Autism and permaculture ethics part 3: Fair Shares

The 3 permaculture ethics

So I come to the third and last of the key permaculture ethics – fair shares. And, for me, this is the one most closely tied to what I consider a fundamental aspect of being autistic, a strong and abiding sense of justice. It’s certainly an aspect of myself I feel to be of fundamental importance and a deep deep part of who I am.

Permaculture allows us to take care of, to nurture ourselves because without that we cannot truly give of ourselves for others, whether that be as producers, carers, artists, builders of community or anything else.

But, as nurtured individuals, we are then required to share with others our time, produce, energy, wisdom or whatever we have to offer. Keeping ourselves to ourselves, just as much as hoarding of materials, is not acceptable, as long as we have sufficient for our needs. We are not individuals in isolation but part of a community. This might be our local geographical community, our nearest neighbours; or our local group of friends; our families, living locally or spread across the country or the world; or those with whom we share common interests and perhaps meet and share with through social media; or it could be any combination of these or perhaps we are part of multiple communities of different types.

For autistic people, one of the most wonderful aspects of the modern world is the ability to be part of a worldwide community of fellow autistics through the medium of the internet. Many of us may never have come across another autistic (at least that we’re aware of) in real life – someone who really gets us, who has similar experiences of the world, who shares our extra sensitivies, our issues with executive functioning, our overpowering anxieties. While the mainstream media bemoan a fall in face to face socialising and the amount of time people spend looking at their phones instead of talking to each other, autistic people are coming out of ourselves and our isolation to form the best friendships we’ve ever had – friendships which don’t require us to leave the safety of our homes, to go out into a dangerous, judgmental world and engage in that most exhausting pastime of socialising with neurotypical people in overstimulating environments like pubs, restaurants or clubs.

But I digress.

We may be part of one community or many and we are all part of that vast community that is the world.

I read in an article recently (it may have been about Covid-19 or the Black Lives Matter movement – I forget) that, while we might care about the plight of others, it can be difficult to care about people we’ve never met, on the other side of the world, and we just can’t care about everybody. But that isn’t true – at least not for me. I can care for every living person on this planet and for the other life too. Why would that be hard? I don’t need to know them personally, to have met them or even seen a picture of them. I simply care about them. Is this just me? Surely not. Perhaps this is part of that awesome sense of justice that is sometimes considered an autistic trait.

I cannot see injustice and accept it – racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, classism, persecution, abuse or neglect in any form is abhorrent to me. Many people would say the same so what, you might ask, is different about autistics? Is it the black and white thinking, rigidity, literal understanding that are all thought of as characteristic of autism? Or perhaps it’s the extra sensitivity we have to pain and suffering? Who can say? But the other autistic people I know are extraordinarily generous and far more likely to struggle with taking care of themselves than with caring for – and sharing with – those around them.

Autism and permaculture ethics part 2: People Care

The 3 permaculture ethics

The second permaculture ethic is people care. I don’t really like the saying Charity begins at home, because of how it’s used to claim countries (and sometimes people) should be spending money on their own people rather than giving it in aid to poorer countries – and very often they’re not spending it on their own people either! But if you take it to mean you need to look after yourself in order to be able to care for others, like new parents trying to keep well and healthy to be best able to care properly for their babies, for example, then it becomes a useful and important lesson.

In permaculture, people care includes looking after yourself – your mental as well physical wellbeing. You can’t care for the earth or other people or share with others if you aren’t well yourself and for the autistic, this can be hard. Very often autistic people’s needs are misunderstood and ignored – sensory needs, extra time for sensory processing and for down time, aids to reduce anxiety, etc. and this brings me to something that, in my opinion, is key to autistic wellbeing under people care – the double empathy problem.

If you’re autistic or are close to someone who is, you may have already come across this, but the issue of double empathy is not yet widely known by the general population, let alone understood or acknowledged.

In my earlier post on autism, I wrote about the widely held view that autistic people do not feel empathy and how that view has been largely debunked – in fact, since anyone thought to ask autistic people themselves about the matter. While it may be true that some autistic people find cognitive empathy difficult, others do not and very many autistics feel enormous and often overwhelming affective empathy and another type of empathy I have only come across very recently, called compassionate empathy, which I understand to be the feeling of wanting to help another who is suffering or struggling in some way.

What is less acknowledged, but should perhaps be obvious, is the difficulty non autistic people (or neurotypicals or NTs) have empathising with autistic people. Autistics, we know, often think differently, feel differently, behave and communicate differently from NTs but for years, these things have been considered “problems” on the part of the autistic. Research has been directed to seek causes and develop treatments/therapies to cure autistics and turn them into NTs. Some therapies, notably Applied Behaviour Analysis or ABA, are now being recognised by more people (and the majority of autistics) as abusive and actively harmful – see here and here. These therapies and search for “cures” for autism aim to make autistic people, especially children, more neurotypical.

