Saturday, July 7, 2012

Learning the The Way Autistics Process Religious Beliefs

A study released last September showed that individuals with HFA (High Functioning Autism, including Asperger's Syndrome type) are more prone to be atheists. This study, from Boston University, sought to measure religious belief systems most prevalent in our population.

One of the correlations predicted from the literature (that was later confirmed in the study) was that because people with autism are primarily concrete and literal thinkers, problems arise with understanding parables and metaphors in religious text. I concur that this is partially the case with me. I draw a blank over many Biblical texts I read. Not a small blank. A big one. I can see how it would be easy for a lot of people on the spectrum to just give up in frustration. However, there are many ways around this. Because I work hard at understanding metaphorical text, I do eventually understand. Religious commentary helps. I have a friend with a degree in religion who can explain some things to me, although it often takes more time. I do best when a priest or minister begins with the concrete and slowly builds up to the metaphorical. I am so happy when I can follow the homily and I cherish how I can learn from it on deeper levels.

People may wonder why I spend so much time studying theological literature. I cannot stand not to “get” something, and it takes me longer to grasp it. By the time I grasp it, I understand the subject matter in far deeper detail than someone who grasped the concept immediately. My approach is the only approach I can use if I want to comprehend what I am hearing.

In other words, the neurotypical approach to religion doesn't work. I'm a contemplative. I like to just mull upon words, images, emotions, interactions. I love to just stay with a few verses of scripture or a sacred mystery and just soak it all in. It's candy. I'm a fish in water. I find that symbolism is wonderful and I especially like finding patterns in what I'm learning and reading. Catholicism just happens to be full of pattern after pattern that fits neatly into the one before. Taken from that angle, I can eventually grasp parables. I love poetry and poetry is about that. I just reach within my heart and jot down what images come up and what emotions are present and a few minutes later, I find that I have a complete metaphorical thought. It just happens.

Returning to the Boston study, the researchers also predicted that people on the autism spectrum would be drawn to rigid, doctrinal religions if they were drawn to religion at all. Autistic people crave structure, sameness, predictability. Ambiguity can lead to meltdowns for us. Why is this? I really don't know completely. My guess is that when life is so incredibly intense, sensorily, emotionally, socially, we don't have that much energy left over to “piddle around” with nuances of moral pondering. No, when that much intensity is going on, we need anchoring and grounding and it's well known that most autistics love rules, although that doesn't mean we're always sweet and compliant. Sometimes, we stubbornly set our own rigid rules and refuse to follow those in authority, but we always have a rule mindset. I don't even need to elucidate how Catholicism is great for helping with this.

Researchers also predicted that autistics would have problems with “supernatural” concepts and would appreciate a socially welcoming community, since we have problems navigating social situations and often have anxiety because of it. For me, “supernatural” concepts are not problematic. I've always believed in God and never questioned His existence. I think I got this from my dad, because he's the same way. Growing up with God being a fact makes the whole concept easier to take in. Also, I learned to pray to God as a person from a young age. I don't know if that has an impact on other autistics on the spectrum though.

I've always remembered reading in one of Dr. Temple Grandin's books that as she worked in the cattle industry, seeing that moment when a cow was a living, breathing animal and in the next moment (after quick slaughter) an immediate piece of meat was hard for her to understand. I know what she's talking about. Death itself is a “supernatural” concept to me.

As far as the social problems and anxiety go- big time. I needed unbelievable assurance that I was okay, that I belonged, that I would not be rejected and that I would not be looked down on. Luckily for me, teachers and priests were reliably able to encourage, support and nurture my growth. Also luckily for me, my conversion story was featured on the front page of the diocesan newspaper, and that helped me let go of a lot more anxiety. Still, I wish I didn't feel I need that kind of reassurance.

So, what were the overall results of the Boston research study? I did mention that atheism was the largest group (26%), followed by agnosticism (17%). Only 16% of autistics were able to embrace Christian beliefs. All others studied (around 40%) had their “own construction” of God. In other words, they came to their own conclusions and followed their own private revelations of what God is to them. In the neurotypical (non-autistic) control group, atheism was at 17% and agnosticism at 10%. Christianity was at 38% and “own construction” at only 6%. Understandable. People with autism are highly creative and innovative. It's been said we have to dance to our own drummer because we cannot hear the music (social information) everyone else is listening to.

Because I am a Christian, I would like to see religious organizations and churches learn how autistics think and process religious information. In doing so, outreach to this population can be far easier. For example, beginning with the concrete, literal and visual and slowly building up to the allegorical and metaphorical works best. Depending on level of functioning, this may take varied amounts of instruction. I also would like to see churches take a different approach to teaching religion. So many autistics are creative, powerful visualizers. Any sort of approach involving creative imagination or guided imagery could be immensely helpful. The main reason I've been able to integrate Christianity this time around in my life is that I've been using lots and lots of contemplative visualization.

Added note:
I would also like to note that I feel a weakness in the test was that the test instruments were influenced and built upon the concepts of Simon Baron-Cohen. His views are controversial now in the autism community. His “Systemizing Quotient” seems to apply far more to autistic males than females. His views of “theory of mind” and his “zero empathy” theory of autism are also being questioned and challenged a lot now.



  1. Well said. Unfortunately, my experience has been that a once size fits all approach is used even on "neurotypicals" that leave many of them cold and unresponsive to the message being conveyed. So, since "neurotypicals" can't seem to see the need for different approaches to each other I'm not sure they are going to be able to do it for autistics. It may take an autistic person to show "neurotypicals" how it's done.

  2. Some people find that analogies clarify things; that's why language is built on millions of metaphors. Total literalism is actually impossible. But at the same time, everyone sometimes gets confused about what a parable or metaphor or analogy means. I've talked with folks who can't tell an analogy from a tangent. On the other hand, I deal really well with analogies but tangents frustrate me quickly. Yet, there are parables in the Bible I don't get yet.

  3. Laura, I found your post fascinating; it may help me connect my research interests with my Asperger Syndrome. I am an associate professor in Computing at Leeds University, and my research focusses on computer analysis of language. I recently ran a workshop on Language Resources and Evaluation of Religious Texts at LREC'2012 Istanbul, see ... this attracted academic researchers working on computer analysis of Islamic, Chrsitian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh religious texts. As an autsitic atheist, I can maintain objective neutrality in applying Artificial Intelligence analytics techniques.

    I was raised in a church-going Christian family - I can remember my Vicar saying "a family that prays together stays together" - but for various reasons my family split up and I became an atheist. I still have a fascination for religious belief but as an interested outsider - maybe this is my Autism, maybe it's because I've realised the truth?!

  4. Thank you, Eric. I think it's commonplace in autists to be detached and yet fascinated with religious belief. "Autistic" neutrality is of great benefit to science. Neutrality helps me with political thinking. I see so many sides and facets at one time that party affiliation isn't possible. Of course, I'm not so neutral on this topic anymore. I do believe that God is the truth :)

  5. Hello and welcome to the Catholic Blog Directory. I'd like to invite you to participate in Sunday Snippets--A Catholic Carnival, which is a weekly gathering of Catholic bloggers who share posts with each other. This week's host post is at

    Interesting blog. I have an autistic son and I'm always looking for info