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October 11, 2023

BLOG: Do it on Purpose

The blogs we publish feature contributions from team members, collaborators and partners. In this edition, Alex McEwan, our Founder and Creative Director, reflects on her experience as a neurodivergent maker and the importance of the Arts Award.

Back in 2020 I founded Albatross Arts, a community interest company dedicated to breaking down barriers to accessing the arts. It felt like a very natural progression from spending twenty-something years working across the creative industries.

We support individuals, groups and businesses to address their ‘Albatross’, or the perceived thing that is holding them back from being their best self. We work with young people who are intermittent school attenders, young carers, young people who have not been able to attend regular school due to challenges in their lives – whether that be through mental health challenges or difficult family circumstances. We partner with youth workers, local police, cultural settings, charities and additional support teachers to create safe spaces for young people to explore their creativity and possible pathways into careers in the arts. Albatross Arts was awarded Champion Centre Status in 2022/23 and we are delighted to have this extended into 2023/24.

Growing up in the 70s, ‘neurodiversity’ was not a very commonly used word. Obviously, swathes of the population were neurodivergent but this was not spoken about openly. As a result of this lack of awareness most teachers were not supported to make their classrooms more inclusive. I was not diagnosed with dyslexia until the end of my second undergraduate degree when my dissertation tutor suggested I get an educational psychiatrist assessment and raised the possibility.

As I reflected on my academic journey through primary school to university my eventual  diagnosis started to make a lot of sense. There was a trend, I had always been a visual learner: doodles, annotated illustrations, mind maps… I broke content up into manageable visual chunks and then revisited the information to take it in. Making art is how I make sense of the world, and it turns out there are a lot of people who feel the same, even though for a lot of my childhood I often thought I was only one.Thankfully there is a much better awareness of dyslexia(s) in schools and more information for teachers and parents alike.

Leadership (whether it is prefixed with ‘social’, ‘self’, ‘creative’ or anything else!) is about bringing people along with you, it’s about knowing who you are and being authentic. These are all attributes you build upon during the Arts Award levels. Lived experience of a challenge, whatever the challenge is, is extremely valuable. The more you understand your barrier, the more you know that others face it too – it’s the definition of empathy. It is also the building block for robust confidence and effective communication skills.

Dyslexic thinking comes up against a few challenges in academic settings but more and more dyslexic strengths are being valued for the many benefits they bring. In fact, ‘dyslexic thinking’ is even a listable attribute on business profiling sites such as LinkedIn. When I came across the Arts Award framework through a friend who was already delivering it in Scotland, it instantly struck me as a very inclusive framework.  Access to a framework like Arts Award creates environments where people can outwardly talk about how they learn and how they see the world. Arts Award is an opportunity to take something you are interested in and explore it outside the confines and restrictions of a formal education setting. It encourages you to research possibilities and most importantly, it affords you a space to better understand how you learn. Arts Award is personal and reflective and therefore is a valuable experience to learn more about yourself in the wider context of whatever field of the arts you are interested in. The emphasis on developing and reflecting on leadership skills is particularly valuable and a skill that can be taken into future study and the workplace.


Top tips to working to a learners strengths:

Reflection doesn’t have to be lengthy, it has to be honest and frequent. Capture the moment!

  • Ask questions and listen closely.
  • Let the young person take the lead in a group situation and leave space for silence.
  • Emphasise the importance of idea gathering and expression, not hard outcomes.
  • Allow for a wide range of collecting evidence or information such as: audio clips, film clips, peer interviews, written feedback on post-it notes, annotated photos, writing (drawing is a form of writing), collage, mind maps, graphic scribing, just ‘normal’ scribing, performance – such as dance / spoken word / poetry or song the possibilities are endless with such an open assessment framework to throw the floor open for a creative response.
  • Self directed learning is the most powerful form of learning and allows for increased self-awareness which is always in everyone’s best interest.
  • Identify and nurture identified strengths to promote positive vocabulary.
  • Talk openly with the learner to increase awareness of strengths and increase creative confidence.
  • Educate yourself about different aspects of neurodivergent learning and traits.
  • Give clear instructions, examples and demonstrations. Scribing some examples of good reflection can be a helpful tool for someone new to reflective practice.

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BLOG: Do it on Purpose