And one of the key diagnostic criteria for autism involves difficulties (called deficits by the DSM-V, see here) with social communication and interaction. Yet recent research has shown that autistic people are perfectly capable of communicating and interacting socially with each other! (You can learn more about this research project here). And herein lies the double empathy problem.

Dr Damian Milton (see here) explains the double empathy problem like this:

“Simply put, the theory of the double empathy problem suggests that when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another, they will struggle to empathise with each other. This is likely to be exacerbated through differences in language use and comprehension. I first started to publish theoretical accounts of this issue in the early 2010s, yet similar ideas can be found in the work of Luke Beardon regarding ‘cross-neurological theory of mind’ and in that of the philosopher Ian Hacking.”

Thus, autistics actually interact socially very well with other autistics, but not so well with neurotypicals just as neurotypicals interact well with each other but poorly with autistics. So the lack of empathy supposedly exhibited by autistics is actually revealed as an inability on the part of non-autistics to recognise or appreciate autistic empathetic expression. This is not to suggest neurotypicals are now deficient, but that the power has lain with the neurotypical majority, including in the fields of psychology and medicine, to define autism in terms of deficits from a neurotypical norm rather than of differences that have intrinsic value of their own.

This theory can help us understand communication and empathy difficulties not just between autistics and non- autistics, but between people of different interests, origins and cultures. Where there is also a power disparity between groups, one group can be abused by another because of the lack of empathy, as seen in practices such as ABA being used as “treatment” for autism (and also for homosexuality in the very similar “gay conversion therapy”). This is, of course, also relevant for racism, sexism, LGBTQIA+ discrimination and ableism more generally.

So for us to truly follow the ethic of people care, we need to accept and celebrate difference and work to understand others as well as helping them to understand us. We, autistics and NTs alike, need to care for ourselves in whatever ways help us best and then turn our attention to supporting others in the ways that actually benefit them.

Cuddles with my dog, Scout, and walking in our bluebell woods are just a couple of the tools in my self care toolbox

Autism and permaculture ethics part 1: Earth Care

The 3 permaculture ethics

What connections, if any, are there between autism and the three permaculture ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares?

Let’s start with earth care. This is about looking after our environment, the other living things that share the earth with us and working with nature to sustain ourselves while also sustaining the natural world.

For many autistic people, one of the most problematic areas is around the sensory issues. Yet it can also be one of the most wonderful gifts. I struggle to shut out sensory input, meaning that I’m easily overwhelmed by too much noise, too people rushing around me, too many voices talking. I find it hard to concentrate on a conversation when I can hear other conversations around me and busy times e.g. at the supermarket or on the underground are exhausting.

But the up side of all this is the ability to absorb the natural world around us, given the opportunity to do so. We know that spending time in nature is of great benefit for all of us, calming stress and anxiety and lifting our mood. For me, sitting or pottering in my garden, walking in the woods or by the sea – my mind is filled with the sights, sounds, smells and more of my surroundings. I notice the subtle differences of colour of leaves in light and shade, of grains of sand and the scents of flowers or the sea.

Light and shade on maple leaves

And I see every piece of rubbish, smell every waft of cigarette smoke, hear every engine (I exaggerate a little for myself, but it isn’t uncommon for those with sensory processing issues to notice every single detail in this way). It brings with it a deep connection with one’s environment and a deep noticing of both the healthy and the unhealthy in that environment in a way that can affect one’s own mood and mental health in the moment.

This deep sensory connection, which non-autistics may be able to achieve too, though perhaps only by practising greater attentiveness, can lead to a deep emotional connection with the earth and the non-human life upon it that autistics can struggle to make with the people around us and it can be all the deeper and more important because of that.

So while being autistic is not the only road to caring deeply for the earth and does not always lead there, for me and other autistics with this kind of trait, a stronger than average sensory connection helps me to connect deeply and strongly with the ethic of earth care as a way of life.

Some notes about autism

I am autistic.

Obviously, I hear you say, that’s what this blog is about, isn’t it?

Well, it may seem obvious but, of course, I have a specific point to make. I am autistic but I don’t have autism. This is a distinction I feel it’s important to make up front. For those who don’t know, there are different opinions on this issue. Many, particularly health and social care professionals, feel that what is called person-first language should always be used to emphasise my personhood, which means calling me a person with autism. However, there are others, mainly autistic people, who prefer identity-first language, which means calling me an autistic person.

