Mahlia Amatina was 31 years old when she was diagnosed with autism. Now, an abstract artist, Mahlia uses her pieces to depict feelings that many people with autism face, including sensory overloads, anxiety, depression, and emotional breakdowns.
When Mahlia was diagnosed over five years ago, she spent a lot of time reflecting back. She thought of moments, especially in her childhood, where her behavior and emotions at the time seemed irrational or confusing, but now make perfect sense. Mahlia considered the difficulties she had holding down a corporate job in the past, why it took her nine attempts to get her driver’s license, and how as a child she needed days to recover from the social and sensory overloads that many family functions brought.
“I think back to issues that I may have had as a child, that could have been picked up on,” explained Mahlia. “Autistic women are often not diagnosed or misdiagnosed, and I feel like there’s much more to be understood about ethnic minorities as well.”
Earlier research regarding autism suggested that men with autism outnumber women with autism 16:1. However, newer studies are indicating that this ratio might be more equal than we assumed.
Dr. Sarah Lister Brook, Clinical Director at the National Autistic Society, explained how masking may be a factor in why women are less likely to get diagnosed. “Girls are often better at developing ways to ‘mask’ what we traditionally think of as the signs of autism, which means that it’s harder to get a diagnosis of autism.” In this regard, masking refers to the process of actively learning to behave like neurotypical people. Though masking may allow people with autism to feel more comfortable in neurotypical crowds, the process can be mentally exhausting and stressful. This frequently leads to women with autism developing secondary problems like anxiety, eating disorders, or depression.
These misunderstandings surrounding women on the spectrum are what inspired Mahlia to create her art. “A lot of women are told they don’t look autistic, or don’t seem autistic,” she explained. “I don’t know what we’re supposed to look like, but it means women aren’t getting the support they need because they don’t appear to be as autistic as someone expects them to look.”
Mahlia’s pieces celebrate neurodiversity. Her newest interactive exhibition, ‘Life on a Spectrum,’ incorporates visual art, writing, videography, and performance art. As a way of shedding light on how people with autism feel, as well as creating a visual representation of these complex emotions, Mahlia’s work focuses on how people experience sensory overload, anxiety, and emotional breakdowns.
Though the exhibit was moved to a virtual setting due to COVID-19 and is no longer available to “visit,” you can still watch a walk through of the exhibit, which features commentary by Mahlia. If you’d like to follow along with Mahlia on her artistic journey, be sure to check out her Instagram and Facebook pages.Whizzco