Growth and Power
Interviewed by Journal d'Ambroisie, Editors in Chief
“We must search for our causes with the same enthusiasm with which we look for love”
– An Interview with Henrietta Kovács, Director of Autistic Art
As 2022 was coming to an end, our Editors in Chief found themselves reunited in a Budapest cafe after months of working together remotely. In only a few moments, on the other end of the zoom call they would be joined by the Director of the non-profit organisation Autistic Art, Henrietta Kovács, to discuss ideas on growth, power and the importance of community.
Henrietta Kovacs is the Director of Autistic Art, a non-profit organisation based in Hungary that aims to help people with autism live a better life. They provide financial, as well as other types of aid, like organising an art program for the youth who live in autistic housing facilities. Talking to Heni was a treat; her faith in a better world, her relentless fighting spirit and kindness is a reminder for us all, that we can indeed build a better world.
What inspired you personally to work in the NGO sector in general, and specifically with people on the autism spectrum, in Hungary?
Image 1. Henrietta Kovács
Well, first of all, I don’t have a personal connection. When you choose to work for an NGO in Hungary, in many cases, you are personally connected to the cause it represents and that’s what inspires your decision to join; for example, your child is born with a disability. At least this was the case, I think, 15-20 years ago. Today, I would say, people are much more open to working for these organisations. For me, I’m raising three neurotypical children. When my third child was born, I felt this need to volunteer for social-charitable causes, since I suddenly had a lot of free time, and as I was a Hungarian and English teacher, I felt I had something to give, to help out with my English language knowledge, translating websites, pamphlets, something like this. And this is how I started working for the Down Egyesület (Down Association), who are helping children with Down-syndrome with early-stage development programmes, as well as through the foundation of a house, a sort of integrated playhouse. This especially pulled me in, since the whole point of the playhouse was to allow neurotypical children to meet and play with kids with Down-syndrome, to approach them differently and get to know them, understand them better. I think this was a genius idea, because as adults, we see the world in a stricter way, with a narrow scope, and for us it’s much harder to accept divergence. In this sense, we have a lot to learn from children. When I was conducting my research to see what kind of world exactly I’m stepping into, I got to sit in on
a class in a school where this integration between children was central.
They have classes of 16-18 students, 15-16 neurotypicals and a few who are “different”. They can be kids with Down-syndrome, or wheelchair users, or children on the autism spectrum. And in this class, I got to observe something that I consider genius, happen: the teacher prepared the kids, she said “we are going to have an exciting drawing class today, what you need to do is, you need to remove your shoes and your socks because we are going to create with our feet!” And this was super exciting for all the children. All the students were really into it, and as they prepared to paint with their toes, the new classmate arrived and he did the same thing as everyone else. He created a beautiful piece and all the classmates were in awe of how talented he was. And when the students went home that day, what they told their parents about school is that they had a new classmate who paints really well with his feet, instead of saying: our new classmate doesn’t have hands. This experience totally charmed me. Years later, a similar thing happened to me, to further illustrate how much we have to learn from children. I was already at Autistic Art by this point, and I was on the tram with my youngest son. He was sitting on my lap, and we were staring out of the window –
as one does – when I saw a guy with his dog that had three legs. And I automatically thought with pity: “oh, poor dog, how can it walk around with only three legs?” But my son had a totally different reaction, he said: “mum, look, how great this dog is, he can run on three legs!” These are the thoughts we should bring to the forefront of society, we shouldn’t pity others, as I believe marginalised people had enough of our pity. Rather we should help them actively. For me, this is the strong and appealing societal attitude, and this is what drove me personally to join an NGO.
Later, joining Autistic Art was quite accidental actually. In 2016 I was representing the Down Association at a training course for people working in the sector, and I met Viktória Bella there, the then managing director of Autistic Art. It was a long course, it lasted three or four months, and Viktória and I sat next to each other and chatted multiple times. During one of these chats, she told me what their Foundation was doing. I heard about them and their work before – people in the sector are usually aware of each other – and I told her that I thought what they were doing was amazing, but that there’s a need for more fundraising. And this was the magical sentence, after which she lured me in to join them. It was a big dilemma for me, whether I should leave Down Association to join Autistic Art, since it’s hard for me to make such decisions, when it gives me pain to say goodbye. But I felt like this is where my road was leading me. And this is how I ended up at Autistic Art.
Stemming from this, you said that it isn’t pity that people need, but rather understanding, and social understanding. What are the things that you have seen in society over the years, what are the attitudes and societal attitudes towards people on the autistic spectrum, and how do they directly affect the work of Autistic Art?
