Friday, July 4, 2008

A Brief Experiment in Communal Living

As you can probably imagine, I was a little worried about whether I'd be able to adapt to life at The Farm's Ecovillage Training Center. Classes were all day long, from 6:30 AM to 6 PM, meals were shared, and we all lived together in the Eco-Hostel, sleeping in dorm-style rooms with a bunch of bunk beds and sharing one or two bathrooms. From what I've experienced previously, in high school and college, just the human contact I had from going to classes was enough to tire me out. I could not imagine being constantly around people for ten days straight.

With this kind of background, I was accordingly skeptical of my ability to stay sane in a communal setting. It turns out I needn't have worried; oddly enough, I was probably the most at peace that I'd ever been while I was at The Farm. I never experienced sensory overload, even though we were constantly doing things, and often outside, and even though I retained my hypersensitivity to visual and auditory stimuli and my inability to tune anything out. I also did not find interacting with any of the people there to be a draining experience; normally, I have to withdraw from company periodically to regain the energy I lose just being around other people. I did not have to do that there. I also did not experience paranoia or panic attacks, both of which I've been having for about five years now whenever I enter a crowded space. Finally, I did not have depressive episodes while I was there, which may not be significant given the short duration of my stay and the cyclical nature of my depression, but I arrived deep into an unusually severe "down" phase. So either the depression suddenly lifted of its own accord and did not return (not out of the question since episodes often begin out of the blue), or whatever environmental factors negated my sensory and anxiety issues also alleviated the depression.

I don't yet know why I felt so much better overall there than I ever had anywhere else, although I have a couple hypotheses. About the sensory stuff, the rural environment may be enough to explain it. Obviously, while there's as much stuff to perceive in a rural or wild environment as there is on a busy city street or in a crowded room, the stimuli are of different types and aren't as densely packed together. You don't get a huge, oppressive wave of sights and sounds breaking over you all at once, like you do entering a crowded room; you get a steady ebb and flow. The other stuff might well have lessened just because the sensory environment was more tolerable; a lot of times I find if I am at or near overload, the slightest stressor can cause me to melt down, just because I have no energy left to deal with it. I also might have fared better with the social interactions there than elsewhere because they were unusually direct: as total strangers sharing an immersive experience, we confided in each other without any of the usual preliminaries, which tend to trip me up.

I took advantage of my unusually sociable mood to answer everyone's questions about my life with autism and autism in general; it turns out there were quite a few people there who knew someone with it. There was an older man in my class who had a nephew with Asperger syndrome, who was brilliant in physics but had underperformed at his old private school because he tested poorly (mostly due to poor fine-motor skills*; he could not get the thoughts out of his head and onto paper in time). This man was accordingly very interested in how I thought and how I perceived the world, about which I told him as much as I was able to get out. There was also a man who had taught autistic children in a special-ed class, and a woman who did not mention any specific experience with autism, but who is a retired schoolteacher and also expressed a lot of interest in how I thought and how I differed from most people. (She asked me once, "Can you lie?" to which I responded after much thought, "I probably can, but it would be really hard.")

One exercise we did as a class that I found instructive was the consensus circle. I have always been a lot more successful at one-on-one interactions than any kind of group discussion (except for class discussions, where you can raise your hand). I cannot judge conversational timing, or tell the difference between a pause and the end of someone's turn to speak, and I turn my thoughts into words so slowly that I'm usually running several jumps behind the conversation in terms of what I'm ready to express. Not surprisingly, group conversations almost always leave me behind. I expected this to happen during the consensus circle, so I proposed that we discuss that: how can people with poor communication skills gain access to full participation in a group discussion? We never got around to addressing that question explicitly, but there are several methods the consensus circle uses that help lower the barriers to participation.

They include:

  • explicit, agreed-upon nonverbal signals, such as "twinkling" your agreement (spreading your hands and wiggling the fingers) or steepling your fingers if you want to speak next
  • use of a "talking stick" or other formal way of recognizing who is speaking
  • having officers, the Facilitator and Vibes Watcher, whose duty it is to keep the discussion on track, make sure no one person dominates, make sure everyone has a say who wants one, and monitor the emotional undercurrents of the discussion and defuse any overly intense situation

Again, the dynamic at this particular session was so laid-back and welcoming that I was able to participate in group discussions without all that rigmarole, but those are ideas I could use elsewhere, if I think I am being shut out. In particular, the rule that explicit signals be used looks like a good one, and a great equalizer for autistics, who lack the body-language-reading ability that NTs take for granted.

*There is one theory, advanced by Morton Ann Gernsbacher, that the deficits in communication observed in autism are not deficits of social attachment, attention or "theory of mind," but rather arise from "executive" problems --- i.e., trouble verbalizing or acting on thoughts. The paper I link to establishes a correlation between autistic toddlers' motor skills and later speech fluency, which would support the hypothesis she put forth in a lecture at KU, that this lack of executive control explains the communication difficulties that characterize autism.


shiva said...

Thanks a lot for this. I have a lot of posts planned on similar issues (which may or may not ever materialise, given my posting rate).

I will have to come back to this when i have more time, but i think there's a LOT that the radical ecology/anti-war/NVDA etc movements and the disability movement can gain from each other (and some potential conflicts as well)... but, comparative accessibility of hirarchical and non-heirarchical decision making processes for neurodiverse people is an INCREDIBLY exciting subject... :) :)

thinkingdifference said...

do you think it could be the environment? i have no experience with autism, but from what you describe, it made me wonder. there seems to be more silence in rural environments, and a pace of life closer to nature (you wake up with the sun, go out when the sun is not burning, etc.). what is your impression?

illona said...

I lived in a communal living situation for a few years and I loved it. I was just diagnosed with asperger. I would really like to live communally again and would appreciate any feedback on how to do this again. Someone I knew asked me to join their home last time. I found that it was great because we were all working on taking care of our health by eating right, exercising, meditating and other activities that help promote a nurturing home.