Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What Herbalists Need to Know About Autism

"We need to help Autistic children now or else we will be paying for them in prison later."

The opening words of David Winston's lecture hit me like a punch in the stomach.

It was the fall of 2013, and I had only been "out" as Autistic in my professional life for a short time, and was still figuring out the implications of understanding and embracing my neurobiology.   Perhaps I should have known that a workshop called "Autism Spectrum Disorders and the Search for Answers"  was going to treat me as a problem to be solved, another puzzle piece, rather than as a person to be engaged and understood.   Maybe if I had known I would have found language that day, found a way to be able to respond directly to the things that were being said and implied about people like me.   But I was caught off guard and felt afraid of confronting a widely respected elder in a place where I didn't know if I could count on anyone else for support, so I bit my tongue and held back my tears and pulled myself together in time to teach my next class.

Now, two years later, I have the same sick feeling in my gut that I had that afternoon, as I see that the journal published by the same organization that sponsored the conference where Winston delivered that lecture, the American Herbalist Guild, has published an article on Autism by another prominent herbalist who sees my neurobiology as a pathology.   K.P. Khalsa's article is gentler than Winston's lecture, and his interest in Autism is clearly inspired by his love for his Autistic adult daughter, but it is still firmly rooted in a paradigm that presumes that there is one correct way for human nervous systems to develop and operate, and that the goal of medicine should be to make Autistic minds and bodies less Autistic.   

Tonight, I have words to speak.  And they are directed not just to Winston or Khalsa or the AHG, but to the entire herbal community.  It is time for everyone to learn and understand some important things about Autism:

1)  Autism is not a disorder.

Autism is a natural variation in human neurobiology that has existed throughout the history of our species.   As Autistic scholar, Nick Walker, writes:
"Autism is a genetically-based human neurological variant. The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable.
"Autism is a developmental phenomenon, meaning that it begins in utero and has a pervasive influence on development, on multiple levels, throughout the lifespan. Autism produces distinctive, atypical ways of thinking, moving, interaction, and sensory and cognitive processing. One analogy that has often been made is that autistic individuals have a different neurological 'operating system' than non-autistic individuals."
Neurodiversity -- the diversity of neurobiologies -- is as essential to the health of a culture as biodiversity is to the health of an ecosystem.   Traditionally, in many cultures, people whose modes of perception varied from the majority's were recognized and trained as people who could be seers on behalf of their communities and intercessors with other-than-human realms.  This culture has treated only one form of perception and sensation and processing and communication as permissible, and as a result is now enduring a crisis of vision as it confronts human and ecological catastrophes.

Oh, and there is no such thing as an "Autism epidemic."  The increase in the number of Autism diagnoses in recent years is the result of changes in diagnostic criteria, and was accurately predicted by those who wrote those criteria.

2)  Attempts to "prevent" or "cure" Autism are, by definition, expressions of eugenics.

To speak about eliminating a genetically-based variation in the biology underlying consciousness is to speak about eliminating a way of being, a way of seeing, a way of feeling.  As one of the people whose existence some of you would like to prevent our cure, I read such expressions to be declarations of war.

3) "High function" and "low function" are inherently oppressive concepts.

What we are supposed to be "functioning" as is as economically productive members of society.  And as people who act enough like neurotypical people to avoid making other people uncomfortable with our presence.   Categorizing us as "low functioning" or "high functioning" dismisses both the beauty and genius of the minds of Autistic people who don't speak or don't hold jobs or can't still their hands and the struggles of Autistic people who can do those things, but sometimes only at great cost to our health,  who still face stress and trauma related to the difficulty of navigating a society shaped by and for non-Autistic people.

4) No understanding of Autistic health is complete if it doesn't integrate an understanding of the biological and psychological impacts of trauma and chronic stress.

To be Autistic in this culture is to live in a world of physically painful sensory overstimulation, where we are  subjected to social norms that demand that we suppress our natural expressions and perceptions, and where we are marginalized and pathologized.  As people whose experience of the world is inherently intense, we are more vulnerable to trauma than many others, and living in a culture of enforced neurotypicality is universally stressful and frequently traumatizing to Autistic people.   Other people's failure to understand, and hence empathize with, and our difficulties in navigating relationships with people whose modes of perception and communication are very difficult for us to understand also make us more likely to experience physical, emotional, and sexual violenc than the general population.

