'Hyperphantasia' credit: Oakley Stratford

Neurodivergent young people have been able to communicate the struggles they face in life through art which is now on display as part of a major new exhibition in Exeter.

The exhibition gives a voice to young people who are often marginalised and isolated, and face difficulties in being heard on the topics that matter to them.

They were supported by local creative arts professionals to create the work on display as part of specially designed workshops. The project brought together participants aged 7 to 25, some in formal education and others home-educated, to capture how they see the world. Some prefer not to communicate verbally or find it difficult to leave their homes.

The exhibition is designed to show their rich tapestry of experiences and perspectives and challenge negative beliefs about neurodiversity, and tackle stereotypes and isolation.

Malila-Zuri, a, participant, said: “Taking part in this makes me feel like I am part of a community. This feels really good as I usually feel a lot like I am on my own as a neurodivergent teenager”.

Sophia, a participant, said: “My eye drawing reflects the focus for ND people about how others see them. This perception has negatively impacted on me in the past. I have been seen and judged by others for my neurodivergence and excluded from so much because of their views. This has affected how I see myself. Being seen as ‘weird’, as different, as difficult, can be negative for neurodivergent children and teenagers. But it’s not black and white. I am different, I now see that as good, it doesn’t matter what others see and think. I see myself for who I am, even if others can’t.”

The project was a result of a collaboration between the Esteem Team, Devon County Council’s SEND participation team, Well Image CIC, and researchers at the University of Exeter. Neurodivergent young people worked with the team to devise the prompt, “What being neurodivergent means to me”.

The project was led by Rachel Griffiths, a senior educator developer at University of Exeter who leads an inclusive education project and Saffron O’Neill, Professor in Climate and Society and Director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion for the Geography Department.

Rachel said: “It has been a joy and a privilege to work alongside an incredible team of passionate, neurodivergent people across Devon to bring these artworks and stories to the public. I hope the conversations this exhibition has started will inspire more empathic and person-centred work with Devon’s neurodivergent young people”.

The artworks created will be showcased in an exhibition at Positive Light Projects in Exeter on June 21 and will also be available to view online.

Those who took part in the project said they wanted policymakers to use more up to date research, and do more to consult with those who are neurodivergent and community and family support groups.

The challenges they want to represent through the artwork include the high thresholds for support in schools and services, leaving many young people with unmet needs and poor mental health. It also includes the lack of teacher training and awareness about neurodivergence, which can lead to young people moving out of school into home education or alternative provisions, record levels of poor mental health, and increased school-induced anxiety.