The Importance of Neurodiversity in Permaculture
By Neil Layton

woman gardening

The social ecology of permaculture is well suited to an environment where, rather than being barely tolerated, neurodiversity is actively sought out.


group permaculture

One of the great strengths of Permaculture is its emphasis on diversity. A simple patch of intercropped annuals may have several species with multiple functions. A well-planned forest garden may have a plant species diversity to rival that of a tropical rainforest. It can be made to work everywhere from an urban back garden to a reclaimed industrial plot involving an individual to a couple halfway to the back of beyond to an intentional community of dozens of people. One thing that is too often poorly thought about is how to include, and mutually benefit from, the diversity of human needs and potential contributions.

Here I want to conduct what amounts to a niche analysis, one not dissimilar to a niche analysis for myself, for one broad category of variant neurotype, Asperger syndrome, and describe how such a person’s differences can be of mutual benefit in a permaculture habitat. The specifics won’t be generalizable, but the methods should, I hope, be applicable to the inclusion of other variant neurotypes, from classic Autism to ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, and hopefully many others.

On the grounds that I expect my readers do not need to be reminded that I’m a person, I’m going to use identity-first terminology throughout. I identify (and have been formally diagnosed) as an Aspie.

Much existing work on Permaculture, while recognizing that diversity is key in habitat mimicry, still tends to assume that humans are interchangeable. This may be a hangover from modes of thought in existing social monocultures, where an Autie may be judged on how “high-functioning” they are, which is generally code for how well they “pass” as being “normal”. In a Permaculture environment, I propose this is neither necessary nor desirable.

In mainstream society someone whose mode of communication differs from a restrictive “norm”, whose executive function, the processes that regulate planning and action, may be dependent on a less stimulating environment, and whose mode of thinking means that they won’t fit in equally restrictive social boxes, is not only at a disadvantage but may be a disruptive influence. On the other hand these are the same people who disproportionately rule the technology industries, and whose ancestors were working on how to make fire or knap a better arrowhead while their cousins were sitting around nattering.

These are precisely the people needed to work on out-of-the-box solutions in the face of climate disruption and a degrading environment. The same executive function problems that make it difficult to switch from one task to another are an asset when something needs to be finished. The intense focus and ability to understand complex systems is an asset when working out function stacking a forest garden with hundreds of plant species, not to mention running it, and breeding new plant varieties (a job that requires patience and attention to detail) to fit in to a changing environment, while your friends and cousins get on with jobs that require you to not be completely ham-fisted.

Permaculture remains one of those fields where there is a great deal of research to be done – there is a lot of theoretical work on how forest gardens, for example, might work, but very little good research on how they actually function. This is precisely where the Aspie neurotype is its greatest asset.

At the same time, the relatively low-stimulus environment is an asset to the Aspie – and probably even the classic Autistic – for whom the bright, noisy, stinking allistic-oriented world makes us want to shut. it. all. away! Others may do well working with nonhuman animals, who they may understand better than they do other humans (there are those that think as well as you do, but differently).

The extent to which bringing up a child in such an environment is a good idea is more nuanced. In the short term it might work well even, or especially, for a classic Kanner-syndrome Autie. It’s increasingly thought that many classic Autistics simply do badly in an overstimulating environment, but growing up in a forest garden may make it more difficult for them to then adapt to a mainstream environment later. On the other hand, a place with lower cause for anxiety (linked to the entire Autism spectrum) and need to consciously process social information may leave more energy for learning. Meanwhile, such children are often unencumbered not only by prior social assumptions but by the need to keep quiet about insights that don’t fit the mould. Working out that balance is, perhaps, something that needs to be investigated.

Many permies, or at least many smallholders, tend to be a solitary lot, even tending to be reclusive, and many Aspies become reclusive after a lifetime of social rejection. It’s a route I’ve had to make massive efforts not to go down, and I did consider (and rule out) the idea of a permaculture smallholding on my own. Others, more often experimenting with urban systems, are more sociable: the type to do an afternoon’s planting followed by an evening in the pub. Neither are particularly compatible with Mollison’s idealized social model. Some intentional communities come closer but, writing as an Aspie, the required social interaction may be too much for many autistics, and autistic modes of interaction many be equally confusing, even off-putting, to many allistics. This is something it might benefit all sides to overcome. Social polycultures would benefit anything from a partnership to an intentional community.

In my experience the single biggest barrier is going to be communication. Variation in neurotype seems to lend itself to different communication styles. I’m good – apparently – in writing, can be competent face-to-face provided I’m aware of my limitations (and, preferably, others are aware of them too) and am a dismal failure in group situations, for a whole host of reasons. Communities would need to learn to make allowances for this, and this is the kind of skill that could be shared between them, not in the sense of “how do you deal with your Aspie”, which is what often happens, but how to translate communication styles.

It may be valuable to conduct similar exercises for other variant neurotypes. Rather than drugging someone with ADHD up to the eyeballs in order to make them look neurotypical, some might be able to be more themselves where they can feedtheducks-pickfruit-makejam-pickthesalad-makelunch-checkonthebees…, especially where they can have lots of conversations. It’s not going to work for everybody. Not all Aspies are the same, and the same solution won’t fit all of us, any more than there is a single size for all neurotypicals, but that’s what niche analysis is all about. It’s not about diversity for the sake of it, but about greater diversity providing greater stability provided the right niches are found. The system will be more likely to be disrupted if everyone is not in a suitable niche, for many reasons too long to go into here, and that goes for the more neurologically typical as well. In that sense it’s not even about a diagnosis, but valuing difference. “Fair share” and “people care” has to mean everybody, not everybody in a monoculture. The social ecology of permaculture is well suited to an environment where, rather than being barely tolerated, neurodiversity is actively sought out.