Many of the "symptoms" and "co-morbidities" associated with Autism -- anxiety, depression, digestive disruption, dysautonomia, hypertension, autoimmune disease, asthma, allergies -- can be caused or exacerbated by the neuroendocrine disruptions caused by trauma and chronic stress.  Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should almost always be investigated as a potential factor in our health problems.


5) Our "symptoms" are differences with the majority of the culture, not problems to be solved.

Let's take a look, if we must, at the official diagnostic criteria for Autism.

We are said to have "persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction" because we have trouble recognizing social cues and adhering to social norms  and  we display "abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gesture."   People claim that we can't read body language well -- but it turns out we read each others' body language and facial expressions quite well, we just have a hard time relating to the body language and facial expressions of non-Autistic people.  But, you know what?  Non-Autistic people have a harighly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focusd time understanding our nonverbal signals.   And most of us do way better understanding the signals sent by non-Autistic people than Autistic people do understanding the signals we send.   One additional "problem" we have:  when there is a discrepancy between someone's words and gestures, or between their outward communication and their presence, we often don't know which signals we are "supposed" to believe and end up responding in ways that are more honest than polite.   

As for our other "symptoms":

"stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech" - aka stims - represent our attempts to create a single stimulus strong enough to drown out the flood of sensation being carried across our nervous systems in order to ground ourselves in overwhelming situations . .

"insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior" is another way of managing overwhelm in environments crafted by and for people with dramatically different from ours . . .

"highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus" are passions we follow deeply enough and doggedly enough to discover patterns and possibilities no one else ever perceived . .

"hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment" means we respond to sensory stimuli in ways that are different from the majority of the population.

None of these are "symptoms" to be treated.

6) Nobody else can speak for us.

Non-Autistic family members and friends and partners of Autistic people have their own experiences of the world.    Some involve frustrations and challenges communicating and collaborating across a neurological divide.   Some involve compassion and solidarity with Autistic people.  Some involve really fucked up ideas about how they wish we were different or wish we didn't exist.   They can speak for themselves.   They and their organizations cannot and do not speak for us.

7)  We have good reasons to be wary of "natural" and "alternative" healthcare providers.

There are a lot of Autistic herbalists.   And there are a lot of non-Autistic herbalists who support Autistic people in compassionate ways.    But there are also a lot of herbalists and naturopaths and people who look and sound to all the world like herbalists and naturopaths who go around talking about preventing and curing Autism.   There are a host of cruel and bizarre Autism treatments advocated by people who call themselves alternative or natural health practitioners -- eg bleach enemas.   And the natural health community as a whole, and the herbal community in particular, have been major vectors for the transmission of toxic myths about Autism.  So don't be surprised if Autistic clients are a little nervous and hesitant at first.   

Still want to work with us?  Great!  Learn more about our lives by reading Autistic writers   (and good allies like Steve Silberman.) And then come meet us from a place of openness, curiosity, kindness, and respect, and wll will go well!



Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What is the work of this god? -- Reclaiming the Mean(ing)s of Production

Who is this flower above me/ and what is the work of this god?// I would know myself in all my parts.  -- Victor Anderson

It breaks my heart to see the ways in which so many of us healers and activists and artist and teachers and priests keep martyring ourselves to a god we don't even believe in by driving ourselves into the ground in the name of concepts of productivity derived from capitalism's cult of progress.

My decade and a half of full time activism saw me alternating between periods of working sixty hours a week and periods of barely being able to get out of bed.   In both states I constantly berated myself for my lack of commitment -- and my lack of tangible results.

Surrounded by a culture that values people primarily according to their ability to generate wealth, countercultures and opposition movements unwittingly replicate capitalist values by subtly and not so subtly measuring their members' worth and dedication by the amount of toil they engage in and by their outwardly visible achievements.    Guilt, shame, and feelings of inadequacy are both consciously and unconsciously exploited to elicit more work from people.   Eventually the voices demanding productivity become deeply internalized.

As an Autistic person I am acutely aware that the degree to which most people are willing to grant me autonomy and equality is related to the degree to which they define me as "high functioning" -- ie able to engage in work that the culture values economically.   Though I pass as neurotypical or at least not obviously divergent in some settings sometimes, I require long periods of silence and solitude to reset myself after engaging with most humans, and after being in environments full of unfamiliar and artificial sensory stimuli.   Nevertheless, I push myself to take on the same level of commitments as someone whose processing and cognitive styles more readily allow moving quickly from one task to another in places full of people -- and sometimes to take on more than is expected hoping that it will make up for my real and perceived deficits.  (eg the inability to turn in attendance sheets competed properly and on time)   I end up paying the price in terms of brain fog, autoimmune flare-ups, further declines in executive function, and brief periods where I cannot speak.   And when I recover from these setbacks, I quickly throw myself into desperately trying to catch up, terrified that my life will come apart at the seams if I can't regain my level of outward productivity.  

