I stood up from where I had been weeding tomatoes and went for yet another unnecessary water break, a small reprieve from the oppressive July heat and the monotony of pulling weeds. I looked up from my water to see a young man walking by, almost jogging, with a wheelbarrow full of soil and a big grin on his face.
“It’s hot,” he said to me.
“Yes,” I said, a smile spreading on my own face. “It is.”
As I’ve written before, I had a summer internship at an organic farm that provides meaningful employment for adults with Autism. It was a great experience, and as I have reflected on it, I’ve realized that not only was the farm a good match for its employees but that there’s also something really special that Autism brings to a small farm.
It’s important to note that Autism is a spectrum and doesn’t look the same in any two people. There was a huge range of personalities and abilities in the farmers, but that doesn’t mean everyone with Autism would like working on a farm. For those that do, it can be magical.
The farmers were some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. Working outside for eight hours is hard for anyone, and I did my fair share of complaining and sneaking off for breaks with my co-interns, but I can’t remember hearing a single complaint from any of the farmers. Maybe they didn’t always want to do what they were asked, but they always took their work seriously because they were so proud to work at the farm. The friendships between the farmers and supervising staff and the small joys of working with the natural world always kept smiles on their faces.
One thing that made that place different from any other farm was the therapy animals. A sheep, a goat, a pig, and a cat all had names and were there for farmers—and interns, of course—to interact with on their breaks. Not every farmer was drawn to animals, but for those who were, the therapy animals made their connection to the farm even stronger.
The other animals served the same purpose they would on any other farm: meat. The staff did take care to protect the farmers from any unnecessary exposure to death, but all of the farmers understood and accepted what happened to the animals. For anyone in close contact with farm animals, the reality of meat is hard to come to terms with, and I think the farmers really demonstrated their emotional intelligence by dealing with it so well.
Perhaps the best part about getting to work on a farm staffed by people with Autism was the work environment it created. The farm was small and low on resources, as many are. In any other farm, that could lead to tension and irritability among staff, but not this farm. There, no matter how many things went wrong in a day, it always came back to laughter and hugs.