Former Autistic Advisor for Altogether Autism Tobin Maclean hopes that this writing and piece of art helps other people realise they’re not alone. He hopes this brings awareness to how anxiety can present as perfectionism, and the impact the deficit model can have on someone’s sense of self.
Creating art is difficult for me at the moment. I was a prolific and talented artist when I was younger, I won awards and achieved highly in art classes at school. I have a lot of anxiety about my art being good enough now; every art piece goes through an ugly stage where you need confidence in yourself and the piece to continue, and it is really hard to find that confidence amid perfectionism. I think that being autistic and the often negative societal messages around autism have contributed to this.
The deficit model of autism, where autism is seen as a series of deficits, rather than neurodivergence, has eroded my self-esteem to the point where I think I need to be an extraordinary artist (amongst other things) to make up for my perceived shortcomings. I feel like it is pointless for me to spend time producing art which isn’t of exceptional quality, and it leads to so many of my pieces and ideas going unfinished or never even being started. It’s a shame because I really enjoyed creating art. For now, I try to reduce the pressure on myself to create and allow that drive to come and go as it pleases.
Yet, I still decided that I wanted to create a new piece of art that somehow depicted what anxiety feels like to me. After over an hour of trying and failing to start anything, feeling like everything I was coming up with was either not very original or didn’t feel truthful and therefore nothing was good enough (i.e., perfect), someone pointed out that I was feeling anxious about the task of creating perfect art that portrayed my anxiety. And so, I decided to try and capture the feelings I have around art and used a camera stand made from Sellotape and a ruler to take the reference photo I used for this piece.
I used charcoal because I have found that it is a more free-flowing medium than graphite or watercolour. This lessens my anxiety about making the piece look photorealistic because while you can achieve photorealism with charcoal, it naturally lends itself to being blurry and a bit all over the place. The drawing under my head in the picture is a great representation of what I find hard about art. I had that idea for months, and did manage to finally start it, but now it sits on my desk because I don’t want to ruin it. It will probably never be finished.
Tobin is a lifelong dedicated artist, starting out drawing horses with graphite as a young child. As a teenager, he discovered watercolour, which quickly became a favourite medium along with graphite. Recently he has started using charcoal, as well as branching out into drawing and painting people and planes. He has had pieces in three iNDx art exhibitions, as well as having helped organise it in 2021.
This article first appeared in the Altogether Autism Journal, Autism and Anxiety 2023. Though Tobin has now left us as an advisor, his work continues to guide us.