Saskatchewan has hundreds of community gardens. Saskatoon alone has more than 30 of these shared spaces registered.
On an April morning, I meet Will at his community garden. Will is a tall man with a full red beard who is often seen around our neighbourhood delivering flyers. In addition to delivering nine flyer routes, he assists special needs children at a primary school. Will has Asperger’s syndrome, but autism doesn’t stop him from participating in his community.
Asperger’s syndrome is on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum, marked by difficulty with social interactions, a restricted range of interests, and repetitive behaviours. Not everyone, however, would call Asperger’s a neurological disorder. Will himself defines Asperger’s as a culture, as opposed to a disability—that is, a set of people with their own interests, values and ways of communicating.
The community garden seems an appropriate setting to talk about Asperger’s and social norms. It’s Spring Clean-Up Day, and people greet one another across a patchwork of plots. Kids scamper up the paths from the adjacent playground. It’s a bit like Groundhog Day in that everyone is looking from ground to sky: will sunshine triumph or rain rule the day?
There are two ways to view Asperger’s: as a set of individual limitations or as the limited way in which we view individuals. Will may have special needs, but he also has special abilities. “I can memorize entire travel itineraries. I am very good at daydate calculations. I could recite most of the screenplays from The Wizard of Oz and Charlotte’s Web when I was a kid. I also have a good ability to understand people with special needs and people who are troubled.”
Will points proudly to an eight-by-eight rectangle of earth. Having secured his plot for another year, he, like the other gardeners, is keen to get to work. One difficulty about living with autism has been getting stable, rewarding employment. The interview process is especially stressful for him. Questions involving “What would you do?” scenarios require a kind of abstract thinking that is typically challenging for people with Asperger’s.
“I’m not good at explaining myself,” he says simply. The garden is one place where he doesn’t have to, though even here, there are sometimes everyday realities that leave him feeling that he doesn’t share much in common with others. This morning, for example, a few gardeners have brought along thermoses and snacks to share with each other; the effortless banter that passes between them is something in which Will has difficulty participating. Knowing when it is socially permitted to join a conversation, understanding tone and voice modulation, deciphering nuances in meaning and non-literal thinking, these are communication complexities most of us take for granted.