Neurodiverse & more-than-human geographies

*All photographs by me. The featured image is of rain water running down a pipe. I chose this picture because I feel it captures my particular neurodiversity well, whilst also speaking to the more-than-human: connected, trail-like systems unable to contain or control the boisterousness and determination of water, and always situated amongst lives and worlds beyond that which is human-made.

This semester is going to be spent looking at more-than-human realisations in prejudiced contexts. By this, I mean marginalised groups that – like animals and the environment – are often viewed and treated as somehow inferior to the dominate ‘Western human’, whether due to difference, culture, poverty, perceived impairment, etc.

In Tanzania last month, I encountered three individuals who had lost sensory abilities (one was deaf, two were blind or near blind). Listening to them explain how they now experience the touch of a leaf, the smell of rain and wind, the vibration of thunder, the sound and vibrations of animals breathing or calling was deeply more-than-human.

I also spoke to the three Tanzanian teachers who expressed a number of ideas around their possession of heightened or more sensitive senses compared to Westerners due to the lack of convenience and technology inherent in their societies, and the bush school context potentially giving them a more attentive and intense experience of the natural world.

What was described to me was not unlike my own altered sensory experiences from within my context of Asperger’s and mood affective-ness. These conditions mean that I encounter sensory sensitivities that result in me having a different experience of the world around me. So I did a bit of reading when I got home and found a paper called Autistic Autobiographies and More-Than-Human Emotional Geographies (Davison & Smith 2009) that explored how their experience of the more-than-human world therapeutically benefits the autistic, and through their own writing also helps us to understand their experience of the world. What I am interested in is essentially the same, but from the opposite direction: how can the sensory experiences of those with altered sensory systems help us to understand the more-than-human world?

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This is a place that is meaningful to me, and to the other humans and non-humans who live there. Sure, the double rainbow is impressive, but I took this picture because it captured the diverse community of this place, the beings and entities that collectively contribute to its personality: the sky, the dark clouds, all of the different plants (many of which also fed us) and the insects and micro-organisms they accommodate, the sunlight, the rain, the rainbow, the birds in the trees, the domestic animals nearby, the wind, and of course, the human structures and items. This is home to many, and they ways in which those many interact give the place mood, personality, and ‘feel’. These are impressions that have always been stark and noticeable to me given my extreme sensory sensitivities.

What I am particularly drawn to is this idea of the ‘less-than-human‘ (those who are often marginalised and excluded from the dominant Western consideration of what constitutes a functioning, complete and ‘able’ definition of a human being) may actually have a strong connection to the more-than-human world by virtue of those perceived ‘limitations’ and ‘impairments’ to their human reality. Culturally…we see this kind of thing all of the time. Societies (especially indigenous) are completely disregarded for their ways of knowing because they are perceived as inferior or ‘less-than’ the Western idea of what it means to be a strong, progressive and civilised human.

This is helpful to my larger MRes research in terms of familiarising myself with the term ‘more-than-human’ and engaging with ideas and thinking around how the more-than-human can manifest and be realised within our different understandings and ways of knowing the world. I’m not sure exactly how more-than-human ideas will factor into Tanzanian realities and my MRes project at this stage, but I really got the sense that they are there from some of the environmental philosophy and ‘talking classes’ I took at Mkuyu. So having a chance to really engage with it at a core place could be really helpful.

I don’t want to focus on the cultural side of things right now. That is a place I would prefer to go afterwards, maybe during my semester break before getting into my research project next year. For now, I really need something a little different to keep variety in all that I am doing! So I’d like to focus on sensory ‘impairment’ (I prefer sensory alteration, or neuro-diverse) as a way of understanding more-than-human realisations. At this stage, the aim is looking at what people with these experiences have to say about it, and what that can potentially contribute to more-than-human studies.

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