Climate Change, Empathy and Neurodiversity

Climate Change, Empathy and Neurodiversity: A Conversation with CCC19 Participant, Katy Elphinstone

By conference convener, Stephanie Mines.

“There is only one path to survival and sustainability and that
is the path of diversity and inclusivity.”            Vandana Shiva

“The true measure of any society can be found in how it
treats its most vulnerable members.”
Mahatma Gandhi

A community’s overall health is reflected in how it protects its vulnerable populations. Vulnerable populations are exposed, susceptible and, by all definitions, in need of specific protection. This is named by every university health department, public health agency or research organization discussing climate change preparedness. In regard to climate change, a list of sectors that qualify as vulnerable will invariably include the elderly, pregnant women, the very young and the chronically ill, particularly those with respiratory and cardiovascular issues. But it may not necessarily include the neurodiverse, such as autistic children, despite their unquestionable defenselessness.

CCC19 participant Katy Elphinstone is the mother of an autistic son. “Autistic children affect people like the truth about climate change,” Katy says. “People don’t want to see them so they look away.” Carly Fleishman, a young woman who blogs about her experience with neurodiversity agrees. “Autism is something I have,” she reports, “that other people don’t like to see.”

Katy and her children

Katy’s greatest fear for her son is that “those who are outwardly vulnerable and who suffer more self-doubt, who experience a deep connection with what is going on around them under normal circumstances, will be ignored and excluded even more in a climate changing environment.” “My son,” she continues, “is extremely compassionate and open. People sometimes cannot bear the light of this open-ness and so they turn away. Neurodiverse people are emotionally at-risk because of their sensitivity. It is our job to see that this is not a disorder. Rather, it is a call to wake up, a call for awareness, and a call for protection, much like climate change itself.” Neurodiverse children and those on the autism spectrum are hypersensitive to sensory overload and sensory overload is the subtitle of climate change.

Like climate change itself, neurodiversity is accelerating at unanticipated rates. There has been a 30% rise in autism spectrum diagnoses since 2008 according to Maureen Durkin, head of the Center for Disease Control’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Neither autism nor climate change is going away. It is how we relate to them that will shape the future of humanity.

Katy writes about her experience as the parent of an autistic son (See her delightful book, Do’s and Don’ts: Autism and Asperger’s Advice for Parents and Carers). She notes that something incredible happens when we chose not to turn away from what makes us uncomfortable. “It brings me hope,” she says, “to see that it is possible to live and think differently; to give myself up to trust and acceptance; to surrender control and power and to instead invest in connection with others and with nature and, well, with everything.”

“I have observed,” Katy continues, “that I am not the only one who has been changed on a deeper level by the simple fact of opening to a neurodiverse child and opening to the reality of climate change. I think that opening and not turning away has been the key that has unlocked, in me and others, a deeper consciousness.”

Sustaining community health compassionately in a climate changing world requires learning to care for vulnerable populations. Those of us willing to accept this response-ability will be the beneficiaries of the increased consciousness Katy describes. Katy may well be one of our teachers as we open to learning about neurodiversity and protecting the children who live with it.

Seeing the Invisible

Autism and other forms of neurodiversity can be invisible to others. People who are differently abled may not appear different to the ordinary observer. On the other hand, when neurodiverse characteristics are obvious and overt there is often an assumption that the individual is deficient or ‘retarded’ in some way. This increases the magnitude of vulnerability. The antidote to both situations is education that increases the consciousness of the neurotypical population.

Continuing with the theme of heightened consciousness Katy remarks on how her son has taught her to be aware of the invisible needs of others as well as his own, and this includes not only people but plants and animals as well. She sees this as an evolutionary experience. “I think the phenomenon of neurodiversity and my awareness of invisible, unspoken needs from suffering beings, human or otherwise, is a direct result of the shifts that civilization is experiencing right now. We are being forced to change just as my son forced me to change and grow. Neurodiverse people are capable of a great connectivity. They have crossed a line in human development and because they are evolving this way it can be difficult for them to function in the world as it currently stands. They are between stories. That is why they need our protection.”

What Is Neurodiversity?

Neurodiversity simply means that the individual processes their experiences using neurological pathways that are unique to them. This includes filtering and integrating sensory input. My book, New Frontiers in Sensory Integration, details each sensory system and how it can be altered by neurodiversity resulting from genetic as well as epigenetic conditions, including exposures to environmental toxins. Harvard environmental epidemiologist, Philippe Grandjean, and Mount Sinai Medical School pediatrician and epidemiologist, Philip Landrigan, published  research in Lancet Neurology (2014) that identified more than 200 widely used industrial chemicals that contribute to brain disorders including autism. The journal Reviews on Environmental Health this year published research showing that chemicals used in fracking contribute to learning disabilities, ADHD, dyslexia, sensory deficits and autism spectrum disorders, all aspects of neurodiversity.

Simon Baron-Cohen, founder of the Autism Research Centre, University of Cambridge, has conducted research for over a decade demonstrating how neurodiversity evolves under certain developmental conditions. My own research with the children of veterans (see my book, They Were Families: How War Comes Home) aligns with his evidence showing that when parents are absent, distracted or living with PTSD, the conditions are ripe for neurodiversity in their children. A multiplicity of factors thus contribute to the etiology of neurodiversity, but the purpose of this article is to suggest how we, as compassionate individuals preparing for climate change, can protect this vulnerable population through greater consciousness. Understanding how and when sensory filtering is awry is an important first step. In some children, for instance, there is a component of acute hypersensitivity to different kinds of stimulation, such as exposure to the sun. Heat may be unbearable, or wind, or light.

We can prepare for the impact of climate change on vulnerable populations by exploring how we relate to them now and upgrading our consciousness. Perhaps this article will stimulate an awareness of how sensory systems are operating in your own body or for those around you? Becoming curious about sensory differences is an important step toward finding greater compassion for this vulnerable population and this, as Katy suggests, leads us to be aware of other vulnerable populations and what we can do to protect them.

If neurodiversity is a new concept to you and you have questions, please put them in the comment section and I will respond. Questions for Katy can also be posted here if you want to speak to the parent of a neurodiverse child. I would also like to hear how you and your community are protecting vulnerable populations and preparing them for climate change. This is a discussion that needs to happen. I am a passionate advocate for it!

If you would like to learn more about proactive intervention for neurodiversity and supporting children and families living with it, please take a look at Katy’s book (Do’s and Don’ts: Autism and Asperger’s Advice for Parents and Carers). My workshop at Findhorn in September 2018, Essence and Empowerment, provides resources for supporting the health of neurodiverse people and Katy will be there! You are welcome to join us to cultivate your capacity to be a source of protection for vulnerable populations in a climate changing world.

  Stephanie’s work with neurodiverse children

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