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Dialogues - Issue #7

The Earthly Sensuous

Words by Shell Parsons
Illustration by Alice Renard

The intense connection with the natural world that is felt by many autistic people would benefit all of us in the fight against climate breakdown.

The myth that autistic people have no ability to empathise - suggesting a lack of care and feelings - still takes up far too much space. As an autistic person who works both with nature and within the neurodivergent community, I see our high levels of emotional empathy demonstrated through a love of and concern for the natural world. Greta Thunberg and Chris Packham are obvious examples of this.

Autism is not a social-communication disorder. Rather we experience the world more intensely, each with our own sensory profile of hyper- and hypo-sensitivities that extend far beyond the standard five senses. We are unable to filter out “unnecessary” background information. This leads to ways of perceiving, processing, communicating and empathising that are not just different from “the norm”, but different from each other.

Years after my own late-diagnosis, I realised I had been brought up to speak a false mother-tongue within a foreign, neuro-normative, culture. My own natural ways of being had been trained out of me, as I was taught to give my undivided attention to other humans. This is hard. I have a mass of details crowding into my awareness.

Perhaps this is one reason why many autistic people get as attached to animals, plants, places, inanimate objects, concepts, or even sounds or colours, as we might to humans. For me, my greatest love, after my family, is Anglesey. But in our society, this is not seen as “normal”. We do not speak about places in this way.

Cultural ecologist David Abram, speaking to Dr Sharon Blackie on her podcast, This Mythic Life, says: “What we say so profoundly influences what we see, or hear, or even taste.” He notes that in our society we have “ways of speaking that actually inhibit and stifle the spontaneous kinship between our body and the flesh of this living world. There are other ways of speaking that can encourage and enhance that instinctive rapport between our creaturely senses and the earthly sensuous”.

What non-binary autism rights blogger Mel Baggs (preferred pronouns: sie/hir) calls hir “native language” is one such way of “speaking”. On hir YouTube channel - silentmiaow - Baggs’ video, My Own Language, published in 2007, describes how sie is in “a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment, reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings. Ironically, the ways that I move when responding to everything around me is described as ‘being in a world of my own’, whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings, people claim that I am ‘opening up to true interaction with the world’”.

For those of us balancing somewhere between a native language of pure perception/interaction and today’s language of words and symbols, a love of nature comes expressed as a special interest where names, facts and figures sit alongside the inherent desire to learn through sensory experience - the stuff of real connection.

Chris Packham, in his 2017 memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, describes eating tadpoles as a child, driven by an intense need to know what tadpoles tasted of: “Muddy water, slightly gritty, strange when one wriggled beneath my tongue… quite moreish, simply because they were so difficult to taste.” Similarly, my partner, on his grandparent’s farm as a child, watching the cows enjoying the grass, sat himself down beside them and literally joined in.

My biggest weakness is smells. I close my eyes and take as much of a scent into myself as I can, until nothing else exists and I become the smell. Usually, I do this with plants and flowers, but daily I bury my face in the top of my cat’s head and inhale. She smells like a baby, but sometimes I get the inexplicable scent of woodsmoke and can only wonder at where she might have been.

We can be highly-sensitive, with big emotions. Chris Packham understood how loss felt from a young age. When his eponymous sparkle jar, full of glinting minnows and sticklebacks, was smashed by bullies, it was almost like a primer for his future life work: “All that life vanished in a single moment of violence, and all that remained was a massive shocking vacuum that no one else on earth would ever experience or understand.”

The sensing of the approach of a “massive shocking vacuum” of biodiversity on a global scale, the “no-more” of those things that we have connected to on a very intimate level, is what drives many autistic people to become activists.

In a world where we are frustrated trying to fight the stigma against us, we are already outside of the safety of the human herd, the status quo. This leaves us free to speak some uncomfortable truths. One of these is that instead of telling us we are “disordered”, maybe the rest of the world could do with “catching” a bit of what we have.

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