Saturday, 8 October 2016

The Origins Of The Autistic Naturalist

Me aged 7
Autism effects many people in many different ways. It depends on which end of the spectrum they are on. On the extreme end of the spectrum, they are unable to communicate properly and may need a carer to help them out for the rest of their lives. On the other end of the spectrum are the more independent individuals who only need a helping hand now and then whenever they struggle at certain things they stress about. Some of these individuals are gifted at seeing great detail and have an incredible memory. They can recreate a large cityscape onto paper with amazing accuracy and detail from memory after a single helicopter ride or can pick out a single bird within a flock of thousands of a different species with a single glance. For me, I guess I am a level below these gifted individuals. I'm not quite as good as them, but I do share some of their traits. Today, I have decided to look at what makes me what I am as an autistic naturalist.

At one of the many zoos I've visited during my childhood (Aged 7)

My interest in wildlife began when I was very little. Animals were more interesting than people, mainly because they don't talk back to you. This is important as autistic children find it very hard to socialize with other people sometimes.  Talking face to face becomes an awkward experience. But with animals, there is something more calming and I often feel like I'm in my comfort zone away from the noisy and often crowded human world. Of course I made friends and played with them like any normal child would, but it was wildlife that made centre stage in my life.

Stroking a deer at Whipsnade Zoo (Aged 8)
Zoos and wildlife documentaries were majorly important to me. The names of species and facts about their lives and where they came from became ingrained into my memory. I especially loved shows with David Attenborough in it and 'The Animals Of Farthing Wood' was another favourite of mine. That show in particular introduced many of the British animals to me, which include adders, kestrels, red-backed shrikes (or butcherbirds as they were known on the show) and newts, and I would tune in each week to learn the many dangers they face on their long journey together to a new home from traffic, game shoots and fox hunting after their previous home was destroyed by bulldozers. I also bought many magazines, books and toys that were about animals. I was obsessed with wildlife completely!

Birdwatching at Snettisham (Aged 19)
Having an obsession is actually a natural thing with autistic people. For me, learning everything about anything was an obsession in itself. It didn't matter what it is, I would attempt to memorize as many facts as I could about it. I also loved to make handmade books of scrap paper bound together with string. I would watch a nature documentary on TV and recreate what I saw and learned into these books through drawings and writing. They were mostly scribbly and nothing like I can produce now, but it is amazing to think that after all these years I would still write up and draw about the wildlife I see in the form of my wildlife diaries and this blog. The obsession is still as strong as ever.

Holding a Barn Owl (Aged 22)
My interest in birds increased when I joined the Y.O.C (Young Ornithologists Club), as it was known back then. This was a club run by the RSPB for children who love wildlife. Once or twice a month we would meet up to have fun and learn about wildlife through games, quizzes, talks and outings to reserves. It was great fun and even my brother, Frazer, joined up with me. I remember my first ever birdwatching outing shortly after receiving my free gear for becoming a member. My dad, one of my uncles, my brother and I went to Cley, wearing my Y.O.C cap and using my binoculars with pride.

Watching hundreds of Knots fly over me at Snettisham (Aged 24)
As I grew older into my teenage years, birdwatching became even more important to me. High school life was stressful. The noisy environment there caused me to breakdown many times and I would often disrupt class with shaking fits and banging my head onto the table. Birdwatching at the weekends with Dad relieved all that stress at least until the start of the next school week. When I left school in 2003, I went to college at Grimsby for three years. Being away from home and my family for the first time was just as stressful at first, but it was birdwatching that saved the day for me again. The chance to explore new locations and see different wildlife made me forget all about my worries of homesickness and the stress of attending two different colleges at the same time.

Sitting by a waterfall at Texas (Aged 24)
Since those college days, which started at Grimsby and continued back at Norwich for five more years, my love for nature has grown stronger and stronger. It is still developing my wildlife watching skills and I'm always learning something new about wildlife to add to my knowledge everyday. My time volunteering at Strumpshaw and Mousehold have gained me a reputation where people ask me for help to identify something or to talk about wildlife in general. I often show my drawings in my diaries to people and this just adds to my reputation. The praise really does help me. Many autistic people suffer from depression, so talking to people about wildlife and helping them as well as seeing new species myself does enough to prevent me from completely falling into depression.

Birdwatching earlier this year
Recently, I was asked if having autism give me any kind of 'super powers' at all as a naturalist. As I said earlier, autism effects everybody differently. I think for me, and perhaps other naturalists on the spectrum as well, having a good memory and being obsessed about something are key to these so called powers. I can remember things that happened to me many years ago with vivid detail and I can often remember them to the exact year. If that's not impressive enough, then how about listening to two different things at the same time. When I'm travelling to a destination with Mum, she would have the car radio on. I like to listen to my own music, so I would have one headphone in one ear while the other is free to listen to her. If something I like is played on the radio, I have the ability to zone out from my headphone ear to focus on listening to the radio. I can also do this to bird song too. It is something I have taught myself to do. Not much of a power, I know, but its uniquely mine. It just goes to show how amazing and weird the human mind is, autistic or not.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing this Sean. It is not always easy for people to appreciate how others feel and what is going on inside their heads. You have unique challenges but also unique skills which you use to great effect at Strumpshaw and Mousehold. What you have written improves my understanding of autism and Imthank you once again. See you at Strumpy sometime soon. Barry