FEATURE: Charcoal Angels: The Autistic Spectrum in Music




Charcoal Angels


ALL PHOTOS (unless credited otherwise): Unsplash

The Autistic Spectrum in Music


ALTHOUGH it is not light reading…


it is obvious the complexity and prevalence of mental illness in the music industry are rising. Year on year, we are seeing figures come through that chart the climb in mental-health-related cases of suicide and self-harm. High-profile suicides in the industry raise awareness and encourage taking – that can quickly fade and we ask ourselves will there be sufficient help and funding to help tackle the avalanche? This article, published last year, highlights a link between musical ability/creativity and depression:

“‘Can Music Make You Sick?’ is a new study commissioned by Help Musicians UK, which explores the effects of a career in music on musicians’ mental health.

The study, completed by University of Westminster, investigated 2,211 musicians, 71.1% of whom said they had suffered from panic attacks or anxiety, with 68.5% saying they had struggled with depression.

Researchers Sally-Anne Gross and Dr. George Musgrave cited a few major issues including money worries, because of juggling many different jobs and dealing with precarious and unpredictable pay, and poor working conditions.

They also found musicians were more likely to be subject to sexual abuse, bullying and discrimination – as well as antisocial and unsympathetic working environments.

While relationships with family and the support of close friends and partners are highly valued, they are also “open to abuse and feelings of guilt”. Plus, musicians often lack the financial means to seek professional support”.


These findings are not revelations: we all know how mental illness and its effects are impacting artists and how it can lead to some very serious consequences. Maybe there is a long way to go before there is real solution and calm: doing more research and pledging dedicated and real support for those in need is a good step forward. Many adverts look at cancer and serious illnesses but there is very little out there that puts mental-health under the spotlight. Although we have the statistics and we are seeing worrying trends form; I wonder how much is being done to look at mental-health problems. There are no adverts on national television targeted at those who suffer – let alone musicians and bodies to help them.


One can do their research but it would be good to put something on the screen/radio that actively acknowledged the statistics and pledges solutions. If depression and anxiety are well-known and written about; perhaps something like autism isn’t. There is a link between the two in many cases but one often feels like it is a rather unsettling and foreign subject. How do you talk with someone about it when they themselves have a hard time communication and understanding emotional nuances?! One of the reasons I am bringing up the subject of depression and autism is to bring my own experiences into play.


IN THIS PHOTO: My ugly mug/PHOTO CREDIT: Sam Liddicott

I am not autistic myself but have been to the doctor a few times and suspect that I have a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome. It is on the autistic spectrum and is not quite as severe as autism itself. People with Asperger’s syndrome see and hear the world in different ways. They interact with others unlike other people and, because it is invisible, it can be hard broaching the issue and explaining it. Asperger’s syndrome is for life: there is no cure but it, in itself, is not life-limiting and fatal. In my case; I have depression too (ranging from moderate to severe) and Asperger’s syndrome can take different forms. Whilst intelligence is not necessarily lower than anyone else in the population; understanding speech and showing empathy can be quite hard. One might have a limited sense of social interaction and prefer to be hidden away. It is harder to navigate various scenarios and a person might have robotic speech and a monotone delivery. Although I do not share some of the common traits – an obsession with the self and a problem understanding facial gestures – I do struggle with eye contact and talking openly with people. I have an obsession with music that, whilst beneficial for my writing, it can be enriching; it does mean I do and think about very little else – I get caught in routines and do not have any other interests and hobbies apart from music. I have awkward mannerisms and motions and can become obsessed with odd subjects and thoughts.


There is a lot more to unravel but those are some of the symptoms. I can easily talk on the radio and feel comfortable there but it is a different issue if I were filmed and had to act for the camera. That uneasiness with the self and unpredictability of the situation means I would be too tense and not do it. I will talk about artists who suffer autism/Asperger’s syndrome but it is hard doing anything than what I do. I have very little interest in the ‘real world’ jobs and doing anything other people do. I do jobs for money but, whereas others are concerned with the task at hand and take some pride in it; none of it matters to any real extent. Creativity and doing what I do best is the only things that matter. I also have generalised anxiety disorder which throws a lot of physical symptoms into the pot – clumsiness, balance issues and headache. My memory is shocking so it can be hard recalling details and a slightly stunted set of social skills means relationships are out of the question normally. Sex and relations are never really a possibility or something easy to engineer; maintaining a conversation and interest can be hard. All of this sounds dire but that focus on writing and music has its benefits. I often feel we have a very poor grasp of some artists/creatives and how life is really like for them.

I am jealous of those who could get on stage and perform at gigs; the multitalented who have their own shows and series; the musicians who can get in front of a microphone and perform a hard song without much warm-up. These are scenarios that are out of my grasp and beyond my abilities. Music journalism is a way to express myself without having to fight nerves and self-flagellation but there is always that desire to do something new and expand my horizons…whether that is even possible for me?! Autism is a more pronounced and wide-ranging version of Asperger’s syndrome and can be really severe – to the point someone will not be able to touch someone else or interact with your peers. This article casts a link between creativity and those on the autistic spectrum:

A December 2015 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found a strong link between autism and divergent thinking—the ability to think creatively, out of the box. In other words, developing novel ideas and utilizing creative problem solving may come easy to those with autism.

