Why do we seem to have an epidemic of “autism”? Many people wonder -- what is autism, anyway? The definitions are slippery, but the one from the Oxford Concise Dictionary seems to capture the basis: “morbid self-admiration.” The word comes from the prefix “auto” which means self-propelled, as in automatic, autobiography etc. (self-driven, self-written …), and which contrasts with “alien” – other.
We’re all part of the living world, our bodies sustained by the water, oxygen, minerals of Earth herself, just as the bodies of all animals are. With them, we share the same deep ancestry and the same anatomy and physiology (read Your Inner Fish, by J. Shubin). Separation is a mirage. Selfhood is a dance of relationship: we are each like a cell, bounded by a membrane but a porous one that lets nourishment in, that communicates with the energetic environment around it. For children not to be aware of this, to imagine themselves too much in a separate world, leads to a species of mental illness.
So how can we become aware of our connectedness with the living world, and maintain a state of sane mental balance? Growing up in cyber-space (finding entertainment, data and safety by looking at screens all day) makes the problem worse. Only by getting out in nature, into the flow of it, of weather, vegetation, tides, seasons, other life forms can we find mental health and hardiness. Cities without nature are incubators of mental illness. Research has shown that autistic and ADHD children are helped by handling and communing with animals. (Read the works of psychiatrist Aaron Katcher.) Life without companion animals and the proximity of wildlife is unbalanced, anorexic, autistic.
“Fear and distrust of the alien (others) leads to withdrawal into self, and to building barriers and controlling self through rigid, repetitious, habitual behaviour. Is this autistic-child behaviour not exactly what we see the human race as a whole exhibiting toward other species? Except for pets … we have squeezed other animals and their habitats into almost no space on the planet …” and we have made not only them but ourselves impoverished and crazy as a result. (from Childhood Pastorale: Children, Nature and the Preservation of Landscape. See www.overleafbooks.blogspot.ca for availability)Many environmental groups are trying, but we need a wider stronger world-wide movement to preserve habitats on every continent, to value animal life forms and the landscapes and aquatic environments which they cannot be separated from. We need to sustain our home in nature, and realize we are not the only ones in it. We have to recover from the autism that curses our species.