Turning Special Interests into a Career: Horticulture and Autism

Autism is a spectrum, and the symptoms and struggles vary on an individual basis. Some of the general characteristics of autism include social communication challenges and repetitive behaviors, as well as strong focus and interests.

The best way to speak about autism awareness and advocacy is for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to share their own stories.

Here is one of those stories, as told by Missouri Botanical Garden horticulturist Jared Chauncey.

I was clinically diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder as a child. I was originally diagnosed with Aspergers disorder, which is now considered a part of the mid- and high-functioning ranges of ASD.

It can be hard to talk about, but I think public awareness and advocacy are important. People think of children with autism; they don’t seem to realize that those children become adults with autism.

As a child, I struggled with things that many people take for granted. Tying my shoes and riding a bike took much longer than normal. Certain aspects of the school environment were always struggles. Shyness, socializing, anxiety, being too honest, and avoiding eye contact were, and still are, struggles.

I think it’s important for the public to be exposed to real people on the autism spectrum, and their lives and careers, in order to better understand and support them. It is even more important for children and people with ASD to see real representations of people like themselves with lives and jobs.

The current birth rate for children on the autism spectrum is about 1 in 59, and the expected global population on the autism spectrum is between one and two percent. The unemployment rate of adults on the autism spectrum is between 75 and 85 percent.

Horticulture, botany, conservation, and education are all fields people on the spectrum often have interest in, and in which they can excel. These fields also suffer from reduced funding, interest, and educational programs, especially horticulture and botany. It is important both to encourage people with ASD to know that they can have careers, and to promote careers in botany, horticulture, and conservation.

I work as a Conservatories Horticulturist at Missouri Botanical Garden, taking care of the Shoenberg Temperate House and the historic Linnean House. These conservatories include a diverse collection of Mediterranean, desert, carnivorous, and subtropical flora, such as camellia and oranges. I work to build and curate the plant collections with rare, unusual, and beautiful plants. I also work to obtain plants that tell stories of science, conservation, and plant-human interactions to the public. I have built projects on the conservation and collection of rare plants for the collection, and performed field work for weeks at a time to carry it out.

I love the ability to look at horticulture, conservation, botanical gardens, museums, ecology, and botany as interconnected pieces of the same puzzle. In life, as in nature, everything is interconnected and too often people lose sight of this. Sometimes people “can’t see the forest for the trees,” and a different perspective can be helpful.

A common trait throughout the autism spectrum is strong focus and interest in specific things or topics, which has often been seen as a negative. Fortunately this intense interest is beginning to be seen as a benefit to society and to individuals with ASD. I believe it is important for those on the autism spectrum to be exposed to fields where their interests can be used to find employment, feel useful and fulfilled, and better the world.

Some experts suggest that Charles Darwin was on the autism spectrum, citing his hyper focus, preference for solitude, persistence, emotional immaturity, dedication to a topic, and independence of mind, among other traits. As a child Darwin was an obsessive collector, a trait shared with another well-known autist Satoshi Tajiri, creator of Pokémon. It is also a trait I share, collecting coins, rocks, science magazines, and trading cards as a child—which became plants in adulthood, and now rare and unusual plants in my career.

Fortunately for me, I was exposed to science, nature, gardens, parks, and museums early and often as a child. And later in life I was lucky to be exposed to internship programs, mentors and supportive careers to encourage me in botanical gardens, botany, and horticulture. But most people on the spectrum are not as lucky as I. The world can always use more passionate people with different perspectives.

The Garden is a comforting place to many visitors, volunteers, and even staff on the autism spectrum. The Garden exposes children and people with ASD to nature, which has many benefits. Gardens are also important places for training and careers for people with ASD, and a productive way to apply their interests.

I get to work in a field that aligns with my interests, but also leaves me feeling fulfilled. I know that despite having what some see as a disability I can make a difference in the world by bringing smiles with pretty flowers, saving species and populations from extinction, collecting plant material that might one day improve a crop or restore a wild population, or that an interpretative plant display I built might get some interested in plants and conservation.

“To discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment in order to preserve and enrich life.”

Mission statement of the Missouri Botanical Garden

Additional Resources at the Garden

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Therapeutic Horticulture Programs are designed to provide creative and stimulating nature-based activities to further enrich the physical, mental and social lives of the participants they serve. Over the years, the Therapeutic Horticulture team has had the privilege of working with kids and adults with ASD. They have seen first-hand the benefits nature and, more specifically, plants can provide. The Garden is currently partnering with Easterseals Midwest to provide customized experiences at the Garden.

Contact the Therapeutic Horticulture Team directly at MBGTherapeuticHorticulture@mobot.org.

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