Environment

'Nature became a support system': How autism helped me campaign for wildlife

A 15-year-old conservationist and activist from Northern Ireland writes about how it’s easier for him to connect with the natural world than other aspects of life

Dara McAnulty earth day

As a toddler, I crawled to observe, and sometimes catch, anything that moved: caterpillars, woodlice, ants. I intently observed birds, their behaviour and watched in wonder at their intricacy and how they interacted with everything around them.

At this stage, I was unaware of my difference but as I grew, I knew the world was too noisy, too busy, too confusing and too overwhelming. I was diagnosed with Aspergers/autism aged five, at the insistence of my school – my parents had accepted and nurtured my eccentricities and even though I knew that I made life challenging for them. They always showed unconditional love and acceptance.

Nature brought so much understanding to my life. It satiated my curiosity and then quenched my thirst for knowledge. My capacity to feel at one with the confusing aspects of our world grew when I was immersed in nature and learning all about it. My differently wired brain was at peace.

By age seven I knew I was very different, I had gotten used to the isolation, my inability to break through into the world of talking about football or Minecraft was not tolerated. Then came the bullying. Nature became so much more than an escape; it became a life-support system – although I didn’t realise it then.

By age 12, my mental health was in tatters, years of bullying and isolation had taken its toll. I decided that I would write, unlock all the feelings that were swirling in my head, I needed to express what I couldn’t in real time through conversation. I started writing a blog about nature, autism, species I was interested in, the habitats they lived in and the challenges they faced. It quickly gained popularity beyond my wildest dreams. I joined Twitter and three years later, my life is irrevocably changed.

I was invited on to Springwatch, asked to write articles for the Wildlife Trusts and my local newspapers. The BBC wanted to film me, record me for radio – all of this was completely unnerving and at times overwhelming – but I pushed through because even though it was all so new, I was doing what I loved. I was being myself.

During this time, realising the extent that nature was suffering, I quite accidentally became an activist. I started campaigning firstly against the illegal persecution of hen harriers – a protected raptor, endangered and increasingly rare. It hurt me so deeply, that the words on the page needed to be spoken out loud. I stood up and spoke that first time, aged 13, and all of a sudden I felt a great strength burn inside me. I realised I had potential to do good, to give back to nature – which has given me so much joy, wonder and healing. 

One of the qualities of being autistic is our determination and focus. Many people call our interests ‘obsessions’, I call them passions. My passion is the natural world, our planet, all life we share it with and the challenges it faces. I will never give up. Wherever my passion is willing to take me I am ready for it, it’s who I am. 

Read more from Dara at youngfermanaghnaturalist.com and follow on Twitter @NaturalistDara

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