Autism And Landscape

…it appears to be a law that you cannot have a deep sympathy with both man and nature. Those qualities that bring you near to the one estrange you from the other… The mind that perceives clearly any natural beauty is in that instant withdrawn from human society.   Henry Thoreau

The word ‘landscape’ involves a human being unlike ‘land’ which is unpopulated. Landscape is something we create by looking; it is our perspective on the land and the meaning we make of it. Thus landscape poets and artists interact with a place when they write about or paint it and, through this interaction, they change land into landscape. Interaction with the land is something which is important to Dylan who I think is acutely aware of landscape.

In a previous post I described how Dylan takes his visual bearings from the landscape.Taking bearings from the landscape is not only a visual process however; Dylan also interacts with the land through touch. We have two sticks which we always carry on walks and Dylan uses these  to prod and probe anything unusual and as depth testers in rivers and waterfalls.  Dylan engages with the landscape through his other senses as well, listening and sniffing along the route. In another post I have described how as a toddler Dylan used to lie on the ground in the woods and speculated that this was for the physical sensation of leaves and soil on his back as well as for the sensation of light through the leaf canopy. Because Dylan experiences sensory disturbance, particularly aurally, I imagine the countryside to be a more comfortable environment for him than the city. Here there is less language and sounds are easier to discern; I  only rarely see Dylan put his fingers in his ears or clamp an arm over his head in order to block his ears as I see him do frequently in our city community.

I imagine the soundscape of the countryside is part of the landscape from which Dylan takes his bearings. I don’t think this process is something which is exclusive to Dylan or autism; I can also take bearings from landscape.  The poem below recounts an experience I had while driving through Missouri in 1981. I had been living in the US for a year and had not been missing England but that morning was overwhelmed by thoughts of home. Later I discovered that the rolling hills of Missouri were limestone, the same geology as the Peak District  where I grew up.  This, then, was the landscape of home and that morning its pull on me was enough to make me nauseous. The poem opens years later with me explaining limestone to my daughter while we are away from home.


In Dorset I am explaining it is limestone,
like at home, makes the hills roll.
From a motorboat near Lulworth Cove
I show her how the soft cliffs fall
in pale curves to a lather of waves –
name her homestone in its litany
of Pennine, Portland, Purbeck, Chalk.

Though I am all the link with home
her four years needs or wants,
I know that one day, motherless,
she will need to recognise
the lift and fall of limestone land,
to understand the strength of stone
to make hearts sicken for loss of home.

Like when,  a continent ago,
I crossed America in a quest

to cast off the past, begin again.
How it happened then: the early morning
passing of the state line, radio playing,
land mist rising, the road rolling gently
through hills emerging, either side.

And how the lift and fall of lightness –
an unbearable nothing – weighed me
down. I stopped the car and stumbled
out – paced the edges of a roadside resting ground
(nauseous, breathless) – then paused
before an information board – tried,
distractedly, to make it sense.

And then the slake of a word.
So this was limestone – Missouri Limestone.
I scanned the names of other places it occurred
for news of home – some explanation
for the fissure in my heart’s stone.
Social interaction is largely linguistic and unpredictable, both things which Dylan finds challenging. When I try to imagine how it might feel to be Dylan I sometimes draw a parallel with language learning. There comes a point when I can understand some of what is said – enough to get the gist of things – and I have a bank of phrases which I have practiced and can use fairly reliably. But if a native speaker says something I am not expecting, or demands a response I haven’t prepared, I can be dumb-struck. This, I imagine, is how social discourse feels for Dylan much of the time. Even when he does manage to communicate successfully, or negotiate a social situation, the effort involved can leave Dylan exhausted. Perhaps, amidst this confusing and stressful social world, interaction with the landscape is a way of balancing yourself?

In previous posts I have suggested that the natural world can be more than just a touchstone for Dylan – it is therapeutic and a source of healing.  This very powerful interaction with the natural environment seems to involve specific landscape features for Dylan; rock formations and water are very important to him, but perhaps more than any other geological feature Dylan seems to take his bearings from trees. Some of my other posts have had trees in them: My Trees Have Grown Hair: the Poetry of Autism described the way in which Dylan’s engagement with trees supported his language development and in Walking Without a Map I included a poem (‘Petty Theft’) in which Dylan is shown seeking comfort from trees after a week of disruption at home.

As we walk through our local landscape, Dylan notices and remembers the trees we pass, taking his bearings from them and learning routes through the countryside by them. Trees are dependable; they are always in the same place and they change only slowly and in predictable ways. This is a process which Dylan and I have documented in relation to one tree by photographing it at different points of the year. I first photographed the tree in order to create a visual record of one of Dylan’s favourite walks but subsequently realised the tree looked different at different times of year so took more pictures.


Tree memories run deep. Last summer I took Dylan to a wood which we used to visit occasionally with my mum.  It had been ten or more years since we were there but  Dylan recognised every twist and turn and led me confidently to the trees he particularly wanted to revisit. Dylan’s closest relationships with trees involve a circular passage around them, a ritual dance or a hug (indicating increasing degrees of intimacy).

One wood we visit seems to cast a spell on Dylan. When we go there Dylan stands in the south west corner by a particular group of trees, staring out over a bordering field. He always goes to the same place, a part of the wood which feels magical when I am with Dylan. I call this Dylan’s ‘spirit wood’ and if I think Dylan is in need of calm I take him there. The photographs at the end of the post are of Dylan in this wood.

