The Autism Farm

Source:  The Autism Farm    Tag:  bennett x ray machine
     Here's my idea, fifteen years in gestation, for a farm residential community for adults with autism--people who, in Florida, currently have nowhere to go, live with their parents, and become wards of the state when their parents are gone.
     "Carmine's Farm" is currently a three-hundred acre tract of unimproved woods along six hundred feet of Highway 301, in Lochloosa, Florida.  I purchased it two years ago when I sold my Hawthorne clinic, and since then obtained tax status as a nonprofit business (501c3) for the project.
      All of the property could be farmed, but most of it will be left in its natural state.  One-third is wetland and two-thirds is thick with live oaks, dogwood, and slash pines which tower from an understory of wild blueberries, pawpaw, beauty berry bushes, grapevines, miracle fruit, wax myrtle, wild plum, smilax, nettles and native grasses.  Palmetto fronds flutter in all directions like a geisha's fans, and purple wildflowers turn their faces towards the bright openings in the canopy.  Hiking through this landscape one spies evidence of deer, armadillos, gopher tortoises, fox, coyotes, and rabbits.  Locals spot the endangered black bear from time to time, and an alligator might navigate its way through the Lochoosa slew, swimming under the highway to find itself suddenly wallowing in cypress-stained water alongside snapping turtles.  The thousands of  amphibious songsters in this swampy habitat could compete, after an evening cloudburst, with the Vienna Boys Choir.
     The population of eagles in Alachua County outnumbers that of any other county in America, and their nests are visible alongside those of osprey and hawks in the highest trees.  Birds and butterflies are so varied and numerous that the property is a naturalist's dreamscape.  The sandy soil drains well, making it a top choice for blueberry farmers, whose local harvests are sought the world over every April.  But many other crops do well here, too--this is Florida, after all.  Thornless blackberries, citrus, potatoes, salad greens, white acre peas, yams, okra, pumpkins, persimmons, chestnuts, figs and tomatoes thrive with minimal tending.  Peaches, pears, a strain of heat-tolerant apple (developed by the Florida Extension Service) and olives can add diversity to a farm.
     These are crops that could be grown and tended by people with autism.  An organic farm environment is ideally suited for autistic individuals, whose nervous systems are sensitive.  People with autism are not capable of filtering out the cacophony and psychic pressures of city life.  Autistic individuals sometimes evolve strange, repetitive, even self-abusive behaviors as a way of protecting themselves from perpetual urban attacks on their ears, eyes, skin and noses.
     The rest of us don't understand this, because we can't hear screeching dog whistles, and we don't whiff odors a hundred yards away.  My son's ears are like those of owls, who can hear the movement of beetles crawling over dry leaves ninety feet below--he used to cover his ears with his hands all day long.  Auditory evoked potentials--a special hearing test that measures a brain response to sounds--were performed when he was a child, and demonstrated that he could hear at frequencies far outside the normal human range. This is likely to confound his ability to comprehend ordinary speech.
     The olfactory apparatus of autistic people may be as sensitive as that of dogs--who are able to smell the contents of every open container in a house.  Their vision is strange too, often focused on a single movement in front of them rather than the whole picture, and attentive to peripheral rather than central stimuli.  The behaviors resulting from extraordinary perception, and the inability to shut out sensory assaults, are often misunderstood by the rest of us.  We assume autistic people are anxious, deaf, or hostile.  Autistic people therefore end up being medicated with powerful drugs, which can make matters worse.
     The slow pace and gentle sounds of nature, by contrast, seem calming to those with highly-tuned nervous systems.  Two years ago I visited a number of farms for autistic people in North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio.  The road trip I took with my autistic son, Carmine, was one of the best experiences of my life.  Residents on these farms formed their own unconventional, contented communities.  They weeded rows of vegetables, took care of farm animals, sifted worm compost, made hot salsa, picked tomatoes, weeded cilantro--and seemed serene.  There were weaving jobs, woodworking, pottery, baking, apple-cider making and preserving.  One farm had a kitchen which produced granola so delicious it couldn't meet the production demands of local townspeople, who paid top-dollar for it.  While visiting these farms I bought a bird feeder, hand-made rugs, two colorful scarves, worm castings, and a ceramic mobile with faces that shine in the sun every morning when I step out to feed the dogs.  When it was time to leave each farm, I regretted having to go.
     The  people on these farms form their own family.  Their caregivers are paid employees from the surrounding areas--special individuals who seem devoted, and often stay for decades.  Why shouldn't they?  It's a wonderful job.  People with autism never lie, cheat, or judge.  They give the gift of complete acceptance of others.  Everyone on these farms follows a pleasant routine, tailored to his or her talents, and works three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, with a break for a community lunch.  There is never a rush.  Visitors like me are easily incorporated into the schedule.  There are farm sales, open houses, birthday parties, holiday celebrations, excursions to local spots, and a medley of seasonal changes.
     The design for Carmine's Farm--now illustrated as a landscape blueprint on a big piece of paper sitting on a shelf in my home library--includes a mainframe house with a cafeteria-like kitchen and an area for processing vegetables, along with acres of citrus, persimmon, and fig trees, blackberry fields, and vegetable gardens.  The farm has ten cabins connected by walking paths, and each cabin has private rooms for four or five individuals, and a caregiver.
     There are exercise circuits, running paths, a swimming pool, fenced horseback riding fields, stalls for chickens, cows and goats, lodges for visitors, barns, administrative offices, fish ponds, and a roadside stand where gregarious residents can sell vegetables and homemade products.  We could add a composting facility--and bring restaurant and grocery waste to the property in order to convert it into high-grade soil and worm castings.  This could then be sold back to the community, since the sandy soil of Florida is in constant need of fortification.  We could also construct a facility for flash-freezing organic blackberries and peaches, and then shipping them to grocery stores.  We might have studios for art, weaving, music, ceramics, carpentry--whatever appeals to our residents.  We would hire employees and volunteers who could contribute their expertise to these projects.
     Having run a business for twelve years, I believe this farm might, in time, become self-sufficient.  Instead of costing the country money, people with "disabilities" could support themselves, make a contribution, and enjoy wholesome lives in a community of their own.
     Sigmund Freud professed that the two essential elements for a happy life are work and love.  Carmine's Farm would be replete with both.  Everyone benefits from productive work and the experience of making a difference in the world.  Autistic people are the same--despite the fact that they don't conform to mainstream expectations for behavior, and therefore don't "fit in" at regular jobs.
     As for love, how can the rest of us not feel love towards autistic people--who have no guile, who are completely accepting of others, who enjoy work, and whose unique ways of perceiving the world offer us the possibility of alternate realities and new perspectives on our ordinary lives?