Autsit: Improvising a meditation retreat for people on the autism spectrum
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My name is Greg. My friend Anne-Laure and I are both on the autism spectrum and both long-time sitters. Anne-Laure is lay-ordained in the Soto Zen lineage, but neither of us is qualified to teach in any formal tradition. Conventional meditation retreats are often too crowded, socially demanding, environmentally overwhelming and inflexible for autistic people, so we decided to put together a small meditation retreat friendlier to people on the autism spectrum. Realizing that others might wish to attempt something similar we made this report of our experience.
Our meditation experiment was made possible by the generous donation of a Tahoe-area cabin for use during a week in the off-season. The retreat ran from June 6 to 11, 2011. We gave a symbolic payment to help defray heating and other overhead costs during our stay, but basically the use of the cabin was a gift. Here is a picture of the cabin, which comfortably housed the seven retreatants. The cabin overlooked a waterfall fed by the nearby mountain snow.
As we were
At the start of the retreat we all went food shopping in the town ten miles away. Supermarkets can be pretty stressful for autistics affected by crowds and sensory overload, so the joint decision-making about food and the shopping together were practices in themselves. One of us paid for all the food and we split the tab at the end of the retreat. The total came to about $8 per person per day. Those who brought their own foods for special diets paid a smaller share in the end. We bought largely organic produce and one serving of fish that we learned too late may have been on the Monterey Bay Aquarium's list of threatened fish species. :(
We ate together at a table and took turns cooking and dishwashing, dividing responsibility for cooking breakfasts and dinners. We saved on dishes by adopting personal cups for the duration. Lunches were self-made from available supplies. Inevitably some people functioned more as head cooks than others, but good cheer prevailed overall. The meals were simple and included pasta, salads, plain lentils, leftover lentils spruced up with carrots and spices, steamed kale, the fish, and so on. Oatmeal and oat bran with fruit made a couple of the breakfasts, and we had French toast once toward the end. There was plenty of fruit and juice.
At the retreat's end we put the remaining food in a pile and took turns picking items to take home, until it was all gone.
One of the challenges we faced in the Autsit retreat was settling on practice forms that were accessible to people with a very wide range of meditation experience, physical ability, and systems of belief. We worked together to do this and it turned out not to be too difficult to accommodate everyone reasonably well. The center of all that we did was simple upright immobile sitting in silence for periods of thirty to forty minutes. Beginners sat as few as one or two periods on a given day, and others as many as nine, leaving plenty of time for other practices and activities.
We did most of our sitting in our "zendo", which we set up in a little room that had been built beneath the cabin's kitchen years ago as a refuge for an autistic member of the owners' family. He was one of the first engineers in Silicon Valley and did not have the good fortune to live in the modern era with its greater awareness and acceptance of autism. He suffered greatly as a result. If zendos were named after people this one would have to be named after him. This was a zendo for outsiders.
People who did not bring their own meditation cushions used blankets with couch pillows and one sat in a chair.
The altar flowers were Manzanita, and the incense was an autism-friendly pine needle that not only did not smell of perfume but self-extinguished in seconds. We used the brass bell to time sittings and tapped the black cardboard box gently to pace chanting on the few occasions we did it. (A small wooden "mokugyo" would have sounded better.)
Shoes before we installed a shelf for them
Sunrise hits the bell.
Morning in the zendo
We practiced walking meditation outside the zendo door.
Moonlight outside the zendo
For the physically skilled there were excellent sitting ledges immediately below the zendo. We became the tiny meditating figures in vacationers' photos of the cliffs.
The falls themselves were a powerful place to sit.
Meeting, Speaking, and Other Practices
We met formally as a group for practice discussion and day-planning each morning. Because none of us was a formal "teacher" we all took turns speaking during the meetings. Retreatants who had more experience in group practice tended to say more and to lead more as well, but everyone had plenty of chance to share without coercion. We talked about the future of autism, anxiety, practice goals and obstacles, the significance of dreams, the Lakota story of Jumping Mouse, Kyosei's comments in Case 46 of the Blue Cliff Record, and so on. We talked about different forms of meditation, and about prayer and God-centered practice.