Actually, I think that the mechanism and the behavior that can be experienced in society in terms of being charitable is getting better, but it is still not ideal. So we are still very far from an ideal space, and it may sound silly, but I think it should be mandatory to give back. Of course, it does matter how you ask. So it is clear that everyone has a lot of problems, and despite it, let's say so for me and for you, we still choose to do something about it. So today, I am really saying that charity should be compulsory to be taught even in primary school. But we need to give it a much sexier name than charity (“jótékonykodás”), because in Hungary, this is precisely where people will think the opposite of charity. So when you say charity in Hungarian, it has such a beautiful sound, but maybe a nicer word should be invented, or rather, the problem is that it's already imbued with certain connotations. And the problem is that Hungarians are so prejudiced, and when the word charity is mentioned, then they think, well, it's not certain that it will reach its goal. So we're still struggling with that here, you know?
So how much will they really get? You just collected a hundred units, but how much of that goes to the cause? Then you have to explain that you can't give the hundred units, because then we, as an organisation, wouldn't be able to function. Volunteering essentially cannot mean that you don't get paid for it. I think volunteering works well periodically or short-term, but asking someone for their time continuously, long-term, even for several hours a day, without giving them something in return, will not work, that's for sure. I’ve experienced it myself.
Hungarian society is years behind a culture where charity is really self-evident, and I must say that Hungarian society is really moving at a very slow pace. I think I told you when we were out at a wine festival, and you tell a Hungarian about your cause, and their reaction is: leave me alone, I have enough trouble. Whereas for the tourists, it was self-evident to come and support us. And this is also where we see our task this year. We communicated this very strongly: we are supporting 11 residential homes, where independent autistic people who are unable to lead a “normal” life live, and this is obviously the main mission, but in addition, you should educate society, and encourage them. Many people are healthy and don't have affected children, which is something to be happy about, regardless, you have to be responsible in the society you live in, otherwise it won't be a livable society. Because then we will only continue to say that we support autistic people, they are not valuable, and we’ll continue to pity them, but this is not the right attitude. We have to ask ourselves: how can they join this society? What are their good skills? In fact, their thinking is so broad, it is amazing what we could learn from them. Their life-affirmation is so strong, their positive attitude towards certain things is so motivating, and if we don't want to hear that, then we remain stupid. And then what happens? Then again, I believe if we only deal with our own problems, we will continue to have problems, whereas if we start dealing with someone else's, then we have a task for our life. Or we want to return this so that everyone has a social cause. They used to say and ask, well, if you communicate this way, is it okay that some people won’t be donating to Autistic Art, but to another cause? Yes, it's okay, because there is a mission that you join and care about, but at the same time, if you are the flag bearer of this, sooner or later, you will be discussed anyway. Essentially, I'm an optimist, but I'm not satisfied, so a lot needs to be changed. And I think one more thought should be brought in, that if you can sow this seed, it should be regular. Because a one-off donation is not enough. I write my homework regularly, don't I? I regularly cook for my children at home, you regularly produce articles, you are looking for what to do next. In my opinion, charity should also be like this.
And related to this, do you see a generational difference in this attitude, that perhaps the younger generation is more inclined to have a cause to which it regularly contributes, or that the differences are not generational, but rather geographical?
I think it's geographical. I can really see that our children who grow up with this are much more sensitive. Basically I think they've already received a pack for the road that they'll take out somewhere and use, and then I'm sure they'll give it back. I think it also has to do with emotional intelligence, and this attitude can be learned, right? Please tell me it can be learned.
Good. Because I see that if we address influencers in this way, they can help us, because we need their help and what is going on in social media right now is really amazing. If you have a good voice by your side, then it really has a measurable result, because then purchases appear in, say, webshops, which was experienced before around Christmas. However, if that person is not so emotionally intelligent, then of course he says that he is involved, but he is not doing it well, or with insufficient dedication, or perhaps with insufficient credibility. Also, what is perhaps still a little lacking in young people, precisely because of their age, is that they are extremely enthusiastic, but they are enthusiastic about so many things that they can’t choose.
And then it can be very well observed within the older generation, either middle-aged or older, where there are already children, and where this kind of support comes about consciously, so that this is not a one-time tick, but, let's say, it has been here for a long time. So, if there is this awareness and there is this extreme sensitivity, then it can be observed that even their children can be included in our mission. But it's not easy to attract new people from different generational strata, social age, and social age groups, it's a lot of work. Unfortunately, I can turn back to the fact that either people are very superficial and do not delve into a story, or they are still skeptical, so the result of a long work is that they finally sit down to an auction, let’s say, and then participate and actively take part in it. So, I think the point is that you convey your social cause with enthusiasm and credibility. My husband was involved in another social cause, and the two of us used to get sad a lot of the time, because if we created some kind of event - a fundraising event for example - our circle of friends would turn their heads away. But then we won't give up on it, because your world will really be the way you make it, and then you can't do it any other way than to start looking at your network in your narrow circle, to somehow attract them. It really is tasteful sales and marketing. You should never attack your potential partner, create another problem, but show how they will be more if they support the cause. And isn't it very interesting, when the conversation ends like: thank you, it's great that you came and told me, and it's so good that I can support you.
