Dandelions, Tulips, Orchids and Neurological Pluralism

While reading up on the stress model of autism, I came across the Dandelions, Tulips, and Orchids framing via @peripheralminds.

According to empirical studies and recent theories, people differ substantially in their reactivity or sensitivity to environmental influences with some being generally more affected than others. More sensitive individuals have been described as orchids and less-sensitive ones as dandelions.

Although our analysis supports the existence of highly sensitive or responsive individuals (i.e. orchids), the story regarding ‘dandelions’ is more complicated because they can be further divided into two categories. If we consider ‘dandelions’ as the metaphorical example of the low-sensitive group, what plant species best reflects the medium-sensitive group? Sticking to the well-known flower metaphor, we suggest ‘tulips’ as a prototypical example for medium sensitivity. Tulips are very common, but less fragile than orchids while more sensitive to climate than dandelions. In summary, while some people are highly sensitive (i.e. orchids), the majority have a medium sensitivity (i.e. tulips) and a substantial minority are characterised by a particularly low sensitivity (i.e. dandelions).

Source: Dandelions, tulips and orchids: evidence for the existence of low-sensitive, medium-sensitive and high-sensitive individuals | Translational Psychiatry

Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail-but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

At first glance, this idea, which I’ll call the orchid hypothesis, may seem a simple amendment to the vulnerability hypothesis. It merely adds that environment and experience can steer a person up instead of down. Yet it’s actually a completely new way to think about genetics and human behavior. Risk becomes possibility; vulnerability becomes plasticity and responsiveness. It’s one of those simple ideas with big, spreading implications. Gene variants generally considered misfortunes (poor Jim, he got the “bad” gene) can instead now be understood as highly leveraged evolutionary bets, with both high risks and high potential rewards: gambles that help create a diversified-portfolio approach to survival, with selection favoring parents who happen to invest in both dandelions and orchids.

Source: The Science of Success – The Atlantic

For in the story of the figure of speech from which this book draws its enigmatic title—the metaphor of orchid and dandelion—lies a deep and often helpful truth about the origins of affliction and the redemption of individual lives. Most children—in our families, classrooms, or communities—are more or less like dandelions; they prosper and thrive almost anywhere they are planted. Like dandelions, these are the majority of children whose well-being is all but assured by their constitutional hardiness and strength. There are others, however, who, more like orchids, can wither and fade when unattended by caring support, but who—also like orchids—can become creatures of rare beauty, complexity, and elegance when met with compassion and kindness.

While a conventional but arguably deficient wisdom has held that children are either “vulnerable” or “resilient” to the trials that the world presents them, what our research and that of others has increasingly revealed is that the vulnerability/resilience contrast is a false (or at least misleading) dualism. It is a flawed dichotomy that attributes weakness or strength—frailty or vigor—to individual subgroups of youth and obscures a deeper reality that children simply differ, like orchids and dandelions, in their susceptibilities and sensitivities to the conditions of life that surround and sustain them. Most of our children can, like dandelions, thrive in all but the harshest, most bestial circumstances, but a minority of others, like orchids, either blossom beautifully or wane disappointingly, depending upon how we tend and spare and care for them. This is the redemptive secret the story herein reveals: that those orchid children who founder and fail can as easily become those who enliven and thrive in singular ways.

Source: The Orchid and the Dandelion: Why Some Children Struggle and How All Can Thrive

I’m always on the look out for new ways of thinking about and designing for neurological pluralism, especially when it comes in threes. Dandelions, tulips, and orchids designate low-sensitive, medium-sensitive, and high-sensitive people. I like the way this aligns with caves, campfires, and watering holes, the red, yellow, green of interaction badges, and the three speeds of collaboration.

Like many of my fellow autistics, I’m a cave orchid. I’m high-sensitive and need just the right sensory environment. I need deep spaces for deep work.

One of the more interesting ideas emerging from attention capital theory is the surprising role environment can play in supporting elite cognitive performance.

Professional writers seem to be at the cutting edge of this experimentation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the near future, we start to see more serious attention paid to constructing seriously deep spaces as our economy shifts towards increasingly demanding knowledge work.

Source: Simon Winchester’s Writing Barn – Study Hacks – Cal Newport

When I get the right sensory environment, I can put the power of autistic special interest to work.

I’ll likely work dandelion, tulip, and orchid framing into my neurological pluralism advocacy, but first some more reading.

See also:

The Sensory Hell of the Lunchroom

Needless to say, the dining hall, as well as being busy, crowded and a source of multiple odours, was also very noisy, as trays were picked up and clattered back down, cutlery jangled, and metal serving dishes clanged against metal hot plates. Meanwhile, the children, squeezed into rows of tiny seats bolted on to collapsible dining tables, grew louder and louder to make themselves heard over the racket. Indeed, the lunch queue alone can be the place where sensory problems ‘can turn into a nightmare’ (Sainsbury 2009, p.99). Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, all of the child contributors to this book – Grace, James, Rose and Zack – identified noise and crowds as being the most difficult aspects of school from a sensory point of view.

