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proprioceptive drawing

Updated: Mar 14, 2023

Flying-fox bat art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artist
proprioceptive Banggu (Grey Headed Flying Foxes) - 2022

Did you know that we have more than five senses? One of these lesser known senses is 'proprioception' - the sense of bodily location and movement.

Proprioception is what tells you that your arm is beside your body and that it is either hanging still or swinging back and forth. It is why you can still point out where your facial features are while your eyes are closed. Proprioception also helps us balance and judge how much force we are using when touching, throwing, or kicking something.

Autism alters my proprioception dramatically. When I look at my reflection in a mirror, my body parts don't feel like they are where I can see them. Instead, I experience a strange version of what I see - where bits and pieces of myself are scattered around warped shapes, and sensations spill outside of their physical lines. This can be pretty challenging - my balance and coordination have to be navigated actively and differently to other people. No matter how carefully I plan my movements, I usually end up stumbling, veering to one side, or bumping my head and limbs on obstacles that seem very obvious and easy to avoid.

I wanted to experiment with ways of expressing strange, difficult to decribe autistic sensory experiences like proprioception. I also wanted to challenge the ways that minds and bodies are shaped, sensed and perceived as being either 'normal' or 'abnormal' in ableist societies. But how?

Great white shark art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artist
proprioceptive Dhaarlawan (Great White Shark) - 2022

An idea came to me while drawing with children. Children's drawings have a real freedom when it comes to breaking rigid rules about form, colour, spaces, and 'normal'. An adult may look at a child's drawing of a Dog and find it misshapen, but the child who drew the Dog - and even other children around them - very often are able to see a Dog that is perfectly formed. Children's drawings - with such ease and unconditional acceptance - normalise proprioceptive distortions of bodily shape, position, and movement. Allowing myself the freedom to create imperfect, child-like drawings of my experiences felt like a good starting point.

At first, I did not draw myself as a human. I first chose to draw myself as a Bat and then as a Shark. On the one hand, this is a statement about the way that I relate to the dehumanisation of these animal communities through my experience of autistic dehumanisation. On the other, it is a way to explore my proprioceptive experiences safely through animals who taught me to celebrate my strengths as an 'upside-down person' and my trauma healing as a 'monstrously misunderstood person'.

Flying-fox bat art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artis
proprioceptive human-self under Bat Tree - 2023

In many ways, drawing myself as Bat and Shark also raises challenging questions about similar societal distortions in how the bodies and unknowable minds of animals are shaped, sensed and perceived in absolute, objectifyingly human ways that deny their agency.

When I look at my proprioceptive Bats and Sharks, I can't help but wonder if what we see when we look at these animals is really the limit of who they are, or what they see when they look at their own kind. Why should it be when my own sensory experiences are so intensely different to what most other humans would consider the one and only true 'normal'? That idea of 'normalness' is not my truth at all.

These drawings have a curiousity about the limitations of humans perceiving with human perceptions the ways, minds, senses and experiences of beings who are different to us. I don't know how a Bat experiences it's own body, or where a Shark feels its various fins and tail are - do you? Of course not, there's no way we ever possibly could, because we are not Bats or Sharks! That is their experience to have as Bats and Sharks, not ours to have as humans. An incredible sense of excitement, wonder and awe takes over when you suddenly realise the perpetually unsolvable mysteriousness of the lived experiences of other beings!

To create my proprioceptive drawings, I closed my eyes and imagined myself as different Bats and Sharks. I then drew where I felt my corresponding body parts while my eyes stayed closed. That means I drew Shark pectoral fins and Bat wings where I felt my arms, I drew Shark gills where I felt my lungs and breathing motion in my diaphragm, and I drew Bat facial features where I felt my own ears, eyes, nose and mouth.

Great white hammerhead shark microbat Flying-fox bat art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration watercolour ink by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artist
proprioceptive Bats & Sharks in alcohol inks and watercolours - 2022

I then experimented with colour to emphasise sensations of spilling out from between defined bodily lines and spaces. I used different combinations of inks, watercolours, and coloured pencils to express different sensory textures to my proprioceptive experiences. For example, when thinking about where I felt my body parts and positions while also moving my body slightly, I found that coloured pencils drawing short, straight parallel lines captured the rhythmic, staggered sensation of my body part locations moving slightly further and further away from my core position with each movement. The wetness and fluidity of watercolours and inks, on the otherhand, expressed the smoother but faster bleed of bodily location moving outward away from my core position when I sat very still.

Although these drawings may look like scribbles or children's drawings, they feel very much like my autism. When I look at them, I can relate to the feelings of proprioception that I experience. I also find that I can better explain those experiences to neurotypical others by referring to the images or asking them to try the same process themselves and compare.

Long eared microbat art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artist
proprioceptive Long Eared Microbat - 2022

The value of this is enormous when we consider the challenges in public autism education. Meaningful autism awareness should invite neurotypical people into our experiences as much as possible if it is to go beyond the generic, broad-stroke description of typical autistic sensory experiences common in current neurodivergence education. While these descriptions of autism are important and useful, they only scratch the surface and tend to focus on sight, sound and touch sensory experiences that in many ways become so unbearable because of their amplification of proprioceptive sensations. If people could better understand just how disorienting autistic sensory experiences can be beyond the simplicity of 'too loud, too bright, feels bad', I believe that greater empathy, clarity and understanding of accessibility needs and approaches would grow.

great white shark art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artist
proprioceptive Dharlawaan (Great White Shark) - 2022

Beyond education, I also found meaningful healing in these drawings. I have always felt uncomfortable in my own skin to the point of experiencing a kind of body dysmorphia. I self-consciously perceive myself as having droopy, differently shaped eyes, large teeth, and an unsteady gait when walking. I have internalised these characteristics as physical indicators of my neurological differences, because this is how discriminatory caricatures of autistic people were often drawn. Such autism stigma from my childhood has imprinted a neurologically disabled 'look' into my mind that constantly feeds the sense of being 'monstrous, misshapen & wrong'. These drawings have been an empowering way of challenging & dismantling those imposed, discriminatory views of myself in favour of a celebration of my sensory experiences as part of a diverse, neurological ecosystem.

Flying-fox bat art proproceptive drawing sensory illustration by Sara Kian-Judge autistic artist
proprioceptive Banggu (Grey Headed Flying Fox) - 2022

*Artworks & images of artworks belong to Sara Kian-Judge 2022-2023.

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