We proposed and invited people to join various practice activities besides meditation. In this way retreatants were free later in the day to share their own favorite practices with any others who were interested. These other practices included yoga, God-centered prayer, and restricting communication to silent writing, all of which various of us attempted to one degree or another. Some of the time during the meetings we experimented with mild formal constraints like "no crosstalk", which is to say sharing without speaking to others or commenting on their words. In a small afternoon prayer group we experimented with a form of prayer in which we took turns saying "We are thankful for _________," filling the blank in turn as each speaker wished, and following each repetition with silence.
Greg discussed his Sparseness-Adaptation theory of autism, and Anne-Laure read her open letter to the parents of autistic children.
It wouldn't be a proper meditation retreat without conscientious labor, and there was that. Work included food preparation, cabin maintenance, laundry, sweeping and mopping, hauling and stacking firewood, repairing rock-work, and restoring the cabin to a pristine condition at our departure -- "leaving no trace". Some of the work was obvious and needed no assigning. Other work people volunteered to do, and some was set in motion by those familiar with the needs of the cabin and its maintenance. The obsessive-compulsive tendency often present in autism made some of us naturals at tidying up.
The cabin was situated at the edge of a mountain wilderness. An osprey hunted for fish at the falls.
Autistic frontier abilities were well-represented in our group and many of us headed up into the snow that, late in the season, supported our weight without skis or snowshoes.
Some of us went boating on a lake near the cabin.
But the boat leaked and almost sank.
Defying ascetic purity a few beers found their way into our mix. Also, Mozart and Gilbert and Sullivan were played on the piano. Purity received a further blow by way of our ice-cream making, which in meditation-contrary fashion we tried to speed up through the use of dry ice. Turned out we didn't have quite enough dry ice so we mixed in the usual water ice and braced ourselves for an explosion that failed to occur. Cool smoke did, however, come out the drain hole on the green bucket. We discovered several reasons not to use dry ice to make ice cream, not least that it makes the ice cream taste like soda water. The taste went away by the following morning, however.
Purity suffered a final, mortal blow at the hands of s'mores made with Nutella.
Wilderness meditation is not without its risks, and there were casualties. There were splinters to remove.
And there were several nose-bleeds.
Basically, if you wanted everything to be perfectly safe the Autsit retreat was not for you. There were rocks to trip on and cliffs to fall off at the very least, and the nearest hospital was miles away. The back door showed bear-claw marks, and I'm not talking about a pastry. (A bear did in fact get into the cabin years ago.) For autistics with frontier-adaptive natures, though, the mountains with their silences, winds and waterfalls, pine scents, wild creatures and dangers demanding little social ability, but serious ability with objects -- this was a real home. In the wilderness we did not practice to become well-behaved crowd-dwellers: We practiced to become ourselves -- outliers who happened also to care for a troubled planet.
The Autsit retreat gave us a chance to practice with our autistic traits and foibles in an autism-friendly environment. We learned not to bang doors and cupboards, to turn glaring lights down for each other, and to work with each others' autistic sensitivities and idiosyncrasies in general. We saw that autistic traits like mild obsessive-compulsion had two faces: They made meticulous workers but also led for example to use of napkins, paper towels and toilet tissue in quantities pitting private compulsion against care for Earth's dwindling resources. Similarly, it made a lover of tidiness an efficient work leader but also a testy and disagreeable one. An autistic love of structure occasionally clashed with an autistic distaste for imposed structure. One person's peaceful quiet behind earplugs was another person's unpleasant need to speak loudly to be understood. And so on. These sorts of problems were likely to come up in any group of autistics, and the Autsit retreat provided a space for autistics to face these problems using ancient meditative tools in a dogma- and sensory-overload-free environment, surrounded (not too closely) by others with compassion born of shared autistic experience.
It happened that many participants cried at least once during the Autsit retreat, but that was not a requirement. In our closing meetings everyone expressed great satisfaction with how the retreat turned out. It seems, then, that it was a success! Go and make one yourself.
P.S. It is likely that we shall organize future Autsit retreats. If you are interested or have questions and comments you may contact us at .