But anyone who has had the pleasure of knowing a child or adult on the autism spectrum will likely tell you they didn’t need a study to tell them there is a clear link between autism and creative thinking. Some on the spectrum are particularly imaginative, innovative, and inspired, so it only makes sense that a number have gone to achieve superstardom.

You either got it or you don’t, and being on the spectrum isn’t the deciding factor. We set out to find some of the talented musicians who have risen to the height of fame in the industry, in spite of their autism – or maybe thanks to it. The five that made our list have turned the notion of what it means to have a ‘disorder’ on its head”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Days of the New's Travis Meek/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

It is a complete bag of balls having these limitations as a person but the fact sociability and interaction is hard makes me and others focus on writing and other forms of communication. One of the reasons I am so prolific as a writer is the fact I find it easy to write and often say things on the page I can never say in person. I feel confident I could do radio presentation and interviews with no issues but filming my blog would be a different matter – quite daunting and I would be too self-conscious and critical. Amadeus Mozart suffered traits many would link to autism. He engaged in reckless and dangerous behaviour and struggled with self-control. Marty Balin of Jefferson Airplane suffered from autism from childhood. Travis Meeks (guitarist and lead of Days of the New) was misdiagnosed and eventually diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in 2005. He experimented with drugs and had the feeling he could not do anything right – that misdiagnoses and misunderstanding impacted him heavily. Courtney Love has been diagnosed with autism/Asperger’s syndrome, as has Gary Numan. He conducted an interview earlier this year where he talked about his depression and coping with Asperger’s syndrome:

Yes,' he confirms. ‘I do have Asperger's Syndrome. I find social situations difficult, especially if I have to make small talk. It's hard to read body language or the little nuances that go to make up a conversation.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Gary Numan/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

"Fortunately I have Gemma to help me. Unlike my wife, whose care of our home borders on OCD and would put me to shame, I'm not obsessive in that way. But, in things that interest me, I do tend to fixate and take obsession to the extreme. For example, when I was into planes and air-display flying, I wasn't happy with simply taking part. I had to become a qualified examiner.

"Same thing happened with boats: I simply had to know everything there was to know about them. On the whole, I think having Asperger's has been a good thing. It's given me a slightly different view of the world and I truly believe it helped get me through some hard times. I'd never wish it away”.

Non-musicians like Chris Packham have discussed their experiences and you can definitely see a link between their personalities and mine. My situation is different – a lot of those I have read about suffering it can find and maintain relationships – but there is that feeling of being misunderstood and having to hide things. If Numan has embraced, to an extent, his Asperger’s syndrome; it can be a challenge for others. Pip Brown, better known as Ladyhawke, was diagnosed and feels she is fitting into a world that is the wrong shape for her. She was diagnosed after suffering anxiety and being very self-conscious for a long time. In fact, in an interview of 2008; she talked about revealing her Asperger's syndrome diagnosis and how attention shifted to that: 

"Hardly the stuff of showbusiness legend, and entertainers with Asperger's are few and far between: the actress Daryl Hannah (diagnosed borderline autistic in childhood) is one; Craig Nicholls, frontman of Australian rock group The Vines, is another. Still, everyone loves an against-all-odds story, and here was Brown's.

But it's not the story that the singer wants to be defined by. "I really regret talking about it," she says. "There's a kid with Asperger's who wrote to me on MySpace, saying I was a liar. It was really hurtful. I was like, you have no idea what I've been through. Yeah, I'm a bit weird. I do weird things. I've been really wary since then".

The Sunday Times columnist Camilla Long called Gary Numan out regarding his condition and the fact it was fabricated. She argued he had no formal diagnosis but, the fact he was told by a professional he might have it – whilst suffering traits of the illness – has not been exaggerated. James Taylor and Susan Boyle are other figures who have (or may have) Asperger’s syndrome and it seems there is a long way to go before it is fully understood. People seem to want a certificate or proof everyone has every symptom they say they have or feel, because they cannot see any scars or bruises, there is nothing there. This is the same attitude and sense of ignorance that sufferers of depression have had to carry around. I feel one of the reasons some famous musicians commit suicide is not the inability to talk and feeling weak but that realisation they cannot go back once they do open up. It is hard opening floodgates and having to accept you may have to give up what you love. In many cases, no amount of talking will help things and it is a band-aid – many do not understand that and feel anyone can be saved if they speak or take medication. There is a similar feeling around those on the autistic spectrum.

