They spoke. They created. Their message is now public. 

And it stopped us all in our tracks. 

After months of work, a band of young people proudly calling themselves the Autism Activists were the guests of honour at their own art exhibition last night (2 May).

As part of a collaboration between the Thought Foundation and the North East Autism Society, artist Danni Gilbert of iAMi, was commissioned to work alongside a small group of autistic young people on a fortnightly basis. 

The culmination of their work was a dynamic and thought-provoking installation as part of a six-week long exhibition in the Birtley community arts space entitled Let’s Talk Disability.

Designed to both educate and inform society, the Activists’ hard-hitting messages were both shocking and profound.

Best described as protest art their pieces proudly carried strong imagery and messages like ‘autism is not a disease’.

Autism Activists exhibition

Amanda McMahon, director of learning and engagement at the Thought Foundation, was visibly moved seeing the culmination of months of work revealed to a packed gallery which included the young people, their families and friends, representatives from the North East Autism Society and local artists.

She said:

I’m overwhelmed! The aim of this project was to give these young people a voice and it’s incredible to know that we have been able to create a safe space where they could be creative and they could explore their thoughts.

My hope is that people will understand the messages, and that it will provoke acceptance and open doors to change.

We’ve loved working with the North East Autism Society on this. We just clicked from the start and I knew this could be something special. Allowing young people to access the arts really can be a way to making lasting change in Society – and this is the proof of that. We hope lots of people come along and see the Autistic Activists’ work.

But for mum, Emma Thomas, whose son Ed was involved in the Big Lottery funded initiative it wasn’t the art that gave her cause for celebration last night.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a positive change in Ed. It was something I hadn’t dared hope for. I think being with other autistic young people and their siblings, making friends, and being able to express their feelings about autism was powerful in so many ways. He usually hates the limelight and being the centre of attention but by the end of the night he was walking around holding a placard proudly campaigning for autism acceptance. I’m lost for words! 

During last night’s preview of the exhibition which will run until the middle of June, artist Danni Gilbert spoke about the project alongside Lisa Taylor and Kerrie Highcock from the North East Autism Society. Illustrator Aaron Lambert, who created animation for the exhibition’s centrepiece, was also in attendance.

Danni said:

The thing that struck me most was just how insightful these young people are about themselves and about society, at such young ages. Working together with these amazing young people had a profoundly calming effect on me actually – there’s a lot of hope to be derived for our future when we have young people so able and articulate, who want a more accepting society.

Autism wasn’t a foreign concept to me, so I was thrilled to be commissioned by the Thought Foundation to be part of this. My partner is autistic and I’m being assessed for ADHD myself. I feel very proud to have been part of this.

Being included in an exhibition on disability was a bold but controversial move for the North East Autism Society.

Family Development Manager for the North East Autism Society, Kerrie Highcock, said:

In talking about autism the word ‘disability’ often follows shortly after. It’s only one word and yet it can change everything.

To be clear - we don’t mean ‘autism’ – we are talking about ‘disability’. Prefixed with a ‘dis’ means we set out on negative terms. But the problem is not the grammar, it’s that you can’t separate the label with the person. You can’t divorce autism from the autistic person. And so words / labels / assumptions matter.

 If something is at times disabling, does that mean it’s a disability?

And if one person is disabled, does that mean all of us in that tribe are?

What’s a helpful word to explain differences to one, is a stigmatising put-down for another. Is it somehow ‘less’ to be disabled? Not at all. But if you’re ‘disability’ is actually a normal variation that society just can’t get on board with… well, that’s another matter.

There’s so much to say. So much to fight for. So many people to empower. So much we have yet to do in order to strive for acceptance. For everyone.

Artist Danni Gilbert helped these incredible young artists protest through their art to challenge these assumptions and labels. Autism is not a disease to be removed. The only thing we need to cut out is our ignorance.

“Tell you what, Let’s Talk Disability!”

The exhibition will run from Friday, 3 May until Friday, 14 June at the Thought Foundation, Clarity House, Durham Road, Birtley DH3 2TB. 

GALLERY OPENING HOURS (free admission)
Monday - Wednesday 9.00 - 4.00
Thursday & Friday 9.00 - 6.00
Saturday & Sunday 10.00 - 4.00

For more information please call 0191 410 9974 or email