Indeed, the school environment can present autistic children with a multi-sensory onslaught in terms of sounds, smells, textures and visual impacts that constitutes both a distraction and a source of discomfort (Ashburner, Ziviani and Rodger 2008; Caldwell 2008). There was also clear evidence from my own study that sensory issues, and noise in particular, can be highly exclusionary factors for autistic children in schools.

Source: Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom

A recent discussion with neurodivergent coworkers brought up how overwhelming school lunch was for many of us, and likewise the group dining at our company meetups. I like to use the Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”, to demonstrate how overwhelming dining at a crowded table can be. It has a very relatable dinner scene where Wilson is overwhelmed by the overlapping noises of utensils and conversation.

Getting lunch is a trip through “sensory hell” for many neurodivergent students.

Sensory Hell is the opposite of something being stimmy. It is utterly and totally unbearable.

Maybe you’re thinking of the classic scenario of the autistic person melting down in a busy grocery store, and it’s true that grocery stores are often considered tools of the devil by autistic people. But anything can be a sensory hell.

Source: 7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture | The Aspergian | A Neurodivergent Collective

Design for neurological pluralism. Let neurodivergent students eat without overloading them, melting them down, and burning them out.

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

Source: Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

See also:

Design for Neurological Pluralism with Caves, Campfires, and Watering Holes

In creating such a system, today’s educators go back to the best of our roots in the earliest teachers who understood that learning occurs in many spaces, from caves to campfires to watering holes. The tools we use and the curriculum we learn shift across time.

Source: Timeless Learning – How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

Futurist David Thornburg identifies three archetypal learning spaces— the campfire, cave, and watering hole—that schools can use as physical spaces and virtual spaces for student and adult learning

The campfire is a space where people gather to learn from an expert. In the days of yore, wise elders passed down insights through storytelling, and in doing so replicated culture for the next generation. In today’s schools, the experts are not only teachers and guest speakers, but also students who are empowered to share their learning with peers and other teachers.

The watering hole is an informal space where peers can share information and discoveries, acting as both learner and teacher simultaneously. This shared space can serve as an incubator for ideas and can promote a sense of shared culture.

The cave is a private space where an individual can think, reflect, and transform learning from external knowledge to internal belief. Schools across Australia had both posters and places to encourage this private individual time.

It was here that we first came across the idea of cave, campfire, and watering hole. She explained that as she planned the school’s new facility, they would use Thornburg’s concepts. She noted that one of the ways she experiments with the cave concept is to take desks and chairs and place them in corners and crevices that are off the main floor of the library. Inevitably, she finds these spaces occupied and even coveted by students and teachers in search of quiet and reflection. These isolated study spots are excellent examples of cave zones.

The classroom demonstrates how a campfire space to the rear conjoins with a comfortable watering hole space where students can easily move around and work next to each other in a social way. The students also created a cave-type environment by reconfiguring the removable furniture.

Source: Australia’s Campfires, Caves, and Watering Holes: Educators on ISTE’s Australian Study Tour Discovered How to Create New Learning and Teaching Environments where Curriculum and Instructional Tools Meet the Digital Age, UNCG NC DOCKS (North Carolina Digital Online Collection of Knowledge and Scholarship)

The campfire…

There is a sacred quality to teaching as storytelling, and this activity took place in sacred places, typically around the fire. The focal point of the flame, the sounds of the night, all provide backdrop to the storyteller who shares wisdom with students who, in their turn, become storytellers to the next generation. In this manner, culture replicates itself through the DNA of myth. The often tangential nature of storytelling, its use of metaphor, its indirect attack on a topic, all combine to make storytelling an effective way to address topics that might be too confrontational to address head on. Story crafts its own helix around a topic. As Robert Frost said, “We sit in the circle and suppose, while the truth sits in the center and knows.”

And so, from an archetypal perspective, the campfire represents an important aspect of the learning community. It does not stand alone, however.

The watering hole…

Just as campfires resonate deeply across space and time, watering holes have an equal status in the pantheon of learning places. Virtually every hominid on the planet has, a one time in its historical existence, needed to gather at a central source for water. During these trips to the watering hole, people shared information with their neighbors – those within their own village, as well as those from neighboring village, and travelers on their way to or from a distant village. The watering hole became a place where we learned from our peers – where we shared the news of the day. This informal setting for learning provided a different kind of learning community from that of the shaman or troubadour who regaled us from the podium of the campfire. The learning at the watering hole was less formal. It was peer teaching, a sharing of the rumors, news, gossip, dreams and discoveries that drive us forward. Each participant at the watering hole is both learner and teacher at the same time.

The cave…

The learning community of the campfire brought us in contact with experts, and that of the watering hole brought us in contact with peers. There is one other primordial learning environment of great importance: the cave — where we came in contact with ourselves.

Through legends and artifacts we know that, throughout the planet, learners have needed, on occasion, to isolate themselves from others in order to gain special insights. Whether these periods of isolation took place in the forest, or in caves, whether they were the subject of great ritual, or just casual encounters with personal insight, the importance of having time alone with one’s thoughts has been known for millennia.

