems with information processing often become an issue in interacting with the physical environment of the school, especially when it comes to sound. For example, students in the Fine Arts department often work in large spaces with very bad acoustics.

One of the students explained: “There’s one space that’s an old factory, which is divided by small walls that don’t reach to the ceiling. The entire space echoes: if someone talks on one side of it you can hear it on the other side.“


“Some of our students blame themselves for these obstacles, and this is the largest list I think - self analysis“, Gerard continued, and read from this list: “I work too slowly, I quickly overanalyse my choices, I’m too much of a perfectionist, I get stuck quickly if the assignment is not clear enough or there’s too much freedom within the assignment, switching between different subjects is difficult, I take instructions too literally, I need more time for deadlines.“ 

“It’s all very much maybe there’s something wrong with me.“, he summarised. 


Some of the feelings students voiced were depression and stress-related symptoms, as well as feelings of guilt, powerlessness, demotivation and shame. One thing that can be especially depressing, they highlighted, is the supposed “truth about the industry“ and the harsh reality of the art world that awaits them after graduation. Teachers often stress how difficult life after graduation will be, but don’t provide solutions for it.

“It’s horrible!“, one of the students jumped in. “It’s so bad. They tell me that after you do Fine Art, the first two years are going to be really hard, you have to say yes to every opportunity you get and you’ll just be working for three years straight and it will be very tiring, but after that you can start saying no to things.  But that’s not happening for me.“

This is why, the student continued, it is so nice to be present at the A/artist roundtable and see that there are autistic artists who succeeded in art school and are still pursuing artistic careers. 

Some of the artists present conceded that it is indeed very difficult to navigate the post-graduation art world. “It also doesn’t end, the stress doesn’t end“, artist Marjanne van Helvert added. 

Artist Victor Evink chimed in: “The life of an artist in their early career involves writing a lot of different proposals, with a lot of time and energy and part of your soul going into each one, and you never know whether you’ll get anything at all or if it will lead to anything. I work together with a designer and filmmaker who came from art education and is not autistic, and she writes the proposals for us, I couldn’t do it. If I had to do it on my own, I would definitely not pass through that filter.“

The student continued: “Yes, and it’s really interesting that that’s the norm. I already heard a lot of people talk about autistic burnout during school and after school, and obviously you want to avoid that, right?“

Artist Jenny Konrad added: “I just can’t afford to live in this pace that society expects me to live in, to get all of this done in this limited amount of years - I just need to take it slow, otherwise I’ll slide back into burnout.“

There have been previous discussions within the A/artist group about how to make art funds more accessible for neurodivergent applicants. You can read about it here for a general discussion, or here for a discussion of Mediamatic’s own open call Penny for your Thoughts. 


Finally, Gerard shared some of the benefits of the iets eten group. “It’s helpful to know that you are not the only one with autism - that’s the same at this table of course. It helps to know what problems others experience, to understand and empathise with the others, to share solutions, and to know where your autism ends and your personality begins and vice versa - that is one of the main reasons to meet other people with autism.“

Jenny added: “Meeting in a group like this also helps with imposter syndrome, realising you can help other people and there’s not just this one textbook version of autism.“

Open for all 

“So iets eten is open to all sorts of people who don’t have a formal diagnosis?“, artist Robin Waart asked. Gerard confirmed this: “Yes, you don’t have to show your diagnosis when you come in.“ 

We agreed that for inclusion, it is also important not to avoid gatekeeping these kinds of meet-ups. 

A very warm group 

Gerard and the students told us about the latest iets eten meeting, where guest speaker Jeroen de Winter talked about autism, sex and gender. “It was very interesting, especially for him“, Gerard said - “He was very suprised to find such an open and free group, where teachers and students were on such an equal level.“

“We want to use this energy to start showing the school and the rest of the world what we are capable of.“, Gerard continued. Since iets eten started out in 2019, some of the participating students have graduated, and a few of them have used the topic of autism for their graduation works, some of which Gerard introduced to us. 

For example, one student designed an animation for a short film about inclusive education commissioned by the expert group for autism and education (NVA).  

What next? 

Finally, Gerard presented a list of three points for next steps to take with the iets eten initiative.

“The first thing is to organise groups like this at all art schools in the Netherlands. I think you have to start bottom up, start with the students themselves so that then they can show the schools what they’re able to do.“

He continued: “Second step: connect autistic art students to autistic artistic role models, like this group here - because that will give them much more energy of course. And it’s very important for the schools too, to see that there is a movement going on in the Netherlands.“

Gerard explained that art schools are a good starting point for this process, since they are used to more individual teaching and there is room for people to understand each other. “But when we are done with this, it should spread to other schools and universities. The ultimate goal is for schools and teachers to understand inclusion.“

What is inclusion? 

“Inclusion is something like this“, Gerard said: “Ask any person Who are you?, What do you call yourself and how may I call you? and What can I do for you?“ 

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about neurodiversity or any kind of diversity, it works for everyone and it would be good if every teacher everywhere in the Netherlands had this attitude and asked these questions.“

“That’s interesting“, remarked Robin - “I hadn’t thought about inclusion in that way.“ 

“Although we are in the Netherlands we are not one culture but many, every family has its own culture, so we are obliged to ask other people these questions when we meet them.“, he concluded. 

“But the thing is“, Robin asked: “How do you get that to be sincere? And can we expect that from teachers?“ Being sincerely interested in others requires certain space and capacities, which teachers might not be able to provide or which are not often afforded them in their work environment. 

Claudia responded with her experience at HKU, where due to the iets eten group, awareness about and interest in autism have risen a lot. “Students integrate the subject in their projects and give presentations to the art teachers and the teachers get more and more curious, so there is a sort of conversation between the community of students and the teachers. And the teachers start asking me: can you tell us and our students about autism? So this sincere interest is created by the students themselves.“ 

Inclusion is based on trust 

Victor added to Robin’s point about sincerity: “When it comes to all different kinds of identity journeys, there is unfortunately a spectrum from very deep sincerity to outright trolling. So when it comes to doing inclusion right it’s about a basis of mutual understanding where you come to a sincere perception and treatment of how people call themselves and how you call these people.“ 

“I think inclusion is based on trust.“, Gerard agreed. “When you start trusting people then you have a good starting point.“ 

Do it by doing it and start by starting 

We also discussed the value of starting an initiative like iets eten and developing it into a wider movement, and how to avoid getting hung up on theoretical definitions of inclusion. 

“I would probably talk about the criteria for ten years and then start my group“, Robin reflected - “So it’s good to just start doing it and stress provisionality. It’s a working hypothesis.“

One of the students concluded: “You just have to start, and you can’t stop starting, it’s better to just try. Do it by doing it and start by starting.“ 

Planning the symposium 

We decided to take this conclusion seriously, and start organising a public symposium inviting art students and educators from different schools throughout the Netherlands. This event took place on the 8th of May, and you can get a better impression of it in this blogpost!