Maybe it can also be difficult in today’s world, because young people may also find it difficult to choose a cause and stick to it, unlike perhaps older generations, since everything feels so accessible and there are so many charitable causes out there that could be supported. So I think for many young people a big question of how to choose and how to say: “I now stand behind this cause and not this one” is particularly challenging.
There is no good answer to this. It's just like choosing a partner. There are many beautiful girls, and there are many beautiful boys. Many are beautiful, smart, talented. And we obviously want that person to be by our side for a long time, but is there a guarantee for that? So, when they don't have it, we look for it, and in the meantime we get disappointed, we have to stand back, they leave us, we cry, we laugh. On some level, this is the same as choosing a cause you care about. So, when you pick one, you like the case for something, either because they enthusiastically told you about it, or because you see that your classmate from university is involved. Suddenly he wears an Autistic Art t-shirt, or writes in an Autistic Art notebook, or he is autistic. And I think that nowadays, if we still try to sell it a bunch of times, then charity should be sexy, right? You have to let people understand that when you give, you also receive.
Image 2. Special People.
And when do you realise that you’ve chosen well?
You don’t. And if in the end, you break up, because it didn't work out, then you go on and look for another love after that, don't you? Because for all I know, if the manager of the organisation didn't answer your letter right away, then don't be disappointed, because they're also human, they’re doing their job and they can also make mistakes. And maybe it's not your calling to go to a residential home and see how autistic people live there. Even if it's not your cause, don’t give up, find a new partner with whom you can move forward, because there is no such thing as not having a cause that is yours. I consider that impossible.
You said that you have to give regularly. I don't know how typical this is for you, that the Christmas period is busier, that the campaigns go really well in December, people donate a lot then, and afterwards not so much.
If you were to say Heni, answer very briefly, almost in one word, then I would say that this is how it is regularly, yes. But it's your job to change it. So, it is really much more noticeable that the traffic on our webshop is extremely strong at this time. This year, to have numbers, if you want to hear them, we sold nearly HUF 12 million in December. By the way, in the other 11 months of the year, this sum is around 4-5 million, which is obviously a task for us to change, and which requires serious brand building, and products that are constantly exciting and sexy, and that people want to buy. And you should do the same with the different donation options, when you won't get anything in return, because here you're going to say, well, I'll buy this notebook here and not at the stationery store, or you set up a monthly deduction of HUF 1,000. To have people donate on a regular basis, it’s very difficult, and you have to build very exciting campaigns in order for people to feel that this was a really brilliant idea, and for them to go to their charity concert or to their cookie sale. So your brain has to be constantly spinning for you to put together something very exciting. And now, for example, we have such an installation on Nyugati square, a big letter A, if you ever have time, go and have a look. It’s an installation that is encouraging people to help. Do you think people go there? No, they don't. Maybe the way it should be done is to put an enthusiastic young volunteer, who subtly pulls people in, so you can touch your smart watch there and can already support with HUF 1000. But people simply pass it by, and if you don't lasso them, it's very, very difficult. And we had illusions about this, we thought we’d get hundreds of thousands of forints, but the fact is, it doesn't work that well, and it shocked me. In addition, it also had press coverage, so it's very difficult. Of course, there are exceptions, we should emphasize that our charity auction is not in December, but in October, and HUF 70 million was collected this year, which is huge. But with this, you are not addressing new people, but the old ones, or the very old ones, or those whom you have recently drawn in, called and enticed and invited to your side. So all in all, it's hard work.
Image 3. Exhibition.