Research, including by Chris Bonello, the man behind Autistic not Weird (see here) suggests that the majority of autistic people, myself included, prefer identity-first language. You can read more about why that might be here. Of course, each autistic individual is free to tell you which they prefer and we should all do our best to use that when talking with them.

Credit to Chris Bonnello for this image

On empathy

There is a certain theory about autism that says autistic people lack theory of mind. This is a psychology term which basically refers to the way a person can imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. A misunderstanding of this theory has led to autistic people being stereotyped as lacking empathy. There are two points to make here.

Firstly, this is only one proposed theory of many about autism. There is evidence both for and against it and autism researchers, as far as I am aware at this time, have formed no consensus as to whether it fits the data or not. (If you’re interested in knowing more, I’ll try to look out some links for you). Therefore it cannot be assumed that autistic people in general lack theory of mind.

Secondly, in psychology there are 2 different types of empathy, one of which is represented by the idea of theory of mind. Whether or not autistics lack this in no way implies that autistic people don’t experience empathy in the sense of feeling and sharing in another’s pain or pleasure. On the contrary, many autistic people have an excess of this kind of empathy, fully partaking in the feelings of others, often to their own detriment.

On special interests

Autistic people have special interests or what some might call, perhaps unflatteringly, obsessions. Like anyone else, we discover an interesting topic and want to learn more about it. But unlike non-autistics (or neurotypical people – NTs) we don’t just learn some more about it – we want to learn as much as we possibly can about it and will spend what others see as excessive amounts of time and energy reading, researching, learning everything we can get our hands on related to it to the exclusion of most other things. Such interests can last for anything from a couple of weeks to a lifetime.

For example, I have a special interest in my family history which led to my regularly spending hours at a time researching on Ancestry and other websites, not noticing the time, missing meals, going to bed late for several years before I was put off by hitting too many brick walls in my research of various family lines. (There are currently well over 3000 people on my family tree). That interest remains but has now taken a backseat to others, like permaculture and autism.

On the spectrum

Another common misconception about autism concerns the spectrum. It is all too common to hear people say things like, “we’re all on the spectrum somewhere aren’t we?” or, “I think I’m probably a bit autistic, too.” But the autistic spectrum is not a linear progression from not at all autistic through to the most autistic you can possibly be. That is just not what is meant by the word spectrum here.

The best explanation of what the term autistic spectrum really means that I’ve ever read is this article. This matters because saying, “I think I’m a bit autistic,” or, “we’re all a little autistic,” isn’t just inaccurate, it’s a misrepresentation of autism and is dismissive of the lived experience of actual autistics.

I hope I’ve helped you understand autism a little better. There are many other autistic bloggers and self-advocates and I’ll provide links to some of my favourites on the blog over time. I’ll also be writing more about autism to explain my own experiences, problems and ways of doing things along the way. If you have questions, please ask.


An Introduction

Iechyd da!

Hello and welcome!

My name is Ally and I’m a middle-aged, autistic mother of two living in Wales.

I was diagnosed in 2016, aged 45, with Asperger’s syndrome but identify as autistic and have spent the last few years researching autism and investigating my own autism and how it has affected my life, relationships and health to get me where I am today.

In early 2018, I attended an Introduction to Permaculture weekend course and, completely inspired by the ethics and principles of permaculture, went on to take a Permaculture Design Certificate course. I made some wonderful new friends and learned the beginnings of how to use permaculture design here where I live.

My family and I live on about 7 acres of quite steep Welsh hillside that once formed part of a small dairy farm but had been thoroughly overgrown with ash and other trees, bracken, brambles and gorse by the time we bought it a few years ago. We spent a couple of years observing and exploring as much as possible before choosing a small area to transform into terraces on 5 levels. Now, 2 years on, we have a little flock of 7 geese (5 rehomed Emdens and 2 Brecon Buff goslings bred by a local permaculturist), a middle-sized polytunnel (currently full of tomato, pepper, chilli, melon and corn plants), an outside terrace (growing potatoes, alliums, squash, peas, salad and soft fruit) and 3 compost bins. Earlier this year, we also cleared and began to plant a little orchard, at least part of which we hope will provide extra grass for the geese, while other areas may become wildflower habitat and a miniature forest garden.

The orchard, with tree guards to protect from fallow deer

We have many potential plans for the future but are taking things slowly, taking yields where we can and continuing to observe our place, ourselves and all of the interactions between.

So this is me and my permaculture journey to date. What I hope to explore in this blog is the developing relationship between myself and permaculture, not just from the point of view of producing food and more from the land but looking at how I can use permaculture design in my own life, in relationships with friends and the local community and in any other work I choose to do in the wider world.