Women at work: Dr Dawn-Joy Leong

True Colors Festival Team

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March 16, 2022

In celebration of International Women’s Day, we celebrate four women who have made it their life’s work to further their causes through the arts and advocacy. We speak with Dr Dawn-Joy Leong, whose thought-provoking theater productions are informed by her PhD in autism research and neurodiversity. She’s also adamant that the term “high functioning autism” needs to be retired.

By True Colors Festival Team

International Women's Day: Dr Dawn-Joy Leong

Image description: Dr. Dawn-Joy Leong, an autism researcher and multi-disciplinary arts practitioner, giving a talk in an art gallery. She is accompanied by her assistance dog, Lucy. Her PhD in Autism and Neurodiveristy informs all her thought-provoking productions, most of which employ artists with disabilities. Her work puts the community in the spotlight and challenges society’s perceptions of it.

Q: What inspired you to advocate for the acceptance of neurodivergence within the arts?

Well, I always reiterate that I’m not really an advocate. There are many other autistic and neurodivergent people who are very focused on advocacy and activism. I’m only perceived as an advocate because I’m outspoken. So I fell into this role in Singapore because when I first returned, there wasn’t very much in the way of advocacy apart from the Disabled People’s Association. I joined as a board member, and I found that there weren’t many outspoken autistic people. So in order to clear the way, I spoke up about autistic representation in the arts. I really would like to see neurodivergence accepted and embraced in all facets of social life. Of course, as an artist myself, I hope that this can be given in the arts. And also it’s the way many social and cultural movements begin anyway, from the arts. So we’re not really non-essential!

Q: What’s a misconception about autism that you hope your work will dispel? 

What I would like people to understand about autism and neurodivergence is that the spectrum is not linear. It’s multidimensional. The other thing I’d like to reverse or undo is the misconception that we can be separated into high and low functioning. It’s actually an inaccurate term and many professionals and researchers are now disproving it. They are now supporting autistic people and our own lived experiences and our evidence that there really is no such thing. We shouldn’t be separated. It’s not only insulting, it’s dividing us into the haves and have nots. The truth is that some of us are verbal like me, some are nonspeaking. But there’s humanity in everyone, and we just have different needs at different times. And just because you can’t see my needs doesn’t mean that I am not in need of support. Ultimately, I’d like people to understand that humanity is made up of diverse minds. 

Q: How do you respond when people bring up high and low functioning terms? 

I often retort when people use these terms like high and low functioning. I turn around and ask them, “Are you a high functioning or low functioning non-autistic human?” And then they are stumped because then they realize that this is actually a ridiculous description. The functionality is based on non-autistic functionality. How well can I mimic a non-autistic person? How well can I pretend to be enjoying your social engagements? The measurements are unfair to autistic people because we do have our own social structures; it’s just different from the norm. So I would love to see these labels taken away.

Q: Was there a particular production or body of work that has influenced you? 

Well, my work is very polymathic, so there is no one production or one artist’s body of work, but a combination. I was brought up on a rich diet of old MGM musicals; Gene Kelly, Freddie Starr, Doris Day. And as a young child, I imagined myself as Doris Day because she was not particularly attractive, but she always played very smart, capable roles. So I wanted to be like her. Some Cantonese Opera was in my hearing world, and jazz too. 

A huge influence that came about during my days as an undergrad in the music Department in Hong Kong was John Cage. And he still influences a lot of my thoughts and the way I approach my art. The greatest idea, that reassured me that I was on the right track, is Cage’s concept of sound; that music is all sound, and not just notes on the ledger line or harmonic notes or melodic notes. And of course, the other one, very important, is Lucy, my assistance dog. She has helped me to see even beyond the autistic differences. 

Q: What are some noteworthy collaborations you have been a part of?

After coming back to Singapore, I met someone who I admire a lot and with whom I still work almost exclusively. His name is Peter Sau. He is a veteran in the theater scene: actor, director, award-winning. His work with disabled artists fascinated me. Previous to that, I called myself a performance artist. I would write my own music, create my own installations, and just perform within it. But theater is not something I wanted to get into because it involves too many other people. I didn’t like all that, but he can make this accessible to me. When there are people who just can’t understand me, Peter helps me and he solves things. His work is about accessing theater. 

