2023 Newsfeed

Canberra’s first artistic haven for the neurodiverse: meet the Studio& team

We all deserve a place to feel seen, understood, appreciated, and celebrated.

But, when 23-year-old Jeffrey identified a significant gap for neurodivergent young people in Canberra to express themselves creatively, parents Helen and John jumped at the opportunity to make such a space.

Introducing Studio&: an art program intended as a safe space for neurodiverse young adults (aged 18-35) to connect with others independently through art.

With talented art mentors Kristie Watts and Matilda Hillam – as well as Shift&Co founder Jacob Cowling – this dream became a reality when, on the 18th of February, their 6 week pilot program commenced.

Three smiling people stand behind a desk covered in art supplies.
Kristie, Jacob and Matilda in the Studio& space (photo supplied by John)
Q: What was the inspiration behind Studio&?

Helen: The inspiration was two conversations that occurred within weeks of each other:

Firstly, our 23-year-old son Jeffrey, who has ASD, told us in 2022 that what he really wished for was a venue or a program where he could pursue his artistic interests in the company of young creatives like himself. Like many neurodivergent young adults, Jeffrey’s social connections fell away when he left school. Because his school experience was pretty traumatic, he didn’t consider tertiary education to be a real option. Appropriately supported paid work is hard to obtain, and in any case, the workplace couldn’t offer the social connection or creative outlet he craved. We quickly realised that although creative arts programs do exist for people with special needs, there were no offerings in Canberra for neurodiverse young adults, like Jeffrey.

And secondly, a family inheritance had recently come our way which started us thinking about what we could do with this windfall that would be meaningful and would make a difference.

One day, while walking along the beach – we realised that there was an exciting idea that joined these two conversations! Why not provide the funds to create the very program that Jeffrey had identified as being a real gap in the Canberra landscape? And so, Studio& was born.

White background with black text reading 'I felt supported and loved from the very first session. This is a vital and lifesaving part of my week, a little window of time that we can truly be ourselves without any expectations, away from the world that doesn't really let us be who we are. This space is empowering and warm, and I'm so glad it exists." Coloured pencils surround the text.
Q: What is Studio&’s goal?

John: The goal is to provide a safe and inclusive space in which neurodivergent young adults can pursue their creative aims and develop a sense of themselves as ‘artists’. They would be guided on this journey by professional mentors who understand the need for a person-centred and trauma-informed approach, and who also have deep experience working in the arts sector – ideally as practising artists – so that the participants also discover more about what a career as an artist can look like.

Studio& also aspires to be a program that is genuinely co-designed, between the creatives (i.e. the participants) and the mentors; and where insights and learning emerge from the interactions that occur in a safe and creative space.

Q: How did you find participants who you thought could benefit from the program?

Jacob: We identified a specific target group, based on the needs and situation of John and Helen’s son Jeff. In particular, the desire to connect with other people the same age, who have similar lived experiences (including, identifying as neurodivergent) and a common interest in art. We then created a general flyer seeking expressions of interest for this target group and distributed it through our common networks. These included contacts such as: local support coordinators, families/clients we know, community and professional organisations.

White background with black text. Coloured crayons surround the text.
Q: How did you acquire funding/the space?

Jacob: In June of last year, John and Helen approached me with a proposal to offer a creative arts program for neurodiverse young adults. They were looking for a someone with the experience and capability to deliver a program. Shift & Co had already been working in the neurodiversity space, and their son attended one of our programs, so they thought we would be a good fit. As it happened, I had also been thinking of diversifying our service offerings and moving into the ‘makers space’, but lacked the capital to do so. John and Helen were willing to put up the seed funding and it seemed too good an opportunity to let go by.

We approached several institutions to explore potential art studio spaces in Canberra and were absolutely delighted to receive a positive response from Canberra College in Woden. We couldn’t have asked for a better location and the art studio is perfect – spacious and light and just oozing with creativity from the art works displayed on the walls and tables.

Three tables sit beneath lots of windows. Flowers sit on the tables. A sink is to the right of the tables with multiple taps.
The Studio& space (photo supplied by John)
Q: What is the structure of the program? What kinds of activities did you do with the participants?

Kristie: Studio& is a person-centred program.

Artists or burgeoning artists can lead their artistic journey based on their personal requests. This means we acknowledge the gap in mainstream programs that may not acknowledge neurodiversity in society. We provide a space where all are included, where sensitivity to needs are accepted, facilitated and celebrated.

But most importantly each person is met on neutral grounds with skilled facilitators in inclusion and arts and high-quality mentorship and materials. Drawing, printmaking, painting, collage sculpture have all been explored at request in six weeks but the journey is boundless.

Q: Did you face any challenges over the initial 6-week pilot program?

Kristie: We have had the most heart-warming positive and sense of relief in finding “the space that’s right” responses to the program outlining the need for such program to exist. The only request we have received is more funding, as not everybody who identifies as neurodivergent can access NDIS funding. Being neurodivergent doesn’t always end in support systems, however we have tried to offer subsidised places where the government funding has failed to acknowledge certain needs in terms of the neurodivergent community. 

White background with black text surrounded by paintbrushes.
Q: Did you learn anything personally from the journey?

Helen: I am a scientist who has worked in academia and research for my whole career with very little engagement with arts and community organisations. It’s been fascinating and inspiring to work in a different sector and with a different community – I’ve learned a lot about being inclusive and community minded. But far more important, and what has been a surprise, is the immense reward that comes from knowing that this small initiative genuinely seems to be making a difference for these creative young adults and is meeting an un-met need.

John: I’ve learned that if there is an un-met need then you have two choices: either wait for someone else to make it happen or do it yourself. Conceiving Studio& was a rewarding intellectual exercise. But without a willing service delivery partner – Shift&Co. – it might have remained an interesting desktop exercise. The goodwill towards this initiative offered by Canberra College, where Studio& is delivered, and by other groups and individuals in Canberra’s community sector and creative arts community has been heartening. More profoundly, the way the program has been enthusiastically embraced by participating artists, including our own son, reassures me that we have done the right thing.

White background with black text surrounded by coloured markers.

So, what does Studio&’s future look like?

After such a successful pilot program, this beautiful team is looking forward to welcoming new and returning faces to the first 12-week program (running from mid-April to early July 2023).

With heart-warming feedback from their artists, they hope to continue providing a safe place for neurodiverse young adults to blossom come April.

White background with black text surrounded by coloured crochet hooks.

Original artwork by Elizabeth Kovacs