Beyond the Garden Gate: Autism and the Wildness of Consciousness
Culture and cultivation are words with a common root.
Cultivated plants are carefully and deliberately planted, conditioned, and pruned, to produce an expected result – the bloom and scent of a Damascus Rose, the crisp sweetness of a Cortland Apple, rows upon rows of Wheat all ready for harvest at the same time.
The same is true of culture.
Gary Snyder writes:
A culture is a neighborhood of networks or communities that is rooted and tended. It has its limits. It is ordinary.
Culture shapes minds to produce predicable results.
There is beauty in the ordinary. But the survival of ordinary communities of plants and people depends on the extraordinary, the unusual, the wild, to bring innovation.
Pollen is carried from garden to garden by wind and Bees and Bats and Hummingbirds, bringing genetic variation . . and sometimes the pollen of our cultivated plants’ wild cousins blows in from a forest or a meadow, making strange new beauty possible.
And as long as humans and our hominin cousins have existed, culture has depended on the strange minds of people who live and think outside its boundaries. Autism is a natural variation in human consciousness that has been present since the dawn of our species.
Autistic brains create more synapses than other brains, and those synapses proliferate in non-linear ways like the mycelial webs that run through the forest floor. Hence our brains are likely to observe patterns and connections that others miss – and to rebel against the act of accepting structures that don’t conform to our experience of reality. We also take in more sensory information than most people, which can be sublime or excruciating, or both, depending on our environment.
Our difficulty accepting hierarchies of being that don’t follow logic and our tendency to pick up on the emotions and sensations of other beings in our environment imbues Autistic people with a certain innate and intuitive animism. We empathize with beings whom our culture does not recognize as people – Whales, Cedars, Stars, Stones, Sentient Machines.
Our Autistic ancestors often became the witches, shamans, and cunningfolk at the edge of the village, mediating between human and other-than human worlds. In recent centuries, a culture cut off from the rest of the living world has silenced and excluded Autistic voices while profiting from taking the insights of unconventional minds out of the context from which those insights arose.
That selective harvesting of Autistic insights that can be applied in ways that generate wealth results in a loss of the true gift of our perspective – the understanding of the intricacy, complexity, and fluidity of the patterns at play in the world. This is reflected in the dominant culture’s categorization of Autistic people who have a relatively easy time passing as “normal” as “high functioning” and those who are more visibly different as “low functioning.” Such categories beg the question “what is the function of a human mind?” A society that sees the perception of beauty or the flowering of unique consciousness as the purpose of being human will treat those with unique ways of seeing the world as innately precious. A society that sees people as “human resources” for economic production will value us only when our insights bring the desired results.
Neurodiversity — the wide and wondrous neurological and cognitive variation among humans (and other sentient beings) — plays the same role in the realm of consciousness that biodiversity plays in ecological communities. Cultures that foster neurodiversity are healthy and resilient, like biodiverse ecosystems. Cultures that enforce neurotypicality are brittle and susceptible to sudden collapse, like the monocultures created by industrial agriculture that depend on ever-escalating chemical and biological warfare against insects and bacteria and fungi to forestall their inevitable collapse from disease, all the while poisoning the soil and water and disrupting the climate on which the crops depend.
Journalist Steve Sliberman wrote "Whatever autism is, it is not a product of modern civilization. It is a strange gift from our deep past, passed down through millions of years of evolution." Human survival depends on embracing the strange gifts that come from beyond the walled garden of culture’s accepted modes of thought and perception.