For episode 2 of the Nature for Better Wellbeing series, I am very happy to welcome a good friend, colleague and mentor as guest author. Joanna Grace is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist, author, trainer, TEDx speaker and founder of The Sensory Projects.
My relationship to nature is not the sort of relationship that normally springs to mind when people talk about such things. I think the general impression is of someone who would spend time in their garden, or loves to go for walks in the woods. And whilst I do go into my garden and do enjoy walks in woods they are not really definitive of my relationship to nature, and they are also not as easy for me to do as they might be for the next person. I am autistic and part and parcel with comes certain differences in my sensory processing capabilities, for example I can struggle with sight, in general the outside world is too bright for me and patterns can, if I’m not feeling 100%, really bother me.
When I am away from the sea I miss it in the way you might miss a loved one.
If I were to pick two things that are my relationship to nature they would be the sea and the air. The sea is my home, it is where I grew up. No, I’m not a mermaid, as much as I might like to be. I grew up on a concrete boat, a childhood reflected in my book Ernest and I. When I am away from the sea I miss it in the way you might miss a loved one. And just in that way I don’t visit it as much as I should, the sea to me is like a reliable Grandmother, always there with the kettle on, not asking anything from you, always happy to see you. And I should visit more, if I wasn’t so busy, if I had the time, and all the other excuses that don’t really wash.
In the not being visited the sea is Grandma-like, but in the visiting it is quite different, it is soulful. So very different at different times, wild and tortured, serene and painfully beautiful. I love the connection it gives me with the world. I wade in to swim and my body displaces water that touches every other continent in the world.
The air is the piece of nature I connect with as I rush from house to car, car to train, it is the bit that catches my attention, especially recently with the first crisp tastes of winter. I might be squinting in the light and not noticing the plants around me, but the air can stop me and make me look up. Once looking my eyes always search out the horizon. I once studied art at A level and produced so many different images of the horizon, it’s hard to draw a line and make a piece of art out of it, but I was always inspired to try.
Of course I should say I enjoy spending time in nature. But it’s not so simple. I spend most of my days in my office working. Nature is in there with me, dried Honesty seeds and Lavender are on display, a thread of seagulls dance from light fitting to curtain rail. But I am inside. I look out to the horizon every time I climb the stairs, I have what estate agents would call ‘sea glimpses’ from my upstairs windows. I work for myself and could go outside if I wanted. But I do not.
The truth is nature for me is like music. And I stopped listening to music when I was 23. I am trying to listen to it more now I am closing in on 40. Music plays with your emotions, and autism makes it trickier for me to regulate my emotions, so why would I mess with them? Walking the coastal cliff paths in Cornwall looking down on the ocean feels the same. It is raw with emotion, and as beautiful as it is, I’m not sure I could take it every day. Maybe I could, maybe I should, but right now it feels safer to stay inside.
A lot of people with autism (ASD) struggle with their mental health, I believe that trying to understand yourself through Neurotypcial (NT) paradigms can be at the heart of many of these problems. It is the old PC Mac analogy, if you’re trying to run PC software on a Mac it’s going to be glitchy, not because the MAC doesn’t work but because the software does not match the hardware. The difference between the MAC PC analogy and the NT ASD one is that we understand the Mac and PC hardware, where as compared to our understanding of an NT brain understanding of an ASD one is in fledging form.
Staying sane is something I put a lot of effort into. Currently I am running. I dislike running, my body wasn’t built to do it. I feel like those people you see in the water who splash about and clearly put a lot of effort in but get nowhere, my running is the land equivalent of that. Whilst I have never found out how far I can swim (they shut the pool whilst I was still lapping up and down) I know quite categorically how far I can run. Running takes me outside, into the brittle autumn air, up the narrow brackeney Cornish lanes, to see the horizon from a different direction.
I would like one day to live in a house where I could see the sea and the boats from my kitchen window. As I grow old, if I am privileged enough to do so, I want to sit and eat my breakfast and watch the ocean ebb and flow. I think if it is there all the time I’ll be able to take the beauty, just one song playing until death.
Facebook page @TheSensoryProjects
Joanna’s book referenced in the piece can be found here: https://www.ldalearning.com/product/communication-and-interaction/sensory/ernest-and-i/awmt14630