Last year, we did something where we said we’d build a bridge between autistic people and non-autistic people, and that there should be frequent crossings on this bridge. And we didn't expect autistic people to come over to our world, on the contrary, let us enter theirs, because it doesn't work any other way. And we said that a bridge usually has four pillars, right? So then we did four online auctions, because we were still after Covid, and at that time, participation and charity in the online space worked relatively well. Then we did a wine auction, and then a 1 percent campaign, where you can give 1 percent of your taxes to a specific cause. But again, so many people leave it to their accountants, and they will either type it in and enter the tax number, or not. So, again, you shouldn't leave this to someone else, you should figure it out yourself, and it doesn't cost you anything. And then in the third quarter, we did a charity contemporary book auction. Everyone looked at us strangely, because they thought: why would you auction off contemporary books? For our wine auction, our partner was a wine company, which brought in very special wines, requesting them from collectors, or offering some that are rare and very expensive. We also found a partner for the book auction, Libri, who we asked to help us bring writers and poets together, and we asked them to write personalised messages to the buyer: that they are good people, thank you very much for supporting the Autistic Art Foundation with this book. And it went so well that it got lots of attention. Even Forbes came to take pictures and interviewed us. Again, the financial results did not turn out to be strong, but this is how you build the brand. And then the third and fourth pillars came after that, which I can't even separate anymore: we had a big charity auction that raised HUF 40 million, and then the fourth was actually the Christmas shopping at the end of the year. It was an awful lot of work, so we said that we should not do it again this year, because it was a lot of hard work and the financial results were not that great, so let's focus on the one big auction, and then invite everything and everyone there, and try our best.
The topic of this next issue is Growth and Power. We wanted to ask you, how do you see civil organizations and charities? Is there anything, the power, to really bring about significant social changes in a positive direction? I guess there is, because otherwise we wouldn't be doing this job so devotedly.
Yes, I think so, there definitely is. If we look at the letters that we receive, when we transfer the subsidy amount to these 11 homes, which usually tends to be concentrated towards the end of the year, then we can provide them with support, and here it is also very important to tell you, that we cannot transfer 70 million to them, because there is a big cost to organize such a program, there is a staff working on it, but last year we transferred HUF 35 million to them, which again is like dividing it by eleven, so it can't be such a large amount, but they are incredibly happy about it, and we receive very nice letters from them. They are those who call us angels, as we always arrive at the best possible time and literally save them. So if we look at it this way, this work does have power.
Image 4. Drawing Activity.
Then it also has power in the sense that, as I said before, the people whom you can address in this way and become your supporters, they will really thank you for drawing attention to the fact that it is also possible to think and behave in this way in society. I am sure that it would be more powerful if organisations with similar initiatives were more united, so it would have even more power, and maybe at how we could - to put it mildly - put pressure on the decision-makers not to vote about such a civil law as the one that is being voted on now in Hungary, where it is abnormal that the individual concerned, who lives in a disadvantaged situation and has been put in a disadvantaged situation through no fault of his own, should take care of himself. Indeed, it is a very strange way of thinking, and it is frustrating that in the 21st century, such a law can be born. So, when I sit down at the end of the year as the managing director of Autistic Art, as I sat down and talked with everyone from the team not long ago, I could say that personally, what each of them added to our work, as a graphic designer, as a social media person, or as a colleague responsible for corporate relations, it was really great. We transferred HUF 35 million to these homes, but in the end, I am still not satisfied. I am not satisfied, because you understand that HUF 70 million should be transferred to them, so that they feel safer. And it wasn't up to my colleagues, so I told them too, but maybe we should do this with even more energy and with even more strength, because quite simply, their situation will never be easier. In fact, the amount of money they receive from the state has not changed for 15 years, and it won’t increase anytime soon. And yet, the price of bread and milk are constantly increasing. Quite simply put, we have to do more, even more skillfully, with even more power and efficiency, and I'm scratching my head as to how we can achieve that.
To be honest, there is nothing left but to find even more people who will be regular supporters, because there is no fairy tale. You do so and so events that are picked up by the press, because they are often picked up by the press, and for us, December was really about the fact that you gave interviews to everyone, and you are saying yes because it reaches people. At the end of the day, our job is to keep these 11 homes safe, and it doesn't go that way without sacrifices. And the people will hear about the fact that there are initiatives here that are really filling the gap, that these homes are needed, and the problem is that not 11 homes are needed, but in reality, 111 are needed. So that's how we do have strength and power. By the way, there are definitely those who do it better. So I look up to Hősök Tere for example, because they do it very well. Their task is to dismantle this kind of indifference that exists in society. And in this case, mindset is key and it’s important to change your thinking. Anyone can be indifferent, but not everyone is affected by autism. And then it is also such a difficult, difficult subject. We are also used to saying that we cannot compete with those organisations that deal with sick children or puppies, because your child could be sick at any time. And you can adopt a puppy any time, and then right from the start it's good for you, because there's a cute dog there, and then it's your responsibility and duty to take care of it. In this way, people can relate to them more easily, so they can feel it better, the cuteness comes first. But the world of autism is a very difficult one. I was with my family just now at Christmas, and we were talking about this. Living with a severely autistic child requires an incredible amount of energy and effort from the family and everyone in the family. And this is very difficult, because they certainly don't celebrate Christmas like an average family, for if the boy or girl in question is not in the mood, they won’t gather by the tree, or they won’t unwrap the presents, and so everything soon loses its harmonious, fragrant, colorful charm. And autism is like that. So this is such a really, really hard path for the affected families, and that's why we have to help them.