Besides my health, crucial and unique elements of my perception and cognition get lost in the process.   My ability to write, to teach, to craft ritual, to do medicine stems from my ability to see systems and networks and relationships differently than other people.   And that capacity depends on my ability to spend time in non-lingusitic space, letting the forest and the stones and those beloveds who know how to hold silence wordlessly remind my heart of its identity and its place in the world.   On the time spent listening deeply to water and stars and strange water plants.  My heart yang -- my outward expression -- draws nourishment from my heart yin -- my ability to receive beauty.  

I am a priest of a religion that says that the universe arose when the original darkness fell in love and in lust with hir own reflection and exploded outward in desire, dividing hirself again and again for the sake of discovery.    I hold ecstasy sacred.   So why I am I allowing my worth to be determined by what humans do and don't see me do?

The true work of the god that I am  -- and the god that you are -- is the work of becoming ourselves.  "Fully human, fully wild, fully divine" as I was taught, aligned and whole in all our parts, centered in the black heart of innocence that mirrors the original darkness with its infinite potential.  

So why do we keep putting the needs of the false gods of market and progress ahead of what we are truly called to produce -- lives of love and pleasure and meaning?

Its long past time to drive the bosses from our heads and reclaim the means and meaning of production.




Saturday, October 17, 2015

Eugenics by Any Other Name

There is a reason why every time someone I know posts something about vaccines or pesticides causing the "autism epidemic" my heart starts pounding and I feel like I have been punched in the gut . .  . and I am tired of being nice about, tired of pretending this is just some academic question about which we can agree to disagree.

If you are someone who promotes these kinds of articles, what you are about to read might make you a little uncomfortable.  But its nothing compared to what you do to me and to people like me when you spread unfounded stories that treat our existence as a tragedy or a blight.

Before the Nazis began murdering Jews, they rounded up people they considered mentally or physically "defective" and murdered them, often with the knowledge and blessing of their families.

Yes, I went there.  Why?  Because actual fucking Nazis killed actual people like me.

And you know where they got the idea from?  Not from some mis-reading of Nietzsche,   They got it from the leading minds of the Ivy League medical schools in the U.S.  who were promoting the "science" of eugenics -- the practice of "strengthening the gene pool" by deciding who did and didn't get to have children.

Most overt expressions of eugenic thought are frowned upon today, at least in their most extreme forms.   But its influence isn't hard to find.   Just notice the casualness with which people will express their discomfort with two adults with Down's Syndrome kissing each other.  The aversion is based on a fear that those two adults will have a child who is like them.   And treating that possibility as tragic is tremendously cruel.

And one place that eugenicist thinking shows its head is in the search for ways to prevent or "cure" Autism.

You see, when you talk about preventing or curing Autism, you are talking about creating a world in which people like me don't exist, or at least are not as common.

I want you to stop and think about that for a moment.

How do you think a Queer friend would feel if you posted something about xeno-estrogens causing homosexuality?

How do you think a Black friend would feel if you posted a graphic from text book from the last century that purported to show scientific proof that white people were more intelligent than Black people based on comparisons of the shapes of different people's skulls?

Because besides representing the same kind of hatred the memes and articles you post about the "causes of the autism epidemic," these ideas have something else in common with the claims you are promoting -- they are all demonstrably false.

There is no such thing as an "autism epidemic."   The late Dr. Lorna Wing, who was part of the group that developed the diagnostic criteria for Autism in the DSM-IV demonstrated that the increase in Autism diagnoses in recent years exactly followed the increase predicted when the criteria were modified.    There is no basis for asserting that Autism rates are on the rise.

The claim that vaccines cause Autism was first advanced by a now discredited British gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield.   Wakefield fabricated the data and seems to have sought to profit from a class action lawsuit.   (Again -- think about this.  Would you sue someone because your child were like me and you wish they weren't).