So in 2019, my first sort of mentorship effort was a residency sponsored by the library@orchard. I worked with two other neurodivergent artists, Cavan and Timothy, who both have Down syndrome. And I found that I have so much more in common with Cavan and Timothy than I have in common with any neurotypical person. We met at an unspoken level, and from then on, I’ve been trying to develop that. So these are the highlights, it’s the journey, the experience that is important rather than the outcome, because usually after I produce it, it’s out. I’ve lost interest in it. 

Dr Dawn-Joy Leong in "Scheherazade's Sea" (2021)

Image description: Dr Leong is wearing a white dress and a wig with long white hair. She is standing against a digital backdrop of the sea. This is “Scheherazade’s Sea 2021”, a digitalized re-arrangement of the original “Scheherazade’s Sea” (2010), a 20-minute exploration of the sights, sounds, and tiny reflections from Dr Leong’s Autistic world.

Q: What is a project that you’re exceptionally proud of? 

I’m very proud of last year’s effort, Scheherazade’s Sea: Continuing Journey, which is available to watch on YouTube. Why Scheherazade? Because I was very inspired by this Scheherazade character in the 1001 Nights. She had to tell stories to keep alive. And to me, it corresponded with my existence as a woman and as an autistic woman that I had to constantly perform to stay alive.

Q: We hear you have a trusty companion in your assistance dog, Lucy, tell us more about her!

Lucy is a black Greyhound rescued from the Greyhound racing industry in Australia, which I think is very cruel and barbaric and “Like A Charm” was her racing name. I kept the racing name because although she didn’t make much money at the races, for me, she is truly like a charm. She has changed my life for the better and opened up a whole new world of grace and goodness and even contributed to trajectories in my research.

Lucy is gentle yet she’s very self-confident. She knows what she wants. She cannot be trained into performing tricks. She just refuses. If she doesn’t like the trick, she’s very stubborn and yet she’s very giving. She sort of is in the same position like I am. She happens to be Singapore’s first and currently only assistance dog that is not a guide dog. As my assistance dog, she is used to providing indications. She’d go everywhere with me and she settles down in her mat. 

Q: How does Lucy assist you in day-to-day life? 

When she senses that I am shutting down or about to have a meltdown due to my sensory anxiety, like when there are bright lights or loud noises, she will give me an indication. I become aware and can do something about it. Sometimes she would pull me out of the space or navigate me towards the exit. 

She also helps me to navigate noisy spaces. Like, if I say find the cafe or find the exit, most often she’s quite accurate. She leads me to the crowd and physically when you see a big black dog with a woman holding onto the leash, the crowds will part for us most of the time. 

But she’s retired now. She’s 13, which is a very old age for a big dog — now I am her assistance human! She really is my closest companion. I think that no human relationship can compare with what I’ve found with her.

Q: The message of the True Colors Festival is “One World One Family” — what do these words mean to you?

“One World One Family” to me is the essence of neurodiversity. It takes all kinds of minds to make humanity, and we’re all important, regardless of our neurological makeup. Diversity is the heart of human culture.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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True Colors Festival

TCF is a long-running international festival of performing arts. We celebrate diversity and inclusion, and embrace the fact that we are One World, One Family. We choose the arts as our platform, for its power to move, inspire and heal.

As a festival, TCF brings people together to generate exchanges, innovation and creativity; and transform the way we relate to each other.

Presented by The Nippon Foundation, TCF brings diverse artists and audiences together through concerts, documentaries, music videos, film screenings, children's programs, musicals, workshops and other activities. Since 2006, festivals have been organized in Southeast Asia and Japan, with more than 1,200 artists from more than 30 countries connecting with a global audience in more than 80 countries.

TCF invites you to journey with us, to enjoy, experience, share and spread our consciousness of being One World, One Family.

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