08 Dec 2021

A garden metaphor

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5 mins

Landscape at Cagnes
Landscape at Cagnes - Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841–1919)
As I like to do, I was talking to a friend of mine. A conversation that was actually about many things. How we thought about the world, its history and the creation of this world. The conversation turned to our views on autism. My friend spoke the words that I myself have believed for a long time: “I have always been called the odd one out, the strange one. I believe that too, I have to adapt to everyone because I am weird.”

That led me to explain how I look at autism. We can see society as a large garden with all kinds of trees and plants in it. Most trees are similar and grow very well in the garden. Some rise to great heights and others may not grow as high or as tall, but they grow without any problems. And then there are shrubs that grow and blossom pleasantly. Although they don’t look the same as the trees, the trees have now got used to the shape of the shrubs and to the fact that they grow as they do.

Now other types of trees are also growing in this garden. Trees that are placed in the shade, which makes them grow less successfully. These trees need a different type of soil, different lighting and sometimes even a very different type of nutrition than most trees are used to. Let’s call the latter type of trees birch for convenience’s sake, and the majority of the other trees are oaks. The oaks, which make up the majority of the garden in which they grow, think the birches are strange trees. There are even oaks that say that the birches are “wrong trees” because they are not oaks. There are also oaks that say “We must do our best to change the birches so that they become oaks!”. Unfortunately, there are also oaks that only want other oaks to grow in the garden. These oaks already have trouble with the shrubs that grow in the garden, but something that looks like them, but is not the same as them, is unacceptable to them.

You can feel it coming; autistic people are the birches in this garden. There are plenty of birches in the garden that grow just fine, have beautiful leaves and grow big. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of birches that don’t get any light from the other trees, that are kept small and are told time and time again that they are the “wrong oak”.

This telling that they are different does not always happen in a direct way. Sometimes it even happens with the best intentions. But an oak cannot understand what a birch needs. The oak tree acts from the thought of an oak tree; a tree is a tree and needs this and that. The oak does not see that the other tree is a birch. The oak tree does not see that the other tree is a birch, for an oak tree has no eyes to see that. Only when the birch indicates that they have to stand on different ground than oaks, that they need different things to grow, only then can the oak take that into account.

Autistic people are still told that they are “wrong”. Although the voices that label autism as a disease have had to relinquish their place somewhat in recent years to the people who see autism as a neurodiversity, those voices are still there. Everything that deviates from the norm, the ‘normal’, is considered weird and we would rather avoid it. But autistic people can grow in society just as much as neurotypical people. It requires adaptation and understanding on both sides. Autistic people are used to having to conform to others, to the norm. That is what we are taught from childhood: “Just act normal, then you are already crazy enough” or “Just act normal for once!”. And that has to stop. We are normal, normal for an autistic person. We are not “wrong trees”, we are different from others.

Fortunately, we are seeing more and more acceptance of oaks for all the other plants in the garden.

But acceptance alone does not make us grow. Why it remains so important to talk about autism is to explain what we need. What do you need to grow? What can another person do? And what can I do myself to grow? Do sacred cows need to be knocked down? Are there cases of exclusion that we should do something about?

We all want to see the garden beautifully in bloom, with every special plant in it. Happiness is a goal we all strive for. And if we really do society together, it becomes a lot more beautiful for all of us. So I am looking for what we can make more beautiful with all of us. And to get the bloom in all parts of the garden, we have to adapt to each other. Give each other space to grow and also take space to grow. Think about what you need to grow and see how you achieve it.

On the one hand, it requires you to adapt, but it also requires you to express what you need. And not what other people think you need, or what they tell you you need, but what you want. And if you can’t do that, there are people who will stand up and have that conversation.

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme neurodiversiteit filosofie begrip 
Picture of the author David Westerink
David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

I have my own podcast (in Dutch) about autism and neurodiversity! Checkout the AutCast!

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