Now, I no some of you will say that you knew a kid who never seemed Autistic until they were vaccinated.   Maybe the kid was speaking and then stopped.    The truth is we Autistic people frequently experience "regressive" events when we are under stress.   I sometimes lose speech for brief periods of time.   I experience loss of my already limited executive function for longer stretches.   Sure, it is possible that in some instances an immunological response to a vaccine might bring on a regressive event by creating neuroendocrineimmune dysregulation.  But regression has been happening to Autistic people living in a world of enforced neurotypicality long before vaccines existed.

Autisms is not new. We have been here as long as humanity has.   We pre-exist this culture and we will outlast it.

Do you still think you can talk about preventing more people like me from existing and call yourself my friend?    And to think, they say Autistic people "lack empathy" . . .

 p.s.  On that comparison with questioning the origin of Queer people -- "conversion therapy" for Queer people was based on the most popular form of therapy administered to Autistic people, developed in the same lab with involvement from the same researchers.   Conversion therapy for Queer people is finally outlawed in the U.S.   But in Massachusetts, Autistic people are still locked up and given electric shocks.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Unsettling Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation

Growing up in Ireland, Cora Anderson's grandfather, Pete Rivers learned to work with herbs.  When he came to Alabama in the nineteenth century, he sought out Cherokee healers and they exchanged information about the names and uses of plants.

I tell you this at the outset, because I want to say that there are times in history when people from Europe have met Indigenous people from North America on respectful terms and shared medicine.   But, things were different then.  Like my ancestors, Pete Rivers was an Indigenous person displaced from one continent to another.   He met his Cherokee neighbors on a certain equal footing.

My own great grandfather was probably two generations younger.  When he arrived in Lynn, MA, at the age of 21, a young Irish revolutionary with a price on his head, the Irish were not yet "white."  He, and my grandfather, faced the Ku Klux Klan who were terrorizing Irish neighborhoods in Massachusetts.  (Other ancestors of mine likely faced the same struggles when the Klan was going after Quebecois communities in Maine.)

But, three generations later, my body is read as "white" in thus culture, and I am an uninvited interloper on unceded WSANEC territory.    While the term "settler" doesn't, in my mind, fit my great grandfather, I am, against my will, a beneficiary of colonization, and of a white supremacist capitalist culture that values my life, my voice, my existence more than it values the lives and voices and existence of Indigenous people or Black people or Brown people.   And as much as I try to resist the violence of capitalism and white supremacy, I live within them.    The "privilige" given to me is not something I can renounce or give away.   So I do not enter into relationship with the people whose land I am living on with the same kind of equal footing that Pete Rivers held.   

This doesn't make true exchange impossible, but it complicates it. 

Adrienne Rich wrote that  "poetry never stood a chance of standing outside history."   The same is true of herbalism.

And in the case of relationships between the Indigenous people of this continent and the descendants of Europeans, that history is one where colonizers have again and again taken whatever they wanted and needed from Indigenous communities.    And, now that capitalist colonialism has stolen almost every material thing from the original inhabitants of this land (and is doing its damnedest to take what's left), a lot of people who materially benefit from that theft are looking to Indigenous communities to feel their spiritual needs as well.   Some are approaching respectfully, but most less so.    And so Indigenous communities are rightly and understandably outraged when outsiders claim their medicines and their ceremonies as their own, especially when they profit from them without giving back to the people they took them from.

Its true, plants belong to themselves, not to cultures.   I disagree with the claim I have heard (though it is a rare one, and I hear people denouncing it more than I hear anyone making it) that white herbalists have no right to work with Osha or Devil's Club.   We do have a right to make relationships with those plants on our own terms.   And, then, to learn what there is to know about traditional understandings of those plants that might give us better context for our own relationships with plants.   Where I draw the line is at claiming to be practicing the traditions that knowledge comes from without understanding and sharing the full cultural context they emerge from.    And at harvesting these plants in ways that disrespect and disrupt Indigenous people's ability to access the plants that helped to shape their cultures.

Its also true, that even in the presence of this history, real conversation and real exchange around plant medicine can happen between people form different communities.  But most of the time I find that those conversations happen quietly.   And the white people who engage in them don't tend to make bold, public claims about having a special knowledge of Indigenous medicine.   They happen when one plant person recognizes another, and they get curious.  

Just like Pete Rivers and the Cherokee healers he met when he came to Alabama.




Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fragments from a Lost Suite

for Van

Until you left
your body
behind

You never knew
the limping god
was not a lame god.

Now he rises
to dance
to your tune,
Orpheus

and becomes
a green light
guiding you
into the woods.

But this time
the will o' th' wisp
burns true

guiding you
into the swamp
in March

where a
purple flower
rises from roots
that melt through
the ice.

