An Interview with Fellow Daniel Salomon
Willamette Partnership was fortunate to host Daniel Salomon, a Doctoral Candidate at Portland State University, as a Fellow in 2023. Daniel’s research focuses on the intersections and connections between disability justice, environmental equity, animal rights, and spirituality—he has a breadth of expertise!
At Willamette Partnership, Daniel worked with Mariya May Block from the Learning Gardens Lab (LGL) to imagine what an accessible, restorative space for autistic people and neurodivergent cousins could look like here in Portland. The other half of his project was new research into case studies of existing physical spaces and events that were designed to be inclusive for the neurodivergent community. As an autistic person with years of research expertise in the field, Daniel was able to bring both his lived experience and his academic expertise to the work.
At the culmination of this first phase of the project, I chatted with Daniel over Zoom about his project, his research, and what recommendations he has for land managers that could make their spaces more welcoming for autistic people.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Barton Robison: Daniel! To start things out, give us a brief introduction to who you are and what your project is about.
Daniel Salomon: Sure. My name is Daniel Salomon, and I’m a PhD student in Urban Studies at PSU. I’m in my field paper year, and my specializations are in environment and critical disability, and I’m focusing my research on neurodivergence. I’m also an author, and I have a Master’s in Theological Research and a Graduate Certificate in Science and Religion.
And I’m an adult autistic person and a self-advocate, in addition to doing research. So I’m a member of this community.
Barton: Talk to me about the project. When we initially started talking about making space at the Learning Gardens Lab (LGL), the idea was to have a plot in the garden be designed as a sensory space, but that idea shifted?
Daniel: In terms of my project…I’ve worked with Mariya (May Block) to design the sensory garden to be inclusive of the whole garden site, instead of just having one space be inclusive, which follows the permaculture principle of “integrate rather than segregate.” I really like this shift, moving to a whole garden approach—it was Mariya’s idea. It better reflects my own ideas of being inclusive of the autistic community.
The original design site we’d selected was too close to the driveway and other eyesores. My mother—who is in some ways more sensitive to sensory things than I am—confirmed that it felt too close to the driveway and had too much noise pollution. The whole LGL site already has many of the components that we’d been discussing adding into the original design plan, such as a pond, a diverse variety of established garden beds, and wildlife habitat areas. By opening the design to include the whole Learning Garden site, we allow for more time, energy, and funding to go into supporting neurodivergent-inclusive events at the garden. It won’t just be more inclusive overall, it’ll end up being a better use of future funds.
Another important thing about the project is that even though there are differences between neurodivergent and physical disabilities, there are some critical similarities. In critical disability work, “critical” is the keyword, not “disability.” By “critical,” I mean that disability is social and structural, political, and a justice issue. It’s not a medical issue.
Barton: Why is this work important to you?
Daniel: For me, it’s positionality [or, where one is located in relation to their various social identities]. I’m an autistic person, so this work affects my community as a neurodivergent person. The work impacts me directly, versus being a do-gooder who wants to do something for people who are “less fortunate,” for example. I want to make a difference on issues that impact me directly. It gives me purpose, and it gives me a legacy. I’m also getting paid for it, which does matter. I can improve my financial situation and status, which helps make up for past inequities.
I’m also a Christian and a Catholic, and I believe that the earth is sacred, humans are sacred, and human relationships with the natural world are sacred. I’m very concerned about the planetary crisis of climate change, so it’s not just this cool idea to give people access to nature. I really think this is tied to my survival—our community’s survival—that we have access to nature and the non-human world and to connect with the non-human world in a meaningful way.
Barton: In addition to the actual conceptual design for the garden, you did some research on best practices/case studies and how projects that center neurodivergent connections to nature succeed or don’t succeed. Did you learn anything that surprised you in your research?
Daniel: Yes, as a matter of fact I did! In analyzing case studies, I discovered raw racism. Sensory accessibility efforts for neurodivergent people were almost always for white, able-bodied, neurodivergent children from neurotypical families, versus autistic parents with autistic children. There aren’t provisions for autistic adults or for people with intersecting access needs based on age and physical disability.
