Autism Interview #90: Robbie Ierubino on Art and Autism Acceptance

Robbie Ierubino is an American artist with autism studying Graphic Design at Staffordshire University in Stoke-on-Trent, England. He has developed his own style of art which he calls “shapism” and uses his art to communicate his unique world perspective and advocate for acceptance. This week he shared how autism influences his art and his passion for working to improve autism acceptance.

What caused you to leave the United States to live in Vienna, and now in England?

My family moved to Vienna because my father decided to work for a non-governmental organization called, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). I thought that everything would be different from what my life was like in the US. But my life completely changed when I was 16 in high school. I was in art class doing a “street art” project, and I discovered my creative talent while painting a colorful cubic portrait of Dave Grohl (from Nirvana and the Foo Fighters). After that moment, I started doing some digital work and photography. And when I showed my art to my art teacher, he believed that I had the skills to be a Graphic Designer. He thought I could study that subject in England because it is in English, all 100% coursework and has no exams. Once I learned about what graphic design is about, I became entirely interested in the subject and decided to apply to Staffordshire University, a university in Stoke-on-Trent, England, to learn about its effects and purpose. And I love it!

Your website biography mentions that Autism has given you a unique perspective you hope comes through in your art. Can you elaborate here on how Autism shapes the art you create?

When a person is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, it can be hard to communicate with others who know nothing about it. Autism isn’t visible to people – it is a brain condition that can make a person do different physical acts, such as stimming – that’s what I do. When people stim, it can make people confused, afraid, and even angry. But for me, Autism is not just any condition. It’s a gift that can give me different points of view and imagination.

Autistic people always have a lot of thoughts and ideas in their mind, but the problem is they need to find a way to communicate it. And as an artist, I use self-expression to create my work, based on my visions from my mind and my understandings of the world around me, especially when my senses are on high-alert. For example, when I listen to music, I see pictures in my head. Or when I think of a movie, I see it and hear it playing. Autism is like traveling in infinite space looking at the colors you collect to fit with your personality and interest. And it’s not just looking for a missing puzzle piece. I don’t think Autistic people are missing anything.

Describe your style of art you’ve coined “Shapism.” How did you develop this and what makes it so attractive to you?

It all started when I developed my first official artwork at school. And after making more art, I found that a lot of my art had a similar look. Did I create a new art style? When I studied the style I kept making, I saw that every shape in my work is a minimalist composition in different forms of various features, such as color, image, tone, and typography. Plus, I think the audience feels like they can solve a mystery or relate to it when they see the piece’s title. And that is why I called it “Shapism” because the style is like a jigsaw puzzle in different shapes and color creating a strange pattern into a contemporary work of art. It is art that includes special effects with form and abstract, like kaleidoscopes, 3D effects, optical illusions, blur effects, and “glitches.” And what makes it so interesting for me is that it’s fun and expressive. Coloring can be hard, but it can melt your stress away. And that makes Shapism an excellent example of art therapy for me!

Do you sketch initial ideas for art on paper or do you only create electronically? What programs/devices/methods do you use from beginning to end stage?

I work nearly 100% on electronic devices. I think I mostly create art electronically because my addiction to electronic devices gives me the motivation to continue to be the artist that I always wanted to be. When I’m creating graphic art by computer, I use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator to create artistic imagery. For videos, I create animation by using Adobe Premiere Pro and sometimes visuals from After Effects. And when I’m doing photography and other works, I use my iPhone. I use many iOS apps to modify and create photographs and other pieces. I use apps like Isometric, Prisma, Over, Hyperspektiv, Assembly, and Glitché.

Did you grow up with an understanding of Autism and how it affected you? How have you learned to adopt a positive autistic identity as a young adult?

I didn’t understand Autism when I was a kid. But when I was doing my 10th-grade personal project, I learned a lot about myself, my disability, and how it should be accepted. I created a documentary video titled, “Stuck in the Middle” about my life with autism and acceptance. And as I kept learning about it, including its myths, as well as a movement called the Autism Rights Movement, I became acutely aware of the change the Autistic people wanted. And that includes the logo change from a puzzle piece to a rainbow-colored infinity icon. So, I decided to become an activist on Autism and to correct all of the false opinions that some people have because it’s important to learn, teach, and educate people what REAL Autism is and feels like.

Have you ever felt pressured to mask your Autism? Explain.

My memories of when I was little are hazy, and I don’t really remember if I did stuff like that. As I got older, my parents worried about me because we lived in a big city, and I had a lot of independence. They worried about my safety. They thought I might get hurt if someone saw me “acting Autistic” and didn’t understand my behavior. However, I just want to be me, and I don’t feel pressure to hide my true self, my behavior or my Autism.

What mistakes do you see neurotypical Autism advocates make?

Well, by theory, I think they should have talked to and learned more from Autistics about their feelings, behavior, and their opinions about their diagnosis and the people around them. It may sound uncomfortable, but I believe it is a thing to let them understand what autism can be like and what it could feel like. I know some people still do not realize what autism is, and that there is a small revolution happening today. So, I created a hashtag campaign called, #YouAreNotAloneBlue, which displays a collection of posters playing different sound effects based on the illustration created in each print. I planned this campaign to play a role for a human reaction because my theory about autism is that autistic people and others are similar to each other, and we are allowed to be different whenever we want to be. Autism can be an illusion, but in my opinion, it is more than that.

In what ways have parents, teachers, relatives, friends, etc. either encouraged and supported your artistic talents or discouraged you (either directly or indirectly) from attaining successes?

I wanted to be an actor, director and screenwriter. I wasn’t really discouraged to not become an actor, but when I started doing my art, I felt more supported by lots of teachers, my parents and friends. I even had my first solo exhibit at school because people encouraged me to follow my talents. People are really supportive of me achieving my dreams of becoming a multi-dimensional artist.

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