My entire life is one giant spider web. Nearly four decades of experiences of intertwined threads spiral around a core that, until very recently, I couldn’t see. I didn’t even know it was there. I spent years wandering the web’s perimeter, not recognizing how all the threads radiated from the middle. One day I finally saw it. There, in the center of everything, connecting it all together, was the core: autism.
I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until I was 39 years old, and, at first, the diagnosis came as a relief. Here was something that explained why I had the personality I did. But the more I started to explore my tangled web, the more overwhelming it became.
One recent day, I sat at my computer reading an article from an autistic blogger, trying to understand how my diagnosis changes everything, and nothing. The more I read, the more I could identify the “quirks” in my personality, but I quickly became overwhelmed as I thought about how all the varying traits of autism have shaped my nearly forty years of life experiences. Was this why I find small talk painful? Does autism explain why I don’t like social gatherings? Why I frequently need “down time” away from people? Why I was a “wallflower” at school? As the questions piled up in my mind, I began to feel consumed by extreme claustrophobia, a familiar feeling. A tightening in my body, a blankness of my mind, a desperate flight response.
At that moment, my instincts took over. I closed the computer, grabbed my jacket and bag, and left the house. I drove to the park, where, for the next hour, I walked through the forest looking for slime molds. Kneeling down, flashlight in one hand, I lifted logs and shone the light on their undersides to reveal slime molds. As I wandered and searched, I felt the tightness inside of me start to dissolve and my mind clear. I walked, listening to the newly arrived flycatchers, and noted the changes in plant life that marked the season as spring. With only rare encounters of other people, I was able to collect my thoughts in peace and let my mind wander.
I realized something during that walk about myself and my autism. Through my four decades of life undiagnosed, I had found ways to cope with an autistic life. Just like I had that morning, I often feel the need to go for a walk in the forest, look for dragonflies in the wetlands, or go explore the shoreline at low tide. It’s a familiar tug. Sometimes when that claustrophobic feeling begins to creep in, I realize I haven’t been on a good walk for a couple days. Over the last few years I’d begun to recognize just how important and essential time spent out in nature is for me.
Living in the city is hard because of the constant sensory overload that leaves me feeling drained all the time, while simultaneously feeling bad because nobody else seems to mind as much as I do. Only now am I beginning to realize why this has been a struggle for me. Every autistic person is different, and as I learn how autism has shaped me as an individual, I recognize that noise is one of my sensory triggers. The constant urban noise of traffic, airplanes and helicopters, lawnmowers and leaf blowers, music, yelling and police sirens bothers me. Although I’ve created a backyard sanctuary full of birds and insects, outside sounds still infiltrate and, like many autistic people, I find these sounds simply impossible to tune out.
When I’m outside—listening to birds, a river running, wind blowing through trees, or especially the sound of rain—I feel calm. I’ve sought and found some of the landscapes in the city that either drown out or obscure city noises. When I visit the shoreline, the sound of the water is soothing and often masks the general noise of traffic and other racket. The inner areas of forested parks are often quiet because trees filter out a lot of sound, and fewer people venture deep into the woods. I’ve also adapted to avoid noise by visiting parks during early hours of the morning or during the weekdays when there are fewer people about.
I’m also learning that people on the spectrum are often good at understanding and recognizing patterns and can excel at processing information visually—both of which are excellent traits for a naturalist, which is what I am. I don’t know if these traits led me to a lifelong fascination with nature, or if I excelled at being a naturalist because of these traits, but it’s worked out well for me. From a young age, I was proficient at bird identification—a result of simply browsing through my field guide. As I began to observe birds in the wild as a child, I quickly learned to recognize their forms, behavior, flight patterns, and preferred habitats.
Processing visual information and recognizing patterns also helps me to see connections in nature, such as learning what habitats plants prefer, where certain slime molds may be found, or where to look for specific species of birds in the forest layers. And it helps me solve puzzles by reading the landscape like a detective.
The natural world is full of patterns because everything is connected. As I walk through the forest not only am I listening to the birds singing, but I’m processing all the puzzle pieces, from the weather to the arrival of migrating birds, the leafing out of the trees, and the sudden appearance of midges.
When I began writing about natural history, I did so because I loved learning about all the different parts of nature and wanted to share these experiences with everyone. Or so I thought. Now I think it was yet another coping technique aimed at keeping my mind focused. Studying nature, writing about it, and escaping to parks when things get rough—I have molded my life around my interactions with the natural world.
While I continue mentally tugging at the threads of my past to see how they’re connected by my autism, I now feel able to begin reinventing my web, spinning the threads from the center out, into a shape that suits me. Instead of entrapping me, my autism allows me to see this world—to experience its details and patterns and often overlooked wonder—making my life into a web of possibility.