Learners have long gathered around campfires, watering holes, and have isolated themselves in the seclusion of caves. They have experienced all these learning environments in balance and, if the balance is offset, learning suffered.

Source: Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century

There are three archetypal learning spaces:

  • The Campfire
  • The Cave
  • The Watering hole

The campfire, is a space where people gather to learn from an expert. It can be used for teacher to student and more importantly for peer to peer instruction.

The watering hole is a space for shared culture. It is an informal area, where students can share in collaborative learning experiences.

The cave is a private space, where students can find that much needed alone time useful for reflection on their learning or just to recharge. (a necessary space for those students with Aspergers).

Source: Campfires, Caves and Watering holes | Libraries, Youth and the Digital Age

Instead of making containers for children, Bosch creates magnets, each with an evocative name inspired by futurist David Thornburg’s ideas about learning communities. “The show-off,” for example, is that blue, stepped mountain, a space where teachers and students can explain their work to an audience of their peers, and the whole school can gather. “The cave” has the opposite purpose: a red, carpeted nook under the mountain to get away from it all, have a private conversation or a private moment. Concentration niches, also coded red, provide private work space, while a child looking for interaction might head to “the watering hole,” adjacent to more benches for two, or to the village of tables for small-group work. The last two magnets are “the campfire” and “the laboratory.” The second is self-explanatory, a zone of metal-topped tables ready for hands-on science or cooking experiments on the working set of appliances. The former represents the tightest of groups, a seminar discussion in the round. Bosch updates the Harkness Table (or its hexagonal offspring) as an organic archipelago with three lobes and two cutouts. Kids can arrange themselves around the perimeter or draw closer around a lobe, even sit themselves within one of the cutouts, like a prairie dog, for the full frontier effect. They can move—which, if you are a fidgety child, feels like a godsend—and array themselves on the floor, on a lounge chair, or, indeed, at a desk, depending on what suits them best. The physical autonomy relates to a degree of educational autonomy as well: Students in a class are not all learning together all the time, facing a teacher at the front of a classroom with walls—that’s what time in the show-off is meant for. Instead, they are working on individual assignments, as well as longer-term projects, in various smaller groupings, at their own pace.

Bosch’s first school intervention was structured as a provocation: In 2010, she convinced Vittra, a Swedish education company, to let her office do a six-week takeover of a school of 750 students, serving ages six to sixteen. She and her staff moved in, and every morning the teachers would walk by the design team’s temporary office and Bosch would give them a task. “We had bought this very cheap carpet and cut it out in organic forms,” she says, by way of example. “We would give each teacher a roll of carpet and tell them to set the kids out on group work in the building. They could freely go wherever they wanted with a little carpet, in small groups doing some kind of assignment, and come back after forty-five minutes.” The children colonized the whole school: the halls, the gym, outdoors, but the kids were respectful of one another’s carpets, stepping around other groups and speaking quietly. “It took away the fear of letting them move freely,” Bosch says. That became the campfire.

On another day, Bosch’s team got permission to turn off the harsh overhead lighting and gave each classroom five small table lamps, provided by IKEA. The teachers put the lamps on the tables, put the tables in groups, and, according to Bosch, the kids’ levels of concentration completely changed. That became the cave.

Source: The Design of Childhood: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids: Alexandra Lange: Bloomsbury Publishing

Like Cavendish, I’m autistic. I relate to much of his personal life. He needed his bubble, his cave, his sensory and social cocoon. He also needed, occasionally, the company of a small set of his Royal Society peers. The Royal Society Monday Club was his campfire, his place where he could lurk at the edges and socialize with a small group on his terms.

Cavendish was very uncomfortable in the public eye. He formed an alliance with Charles Blagden, an extroverted and outgoing Monday Club peer, whereby Blagden introduced Cavendish and his ideas to wider audiences. Blagden brought Cavendish to the creative commons, to the watering holes of science and naturalism.

My cave, campfire, and watering hole moods map to the red, yellow, and green of interaction badges (aka color communication badges). The three-level communication flow used at my company and other distributed companies reflects the progressive sociality of cave, campfire, and watering hole contexts and red, yellow, green interaction moods. These triptych reductions are a useful starting place when designing for neurological pluralism. When we design for pluralism, we design for real life, for the actuality of humanity.

Source: Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism

First, and make no mistake here, all three sacred learning spaces will have analogs in cyberspace. If they don’t, then cyberspace will cease to exist as a domain of interaction among humans. Those using the new media will create their own analogs for these learning places, even if they are not designed into the system.

Source: Campfires in Cyberspace: Primordial Metaphors for Learning in the 21st Century

Pay less for furniture now - what’s at Ikea? What’s on Wayfair? - and build the resources you need to react to changing student tastes in space - whether you are building caves, campfires, or especially those watering holes.

Source: The 2019 Subtraction Pledge – Ira David Socol – Medium

See also,