Aspergers and Asparagus

My sister, Katherine, is autistic. She wasn’t diagnosed till her 30s though she was first referred to a psychiatrist (at the Tavistock Centre no less) when she was 7 and was bounced in and out of the system all her life not being given any real answers for why and how she was different. Without an early diagnosis she learned to fit in as much as she could despite suffering from depression and anxiety as a result. We trusted the experts’ views so even though we now see very clearly that she is on the spectrum it wasn’t until we’d so far run out of road with them that we started looking for answers ourselves and eventually chanced upon a suggestion that autism was different in women and it might be that. She got a referral and a diagnosis.

Just over six years since her diagnosis and I still feel angry about not having a diagnosis earlier and about everything she’s gone through trying to be ‘normal’ rather than understanding from the start the ways in which she’s different and how to use the incredible skills she has. She’s ridiculously clever and highly creative. She has a perfect photographic memory and an ability to understand and see patterns that is breathtaking. She’s a great actress and a fantastic writer and an accomplished potter who sells beautiful bowls crafted from leaves through a local craft collective. But she struggles with lots of things that neurotypicals expect and she’s had some terrible downs as she’s struggled to come to terms with what the condition means and how she can manage it.

She lives in rural Somerset where we grew up. There’s a local asparagus farm and they’ll deliver the freshest, crispest, tastiest asparagus, overnight, anywhere in the UK, but if you live nearby you can just pop to the shed where they sort and sell the day’s crop. You can buy unsorted kitchen grade which are slightly imperfect spears that they don’t bother to trim or sort by size, as well as perfect bundles of spears in four different sizes. Kitchen grade is way cheaper and so when it’s available we usually buy it because Katherine is exceptional at sorting it and that way we get more asparagus.

Two years ago I popped in one morning in late May, about half way through the season, to get some asparagus. As I was buying a bundle of kitchen grade I joked about having a crack asparagus sorter at home and the woman who runs it simply said ‘does she want a job?’. I asked if she was serious and she thought for a moment and said yes. I raced home and explained and I took Katherine back, nervous and apprehensive, to talk about it. Our principal concern was that there’s a machine that’s used to wash and trim the asparagus prior to sorting and Katherine is particularly sensitive to noise. But she stood and listened and felt it wasn’t at a frequency that would bother her so they agreed a trial shift on Monday morning.

It went well. They gave her a job for the remainder of the season.

They asked if she’d come back the following year and followed up repeatedly to make sure she did. Early in the season I went to visit.

If you don’t know anyone who is autistic you won’t understand the extraordinary joy that autistic people can feel, way beyond neurotypicals. I know that I have never experienced as much happiness as Katherine can feel simply from the joys of nature or a piece of music. It is entrancing to see her giddy with truly pure joy. Equally I know I’ll never feel sadness like her either. Too often her misery is brought on by her interactions with a neurotypical world that doesn’t appreciate or understand her but expects her to understand it. Growing up without a diagnosis she was terribly bullied and lived a life of being told she was wrong without understanding why, and also being constantly reminded that there was something wrong with her without being told what it was.

I interject with this because her excitement at my visit to see her at work was one of the most delightful moments of my life. She danced as she stood at the machine in time to its buzzing rhythm, sorting asparagus and explaining to me about the different sizes and how she grades them. She had found, quite by accident, something that she was better at than any neurotypical could ever be and she is valued for it. She was using one of her superpowers and it made her so happy and fulfilled.

When I left, laden down with sorted bundles of different sizes, the woman who runs it followed me out. Round the corner and out of sight of Katherine she reached out and touched my arm and simply said “Thank you. She’s amazing. Thank you”.

“No. Thank you” I replied, “She loves this job so much, she’s never done anything so simple that she’s so good at and it makes her so happy. Thank you for giving her this job.”

“We’re so lucky to have her,” she said, “thank you so much for suggesting her. I mean, we now have asparagus sorted into 9 different sizes instead of four,” and she paused and smiled, “but she’s incredible. We’ve never had anyone like her.”

I smiled and, both suddenly slightly teary, we hugged.

Another year has gone by and another season has just begun.

I’m writing this because I’ve just had an email from Katherine. She’s finished a piece of project work that I got her, putting together a gift book of quotes, which she’s found hard and, though she’s completed it, the email goes in to some detail about how she’s struggled with it and how frustrating she finds it to cope with things that are basic to neurotypicals. But then it talks about asparagus and she brightens. She’s sending me a bundle. She worries that the rain and cold will mean it isn’t quite as perfect as it was on the sunny days but she’s insistent: “I will make sure that you receive only the best. Tell all your friends! There is a website to take orders. Better than any in London!”

So I thought I would. It is http://asparagusbypost.co.uk/

It’s not cheap (partly because of the postage) but it is exceptional. The finest English asparagus from where Exmoor meets the sea in West Somerset, picked fresh each morning and sorted into the most perfectly sized bundles you will ever see, by an incredibly intelligent, creative, amazing autistic woman who has discovered, thanks to asparagus, that she has superpowers. That she is naturally better at something than any neurotypical could ever be.

We’re trying to work out how she can use this superpower all year round for more than just asparagus sorting, but in the meantime the asparagus is so good and that’s enough for now. Buy some and you’ll see what I mean.

(I originally wrote that Katherine was 5 when she was referred to the Tavistock Centre but she’s told me she was 7 so I’ve updated it).