I'm a convert to Catholicism who has a high functioning autism spectrum disorder. In this blog, I write about diverse topics, such as separating the truth from the lies, new evangelization, living well with autism and growing closer in relation to Christ. I especially share experiences with contemplative prayer and thoughts about works of mystical Christianity.
Saturday, July 7, 2012
Learning the The Way Autistics Process Religious Beliefs
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.