Thoughts from a neurophysiotypical person

Alongside my work as an interaction designer at Funka I am an artist and ceramist, and ever since my education at Konstfack University College of Art, Crafts and Design, I have been thinking about the terms beautiful and ugly. Especially in the crafts industry, where I have worked, there are still strong conventions about what is considered beautiful, both aesthetically and from a craftsmanship point of view. Throughout my career, I have tried to challenge those conventions or, rather, to make myself independent of them in my artistic expression. It is not that I’m deliberately making stuff ugly for the sake of it, as the only idea. I’m looking for an expression or content that can say something about the world we live in, and not everything has to be said with beautiful words or pictures.

My own use of the word beautiful is quite wide. To me, beautiful refers to something emotionally affecting. It can be pictures and objects as well as speeches, actions, people and phenomena, good and evil. It can therefore be something that raises strong negative feelings in me, something terrible, but that I still think is beautiful. It may be difficult to imagine if it is a ceramic sculpture but easier in the case of, for example, a movie. A documentary film can concern horrible things and be filmed with the simplest means, without aesthetic ambitions, yet still be strong, yet still be beautiful. It should be possible, then, to do craftsmanship with the same intentions. In contemporary art, you would like to claim that everything is allowed and that you are not affected by aesthetic and craft conventions, but I do not think that's true. I think there are conventions there as well and that it is still relevant to talk about concepts such as beautiful and ugly.

But what does all this have to do with a column for Funka? For my part, the concepts expanded when my son received his Asperger diagnosis a decade ago. Beautiful and ugly was suddenly a question of the norms that determine if something fits into a context or not. Making an ugly artwork suddenly meant to argue for its value and right to exist in the artistic crafts world, in the same way that one would argue for the value of persons with different disabilities in society as a whole.

"The word normal can hurt if you’re not covered by it," writes author Martina Lowden in an article in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter (“My horror-stricken heart wants to talk about the fear”, Dagens Nyheter, 2011-10-26) in which she for the first time goes public with her Asperger diagnosis.

I think Lowden's quote is thoughtful, but it's a bit complicated, because what does it really mean to be normal, and is there anybody at all who can claim to be normal? The word itself is difficult to use as it automatically assumes the opposite, that there is something that is abnormal, which does not live up to the norm. It turns into a value judgment, but I can understand why Lowden uses the term. There are certainly many people who think of themselves as normal and in different ways want to express that, but then, also, having a function variation usually causes some kind of difficulty. It can be a physical or cognitive variation, and even though those of us without explicit variations may think of ourselves as abnormal, we usually find it easier to function in today's society than they do. At Funka, we say "There are no normal users". It's on our backs when we mingle at the Funka Accessibility Days, which is a good thing and also highlights that normal is not a term that can describe those who have no explicit functional variation.

Lowden's quote may also be problematic because it could be interpreted as her desire to be covered by the word normal, to be normal. A wish that many may feel but few can live up to today and which, in combination with a society that more and more tends to raise norms as an ideal, may be a contributing factor to increasing fears, feelings of alienation and xenophobia.

I do not really think Lowden has such a wish, she rather wants to point to feelings of exclusion and problematise the word normal, and therefore she also uses the word “neurotypical” when talking about people without NPD (neuropsychiatric disability). I recognise the term and use it frequently in the form of “NTs” when I talk to my son, but it does not really work in relation to other functional variations I work with at Funka.

Beautiful – ugly, normal – abnormal, right – wrong. They are normative concepts, opposites, and perhaps there is also a need for a wider and less judgemental term for people who have no explicit functional variation.

For example, I notice that when I talk to my son, he asks how us NTs go about making new friends. I also notice this at work when we do user tests and include persons with and without functional variations, then we must be able to categorise in order to accommodate as many different needs as possible.

So, what can we say instead? Neurophysiotypical, NPTs? Then it will be a description also in relation to physical functional variations. Well, not perfect. A bit difficult to say and actually there are even more normative things to relate to, so maybe it should be something like “neurophysiologically, sexually, and ethnically typical”. In other words, a white heterosexual man without physical or neuropsychiatric function variations. Sort of like me.

Linus Ersson