They also all land—without exception—outside of historically redlined neighborhoods, and they’re not easily accessible by public transportation. Sensory accessibility efforts are following the same patterns of racial inequity and spatial injustice [from the past]. Rich, white people in rich, white neighborhoods with neurodivergent children are getting more sensory accessibility than BIPOC neighborhoods or low-income, neurodivergent adults and neighborhoods. I’m just shocked at the lack of equity work that’s being put into siting these efforts, especially in regards to racial equity.
Another interesting thing is around socialization, especially after COVID when a lot of neurodivergent children couldn’t do Zoom learning as well. In a lot of places where neurodivergent children are being given access to nature as an alternative way of learning, there’s a bias toward regimentation. Making children sit down or stand at attention for long periods…a lot of these approaches are based around taking neurodivergent children out into nature to become “normal” versus unsettling them from the dominant culture, which is systematically destroying nature.
This is the exact opposite of my own experience in nature. I go to nature—the non-human world, the earth—to break out of the dominant culture and to be with people who are trying to break out of the dominant culture. If I’d been initially exposed to nature as a way to impose dominant culture onto me, I think I would’ve grown up hating nature.
Barton: Shifting to the on-the-ground piece of the project, what are 2-3 lessons you think land managers could take away from your learning?
Daniel: Number one, land managers need to change the narrative around neurodivergence in their mission statements, websites, press releases, and other communications materials they produce. Instead of sensory spaces being designed to intervene with neurodivergent behavior patterns, we instead need to be intervening with neurotypical culture’s view and acceptance of neurodivergent ways of being. Practically, this means that there’s not a technical solution for making outdoor spaces inclusive for neurodivergent people like there are for some [physical disabilities]. We need to get beyond looking for physical barriers and think about making spaces into revitalization spaces for neurodivergent people so that we can rest, be ourselves, express our individuality, connect with our earth, discover our agency, and more.
Land managers need to make affordances for neurodivergent people instead of managing places for specific purposes and controlling people to use these spaces for their intended purposes. Allow us to use a space differently than its intended use to make space for us in a dominant culture that wasn’t created with us in mind. For example, an adult neurodivergent person might need to find a shady spot to rest instead of having to push ourselves to exercise. Or a neurodivergent child might just want an outside space to engage in their hobbies instead of playing on a playground with neurotypical children.
The second takeaway I have is that autistic adults need the same attention and services that are afforded to autistic children. Probably due to less parental involvement, adults are left with far less resources to draw on. This means that adult autistic people have to advocate for ourselves, speak for ourselves as adults, just to survive in a world that doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. Self-advocacy is non-negotiable for autistic adults.
Practically for land managers, this means understanding that adult autistic people have a right to speak for ourselves like any other citizen. We need to be recognized as our own identity group, separate from disability, parents, caregivers, and autism experts. We need to be consulted when land managers are engaging community members or vulnerable populations. What comes out of these conversations will ensure that the full diversity of voices from the adult autistic community will be heard. This is the real key to making outdoor spaces inclusive for adult autistic people.
Finally, autistic culture needs to be integrated into spaces, not segregated. This means destigmatizing autism through Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion trainings. It also means that all outdoor spaces should be made inclusive for autistic people, not just specific spaces, programs, or events. We’ve historically been excluded and encountered barriers when trying to live independently in society. Use universal design principles from neurodivergent standpoints—like sensory accessibility and comfortable park benches—to make spaces more inclusive for autistic people, and you’ll also make them more inclusive for people like seniors, people with physical disabilities, and others, instead of replicating institutionalization. To put it succinctly: don’t replicate special education.
Barton: What’s next for you, Daniel? What are you working on in 2024?
Daniel: I’ve been asked to write another chapter in the latest Eco-Ability Anthology for Critical Animal Studies. The latest one will be centering disability in the environmental and animal movement, so I’m hoping to use this work as a basis for that essay where I can expand on my research. I also have my field papers and comprehensive exams coming up, and my dissertation proposal. And I’m serving on the Metro Committee for Disability and Inclusion.