Its blossom
will be your boat
for the next part
of your journey

floating on dark waters
through the cavern
of your heart

its beating
reminding you
of the rhythms
that anchored
you to the Earth.

Follow that river home.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Political Correctness and Censorship

I have been noticing more and more lately the ways in which the concept of political correctness is stifling free speech.

I see it happening again and again.   Someone in a position of privilege says something cruel or ignorant about a group of people who are marginalized, pathologized, brutalized, or otherwise generally shit on by the dominant culture.   People respond, pointing out the ways in which the things the privileged person said is hurtful or inaccurate or otherwise problematic.  The privileged person complains about how political correctness is destroying freedom.  And then everyone else is expected to shut the fuck up.

But, you see, that's not the way free speech works.  You are absolutely permitted to say whatever you want -- I will always oppose any law that gets in the way of your doing that.    But, then, I am allowed to say that what you said is fucked.    And if you turn around and say that I am taking away your rights by criticizing you and I need to be quiet -- well, then, who is trying to shut down free speech?

Its kind of like the way Christians claim to be oppressed in this culture right now. Allowing people to have marriages that your church doesn't approve of doesn't stop you from practicing your religion -- nobody is requiring or expecting you to change your rules about who your clergy will and won't marry.   But making laws that say  that Quakers and Unitarians and Pagans aren't allowed to perform weddings that your megachurch pastor disapproves of really is curtailing religious freedom.  

I don't go by the bullshit about "what this country was based on"  or "what the Founding Fathers intended" -- what the Founding Fathers intended was for one group of white male landowners to be allowed to make money without paying taxes dictated by another group of white male landowners to pay off the debt from the genocidal wars waged to make both groups richer.   But I am a believer in consistency.   If you want to invoke freedom of speech, you need to realize that includes other people's right to call you out on bigotry.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Gathering the Wild Herbalists

When I was a teenager growing up in suburban Massachusetts, the Earth First! Journal brought me news of struggles to protecting old growth ecosystems from the Redwoods of California to the Cedars of Alaska, and I dreamed that someday I would be part of giving voice to those ancient forests.  Among my greatest inspirations was Lone Wolf Circles, and the Earth First! Warrior Poets Society that he founded.  

After a decade and half on the frontlines of opposition to the violence of late capitalism -- visiting war zones, blockading weapons factories, planting sunflowers at nuclear power plants -- I left the city for the woods, and eventually found myself teaching and practicing herbal medicine in the Pacific rainforest, a few hours' drive south of Clayoquot Sound, where forest defenders made their stand in the '80's and '90's, and the Walbran where friends and students of mine will soon prepare to put their bodies on the line in defense of some of this island's last old growth.   I venture from my forest home to come into Victoria to teach and work in the clinic at Pacific Rim College, to buy groceries, and to lift weights late at night when I am the only person in the gym.    And every summer and fall I find myself on the road, teaching at herb conferences.

Plant people are some of the best people I have met, and they make me feel welcome everywhere I go.   But, I have to admit, among all the amazing gatherings I attend, one has a very special place in my heart:  The Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, where, a few years ago, Lone Wolf Circles (now known as Jesse Wolf Hardin)  and Kiva Rose took the risk of inviting an unknown herbalist with no formal training and a strange, poetic manner of speaking in spirals to come talk about my relationships with wild plants.    They earned my eternal gratitude then by making room for a new voice, and I have watched them continue to do the same for others, as brilliant people who sat in some of my first workshops have begun to emerge as new, clear, strong, creative voices in our community.   This year I had the special privilege of co-teaching with one of those still newer voices, Asia Suler, whose love and reverence for the land serve as weet but powerful medicine for the re-enchantment of the world.

Wolf and Kiva invite people like me to teach not in spite of our strangeness, but because of it.  They recognize that, as Albert Einstein may or may not have said, the problems we face will not be solved by the same thinking that gave rise to them.  I was particularly moved by the amount of space consciously and deliberately created for neurodivergent voices at this year's gathering.

 But that doesn't mean the conference is a free for all.   The strange truths spoken in the high desert are grounded in lived experience and must pass through the finely tuned bullshit detectors of those willing to challenge what passes for wisdom, be it conventional or unconventional.   The same rollicking spirit that inspired me when I first encountered Earth First! lives on in a conference that grew out of the movement of deep ecology from road blockades into medicine.    I am already counting down the days until next September.