The way this comes across is that for you, the fate of these autistic people is primarily your responsibility. How do you see that? Because in our eyes, it would be the state’s or the country’s responsibility first and foremost, to take care of its autistic citizens, not an NGO’s.
Yes, you feel correctly about this, because Autistic Art is almost an umbrella organisation that currently has 11 children, 11 associations or foundations, that were created independently of Autistic Art. These residential homes were not created by us, nor are we running them, but they were created by people who were implicated, ten mothers whose lives were affected and had reached the level of - as far as I know - 40-45 years old, while their severely autistic children turned 16-18 years old, and they simply saw that there was no place for their child in Hungarian society at the time. So, after the age of 16, compulsory schooling ends, and after that, there is no humane institution for them.
You have to see that in civilly maintained residential homes - and not the state and church ones, because those exist too - they do not have the professional background that is available in the homes that we support. The point is that a lot of attention must be paid to these young people so that no problems happen to them, they do not turn against themselves or others, because their nervous system is not stimulated well enough, or their energy is not properly harnessed and used, then they can cause harm to themselves.
The people who work in the social sector, with autistic people for instance, do not get a good enough provision, so they will leave after a while, since the state does not take many good and humane steps for them to have a correct work environment. This is our task, so that these 11 homes can remain in existence. At the moment, their lives are really difficult with this whole energy crisis and with the fact that they don't get as much state support as I think they should. So this, specifically, the financial support that we gave them, it may very well be that it will be used to pay the electricity bills. This is partially why it's not possible to communicate this in a painful way, because then everyone has a problem, and then they turn away from you, so we try to show this on some level with the tool of beauty, with art, because the drawings that come to us from these homes are brilliant. We are sitting where we started this conversation with the idea that they can indeed create value. So, some works really come to us with, I don't know, a message, a world of colors, a world of shapes that touches us. And that's why we are all receptive and open to beauty, if not to art, to some extent, and that's why this face can often speak for us so well.
So there is a special value that has been added to the campaigns through art, then.
Yes, exactly. And then what happens is that you let autism into your world, which can send messages and communicate so brilliantly. Really, I think that if such a work enters your home, say, in the form of a painting or in the form of a print, it is really to make it available in this way. If such a work enters your apartment, sooner or later a conversation about it will start. In the same way, if a wine bottle with an Autistic Art label is put on the table, it is a door towards a certain kind of conversation and the possibility to shift mindsets. This is exactly the point, to start dialogues about autism far away from our own context. But the point is not that everyone should be a scientist in the field of autism and be able to talk about it to the extreme, but that we pass this pattern on to others, and that's really what art is for, it can facilitate connections. Another element I don't think we've talked about yet, is that if you donate, you should be proud of it. It’s something that is missing, that someone gives, but doesn't want to show it to the world afterwards. Why? Put it out there, let it be appreciated, be proud. I do believe this should be done better. But then again, it's like having a painting. We have some supporters who come to the auction by presenting the current catalog to their employees, and then the employees vote on which autistic work the executive will buy at the auction.
Image 5. Kristóf Réti amongst his drawings.
Our audience is mainly our generation - young people - and I would like to ask what advice you could possibly give to them and to us for the next year: how to be smart in 2023?
A lot can definitely be done with the energy you young people have. In the first instance, for example, as you created this initiative, the Journal, you can really be proud of that. And if you take this interview with us, Autistic Art, and you push it to as many places as possible, I think it is already a big help. But I believe that today's young people must work on shifting their indifference, so that it disappears, and they must search for social causes with the same enthusiasm they look for love. So that we shouldn't, quite simply, we really shouldn't exist without looking for a cause that we can stand up for. For example, we were invited by Corvinus University to speak about autism and they invited students, whose role was to imagine how they would introduce Autistic Art to the international market. And these students were so enthusiastic, and this is exactly what needs to be turned into action. You truly have so many possibilities in your hands, and so much knowledge, so it’s very important to turn these into actual physical deeds.
This is a very good motto for everyone, to transform our passion and enthusiasm into action. Thank you for this conversation, it was very inspiring.
Thank you for the invitation. I hope your readers and community will find a cause they will stand up for this year.
A love cause
Yes, let us fall in love.