Not only is it hard to explain and discuss – for obvious reasons – but there is no cure and fix. I have used the word ‘sufferer’ but I should drop it. Many who have autistic traits feel they are living the life their way: no need to feel inferior or carry any sort of burden. It is an illness but one that you have to adapt to. Like depression, everyone’s experience is different. In my case, supplementary to what I have said, I find it impossible to express and feel love. That may sound strange, and may be a personality disorder, but cannot tangibly and emotionally say those words or have that feeling. It is nothing personal but I can express love for inanimate things and music but not people – another reason why a relationship would be extremely hard. I also struggle to feel awake and energised; I am drained all the time and can get anxious with changes and breaking routines. There is a reason why everyone is different and there is an autistic ‘spectrum’. Someone else who is in the public eye and is a huge music fan is Paddy Considine. Back in nine years ago, the actor asked himself: Why am I not a good actor? He was feeling angry a lot and wondered what was wrong with him. Maybe some of that (wrongful) self-depreciation and critique was a lack of confidence or a sense of being outsider:  a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome in 2011 explained a lot. Here, in an interview with Tim Lewis in 2014,

In 2011, Considine was told he had Asperger’s, a diagnosis that made a lot of sense to him. He had felt hypersensitive for a while, often convinced that his wife and three children were somehow in danger. He’d wake up in the morning and want to go straight back to sleep or hide under a table when there was a knock on his front door. Then, last year, a specialist told him that he may in fact have Irlen Syndrome, a difficulty processing light that also has links with autism. Part of the treatment for Irlen is to wear tinted glasses or contact lenses, which Considine recalibrates every 10 months. Where before he struggled to maintain eye contact, now he finds himself considerably more at ease in social situations and on set”.


IN THIS PHOTO: Paddy Considine/PHOTO CREDIT: Phil Fisk for The Observer

In an interview a few years before that; he talked about the diagnose and the aftermath:

Indeed, so good an actor is Considine that if he wasn’t telling me about his condition now, I would never guess he was a sufferer. True, sitting opposite him, the wiry Midlander can seem intense and as nervy as a racehorse. Yet at the same time he is funny, open and warm with no sign of the inability to relate to others that often comes with the condition.

Then again, Asperger syndrome, a lifelong disability that affects three in every 10,000 people – and is more commonly found in males than females – comes with a complex range of symptoms. Although the afflicted often have above-average intelligence (famous sufferers are thought to have included Albert Einstein, Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci), they can find it hard to make sense of the world, to process information and to relate to other people. They are often unable to read signals that most of us take for granted – facial expressions, say, or body language.

Considine sums it up as “a debilitating sense of detachment” from both the people around him and his surroundings. He struggles on a practical level, too – certain noises, for example, bright lights, and even wallpaper and fabrics can present a problem. In the room where we meet, he looks at the brightly coloured, geometrically striped carpet as if he is a man on the ledge of a skyscraper. “That carpet, for instance, is basically my worst nightmare.

“It’s just too sort of 'there’. Too difficult to ignore. It makes it hard for me to focus on anything else because I get drawn into the colours and the pattern and I get taken off somewhere in my head, other than where I know I ought to be”.

I wanted to bring Considine in because, as an honorary musician and fan, he has spoken at length about it. It helps illustrates and explain what a lot of people in music (and film) are going through. Being so candid and exposing can be a struggle for some but it seems Considine is coping and able to navigate social situations different to when he was first diagnosed. Whereas we have a long way to go to understanding depression and being able to adequately control the current situation; there is a (less prevalent) stream of psychological issues that stem from autism. Far fewer people suffer autism or Asperger’s syndrome but it is a very real thing that can have the same debilitating and life-long issues as depression. In fact, the two seem to go hand-in-hand and many feel like their disorder makes them stronger at what they do. That desire to express yourself in some form and the addiction and narrow focus – all of this can make us better at what we do. The problem with that is social sides of life suffers and there are weaknesses that others do not have. Rather than see a musician/creative on the autistic scale as being outside the circle and in need of cliché bromides (“We’re all a bit autistic, I guess” – “No, we are certainly not!”); appreciating its severity and reality can go a long way to creating harmony and better communication.


IN THIS PHOTO: The Vines' Craig Nicholls (who has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I called this piece Charcoal Angels because I feel artists on the autistic spectrum have a lot of grace and beauty but see life – and are seen – in charred and black-and-white terms. It can be hard spreading the wings and there is that feeling of being on the fire and unable to fight the flames – even though we have a lot to give and everything we want to bring from our inside is being blocked or filtered in different ways. There are good sides to Asperger’s syndrome/autism – in the sense of creative excellence and focus – but there are definite roadblocks and issues that make daily life a lot harder and lonelier than many can appreciate. Nobody has to fully comprehend and understand how different life is (with the condition) but accepting its presence and not changing your behaviour – being all hushed or backing off – is a big step. Some of the best and most intense creative minds have some form of autism. If someone out there is going through it or feels they have it then go and see a G.P. and have a chat. It is not a complex diagnosis and, once it happens, you can at least get some form of talk therapy and help. It is not going to be cured by naming it - and realising it is part of who you are takes stigma and anxiety away. Being able to do all of that and carry on with determination and strength is a big accomplishment. You will be more aware of others who are the same as you and, in many ways, look at people and the world differently. Never hide away and feel you are weaker than anyone else. Having Asperger’s syndrome or having autism is a real but manageable condition and it is certainly…


NOTHING to be ashamed of.