I often think that there are things I could learn from Dylan’s special relationship with nature and with trees in particular. I look to him, sometimes, to guide me to a more coherent way of living, or to find some stillness in a busy life. And, again, I regard Dylan’s special feeling for landscape as one of the blessings of silence; without language, he has been able to develop depths of experience which words can get in the way of. Some innovative autism providers are increasingly drawing on the natural world when developing relevant curricula and approaches to education and care. I am sure that for some autistic children and adults, and certainly for Dylan, landscape offers an enormous potential for learning.

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Barrett, Elizabeth (2005) ‘Homestone’ in The Bat Detector, Wrecking Ball Press

All the photographs were taken by Liz. The photograph of Dylan with his sticks was taken in a meadow between Satron and Muker in the Yorkshire Dales. The featured image and photo of the signpost were taken on the Pennine Way between Hadraw and Hawes. The seasoned tree is in the Mayfield Valley. Dylan is tree-hugging in Lea Gardens in Matlock. Dylan’s spirit wood is near Limb Valley on the edge of the Peak District.

17 thoughts on “Autism And Landscape

  1. So much to love here Liz. The photos, the writing, the poem:

    “And how the lift and fall of lightness –
    an unbearable nothing – weighed me

    I think I love most the photo of D hugging a tree. I’ve been contemplating a tree themed weekend words–if so, may I include your work with a link back?

    Hope today finds you well, Christy


    • Thank you Christy – your comments mean a lot to me. That picture! I couldn’t have predicted Dylan was going to do that – I was busy photographing some rhododendron flowers when I turned round and saw him – so happened to have my camera at the ready! I’ve seen Dylan tree-hug a few times but his timing was perfect here to give me this lovely photo. I love the idea that you might do something with trees on your Words site. Do you know that Gladstone (Victorian British Prime Minister) famously talked to trees? He was mocked in the British press for it at the time by cartoonists and satirists. I’ve always quite admired him for it though – an interesting man. There’s a book I keep meaning to buy for Dylan, by somebody called Packenham I think: ‘Extraordinary meetings with Trees’, it’s called – or something like that. Photographs of favourite trees – just the sort of thing Dilly would love 🙂 And of course you may include and link my work if you do put something together on trees – I’d be honoured if you did. I’ve been thinking about you Christy – hope Spot is doing OK. Lx


    • Hi Christy – a facebook friend has just been posting extracts from Cad Goddeu, ‘The Battle of the Trees’, a 14th Century Welsh poem. I didn’t know this text before, but have found Welsh and English translations on google which you might want to look up if you ever do a tree-themed words for the weekend. It’s a bit magical 🙂


      • Thank you on all counts, Liz, I have soaked this all up like a sponge.

        I will definitely be doing a tree theme–probably even next weekend. It will give me something fun to focus on.

        (Spot starts her second round of chemo today–we’re marching forward.)

        Can’t wait to dig into your suggestions and share some of your work! Thank you! x, c


  2. Just dropping by again 😉 Trees will be running this weekend, I’ll be “borrowing” some of your work/photos and will link to you on what ever I use. Thanks for the permissions and thanks also for those suggestions!
    x, c


    • Hi Christy – lovely to hear from you but I’m puzzling because last weekend’s post in my reader said you were taking a break. Of course I’m delighted to hear you’re still up and running – I was hoping something horrible hadn’t happened (to Spot for example). I liked your post, Interesting ref to the Elephant in the room which we use in a much wider sense to mean anything that everyone knows about but no one is mentioning 🙂 Well, it’s lovely to know you’re still putting your wonderful posts together – and it will be an honour to have some of my work included. Looking forward to it – love, Lx


      • Just a break for that weekend Liz, I think I’ll try to take one every 2 or 3 weeks, though depending on Spot and Spring and training, that could all change. I just get tired sometimes, like we all do.

        Do you mean my Elephant poem on the Year site? That was an interesting one to write. Wanting to talk about the elephant, but then only being able to talk “to” the elephant.

        Excited to share your work! Have a wonderful week my friend,


      • Ah! I see. Well that sounds sensible – I am in constant awe at how consistently and regularly you put together such great posts, but it must be exhausting. I was actually thinking of Stephen King’s elephant in your reblogged sobriety but I shall look for your poem now. You have a wonderful week too – spring is heading our way 🙂


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  4. Liz, this post is one of my favorites. I love the relationship you describe Dylan having with Nature. Trees being dependable, changing slowly and quietly, gives me a good feeling as I read and it makes sense to me that Dylan would find comfort in the gentle places. I would imagine that he would enjoy a book or some other collection of his favorite trees through the seasons. Just a representation of the actual being may not have the same happy, calm effect on him but seeing you build the collection for him might help his understanding of you and the importance you give to something wonderful you share with him and how you show that.
    About a book of trees he’s unfamiliar with, I wonder if he’d think, “ahhh… friends I haven’t met!”
    Nice of you to begin the post with a bit of Thoreau 😉 and I smiled seeing you mention crossing America. Homestone is lovely and the way this post ends leaves me thinking… thank you.


    • Oh Nettie it is so lovely to find your comment here! Yes crossing America was with Jarrell at the end of that year at UMass 🙂 And Thoreau reminds me of you too because of that visit we made while visiting years later. So glad you like the landscape post. It’s one of my favourites too in that I really think this is an important part of Dylan’s life. Your mention of a book of trees is interesting. I’ve been putting lots of photos on Dylan’s i-pad for him but he doesn’t browse his i-pad in the way he does books, partly because he needs help turning it on and using it. So you can’t beat a book really and this is what I need to find for him I think. I am struck over and over by the effect of trees on Dylan and how he gravitates to them, especially at times of change or stress. One day I will build him a tree house 🙂 Lx


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