Autism is a Four-Leaf Clover

The more I think about Autism April and the more I read from fellow autistic people I follow, the more inspired I feel to shift focus from autism ‘acceptance’ to ‘autistic pride.’   This post is about one of my most joyful experiences – finding four-leaf clovers.

I am a four-leaf clover finder.  Since I was a kid, the ‘different’ clovers always seemed to jump out at me.  I’d find them on neighborhood walks, in backyards, while waiting for the bus.  I’d even spot them from atop my bicycle, pulling over to confirm and pluck one for my collection. 

The first time I found one, I’d been waiting for my mom to wrap up a chat with a friend.  I was around 11, bored, and decided to sit in the grass and see if four-leaf clovers were actually possible to find.  I distinctly remember finding two or three that day.

In the past few years, I started to spend more time deliberately looking for four-leaf clovers.  I scouted patches at local parks or would steal quiet moments alone at backyard gatherings or on camping trips to scour the edges of the woods, letting my mind rest in the visual meditation of searching for one clover that’s not like the others.  I collect them pressed in the pages of notebooks and share photos on Instagram.  In 2020, started transferring them to laminated sheets to preserve them. Last year, I found over 800 clovers.  Last week, I found 97.

Four- (and five-, six-, seven-, etc.) leaf clovers are the result of a naturally occurring genetic variation in the plant that produces one or more leaves in place of the typical three.  They are different; not normal, not what we expect the plant to produce.  Four-leaf clovers are still the same species as three-leaf clovers.  And yet, they are prized for their difference.

Similarly, neurodiversity positions autism and other cognitive disabilities or differences as naturally occurring variations in human brains and, therefore, neurodivergent people’s lived experiences.  (Neurodiversity encompasses variations in human brains, such as autism, ADHD, Tourette’s, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Down syndrome, and many others, including mental illnesses and psychiatric disabilities.)  As early neurodiversity advocate Temple Grandin explained, neurodivergent people are “Different, not less.”

One of those differences is that autistic minds are built to systematize.  We are often hyper-attentive to details, and incredibly good at pattern-recognition.  Studies have also shown that autistic people have stronger visual-spatial pattern recognition skills than our non-autistic counterparts.  These skills and ways of thinking manifest in many different ways – finding four-leaf clovers, yes; also, collecting and categorizing objects and information, identifying and solving complex problems, or researching and writing about topics we find interesting.[1]

Pattern-recognition is usually what I want to talk about when people ask the rhetorical, “How are you so good at finding four-leaf clovers?!”  Most of my life, I’ve never quite figured out the correct response to questions like this.  Over time, I’ve moved from “I’m just lucky!” and “I just take the time to look for them,” to or “This is my useless ‘superpower,’” and “It’s just a weird pattern-recognition flex, I guess?”

Pattern-recognition, especially the visual-spatial realm of it, is something I can find joy and take pride in.  I feel the same way when doing research and writing, designing a graphic, or fixing website errors as I do at the clover patch.  All of these involve intense attention to detail, finding a pattern to connect those details, and creating or operationalizing a system to organize information or solve a problem.

Of course, pattern-recognition isn’t useless; it’s one of the most important skills I bring to any work I do.  It’s also one of the things I love most about the way my autistic mind works.  I love to let the pattern of a clover patch wash over my sight; it’s meditative, and could maybe be considered a visual stim.  It calms me, and when I feel bad about more negative aspects of my brain, it reminds me that I have something I love about my brain, too. 

Finally, when it comes to four-leaf clovers, I guess I’ve come to relate to them, too.  We’re different.  I’d love for society to learn to seek out and prize differences in human brains the way we do with four-leaf clovers. Autism isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not all thunderstorms, either.  Where the rest of the world sees only rainclouds in the sky above, I hope you find four-leaf clovers beneath it.

Sam’s Tips for Finding Four-Leaf Clovers

If you made it this far, thanks!  I’ve heard from many, many people that they’ve never found a four-leaf clover, and many have asked me for help in finding one.  So, here are a few of the tips I normally share:

  • Take the time to look:  Find a backyard, park, or spot along a sidewalk with one or more clover patches.  It can take some time to train your brain to find a specific visual pattern, so if you spend some time practicing, it will become easier to spot them.  Four-leaf clovers aren’t as rare as you might assume – it’s estimated that four-leaf clovers are 1 in 10,000; the estimated odds of finding a five-leaf clover on your first try are one in a million.  (For math-minded folks, here’s a great post on backyard probability experiments with clovers!)
  • Look for square shapes:  Three-leaf clovers are shaped like triangles; four-leaf clovers are typically square.  I usually scan a clover patch looking for the whole shape (square) rather than looking for four leaves on individual clovers.
  • Check the edges of clover patches:  It’s less crowded at the edges and may help a four-leaf clover stand out more easily, especially for white clover plants.
  • If you find one, look for more:  There’s some truth to the adage, “If you pluck a four-leaf clover, another will grow in its place.”  Clover plants that have the four-leaf clover gene will produce more in the same spot.  As the plants reproduce throughout the season, check for nearby patches that may carry the gene, too. Look for more four-leaf clovers nearby or revisit the spot in a few days and check again.   This typically holds true across years, too; if you find a good spot, revisit it next year, too, and you’ll likely find them again.

If you’d like to keep up with my clover-finding throughout the year, you can follow me on Instagram at @samsfourleafclovers.

[1] Baron-Cohen, S., Ashwin, E., Ashwin, C., Tavassoli, T., & Chakrabarti, B. (2009). Talent in autism: hyper-systemizing, hyper-attention to detail and sensory hypersensitivity. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 364(1522), 1377–1383. doi:10.1098/rstb.2008.0337 
(Note – Some of the language in this paper is inaccurate or inappropriate, i.e. functioning labels, notions of intelligence, separation of Asperger’s from autism, etc., so please be warned/mindful of that if you choose to read it.)

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