Posted in autism acceptance month, sqt

autism and faith

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Because autism is a neurological difference that impacts the way a person perceives and makes sense of the world around them, it affects every part of an autistic person’s lived experience: from school and work, through friendships and marriage and parenting, to religion or lack thereof. For the seven quick takes linkup this week, I’ll be sharing seven thoughts connected to the autistic experience of faith: one study, three aspects of religion that may make faith more or less difficult for autistic individuals, and three essays from other autistic writers (two Christian, one not religious).

Don’t forget to visit Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the linkup!

  1. According to a study from Boston University, autistic individuals are more likely to be atheist or agnostic and less likely to belong to an organized religion. While a statistical study of this type cannot explore (and categorize, and analyze) all the various reasons that lead individuals to religious decisions, this particular study also coded several forums for various thinking traits and noted where they differed significantly between autistic and neurotypical populations. Perhaps not surprisingly, areas of difference included emphasis on rationality, social discomfort, and social disinterest. Let’s run with those areas of difference for a while.
  2. In modern Western culture, rationality, logic, and clear, critical thinking is most often associated with atheism or at least agnosticism. Autistic individuals are not exempt from the pull of those cultural associations – and it doesn’t help the cause of religion when it is publicly tied to pointless traditions and illogical, superstitious thinking. As a scientist, I see God’s glory shining brilliantly in the intricacies of biology (from the ecosystem level down to the molecular, everything so tightly bound together in ever-widening webs). I see it in the laws of logic and math that provide a pathway for understanding and explaining reality and truth. But if someone grew up being told that burying a statue in your backyard would help you sell your house faster, or that the whole Bible was intended to be read literally despite clear indications of allegory and myth (in the Lewisian version of the word), or that mental illness was a result of a lack of faith – that person would have a much harder time reconciling the beautiful logic of science with God. Since autistic individuals are on average significantly more likely to emphasize rationality in their thought processes, that difficulty would be compounded for an autistic person and be much more likely to end in a rejection of faith.
  3. Social discomfort is an aspect of the autistic lived experience of religion that might be missed from a neurotypical perspective – but it is certainly significant. There are weeks where simply staying in service on Sunday is a struggle for me, because of the anxiety surrounding the social environment. Even on a good week I typically avoid talking to anyone during the official greeting time, and an unwanted intrusion (read: friendly tactile greeting from happy neurotypical to poor sad girl sitting with her head down who must be lonely) can make the rest of the service almost unbearable. For someone entering a religious service from a different background, the discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety can be even worse.
  4. Social disinterest is a related but distinct phenomenon. Many neurotypicals keep going to church because of the community they find there: the friends they make, the chance to catch up on what everyone is doing, the networking and small talk and friendly interactions. This is unlikely to be the case for an autistic individual (or at least it will be less of a factor). I go to church because it forces me to focus on worship and the Bible, and because I know intellectually (and believe from what the Bible says) that the community of faith is important in a spiritual and eternal sense. But I don’t draw energy or encouragement from any of the trivial small-talk that surrounds it. If an autistic person does choose to be part of  an organized religion, it is very likely that they actually believe it to be true, and are pursuing it despite the discomfort and disinterest of the social experience of it instead of using it as simply a source of friendship and community. I suppose that is a positive, actually. Believing in something really seems like the only rational reason to go through the actions religion necessitates.
  5. “Because that was always something that bothered me before university: I knew so many Christians who firmly believed that God’s works were the result of some kind of magic rather than science. It felt like intellectual dishonesty to agree with them, but I didn’t have the breadth of experience to know that I could disagree with other Christians and still be a ‘valid’ Christian myself.
    You see, I have always believed that science was God’s ‘computer’, or at least his OS. Just the same as how nobody designs a game without a playable set of rules, you wouldn’t create a universe without a decent set of physical laws, and a few handy mathematical constants.
    Honestly, the deeper I looked into mathematics and its uncompromising logic, the more I appreciated how beautifully God crafted the universe. Religion encourages us to find God’s amazing works in the mountains and rivers and sunsets, but if you have a mindset like mine and want to witness God’s glory, take a look at his OS.” – Chris Bonnello, Asperger Syndrome and Religion: Reconciling Logic with Faith
    Please read this whole article! It is a great outline of one autistic person’s reasons for faith and lived experience with religion, and hits on a lot of points that I’ve heard from other autistic people.
  6. This article by Brett Hanson touches less on the reasons to have faith and more on the religious experience of autistic individuals. Like Hanson, I find myself distracted from the overall point (and emotion) of a sermon or worship song because of an error in one small detail in that sermon or song. I realized in junior high that while I found it easy to meditate on and praise the life that we have in God, and the light that comes from God, it was harder for me to understand the love of God and feel it in an emotional way (looking back, I see that I didn’t feel or express things the same way my peers did, and so thought I must be missing something). It can make “fitting in” more difficult – but that attention to detail can push someone to deepen and broaden their theological knowledge, and that resistance to emotional sway can help someone ask hard questions and push for the truth when it might otherwise be obscured.
  7. Finally, this article by John Elder Robison is an excellent examination of historical reasons why autistic individuals may have poured themselves into the church, although the author is not himself religious. He sees in the texts of early church leaders the systematizing, logical thought processes of the autistic mind. In the great cathedrals, temples, and pyramids he sees evidence of autistic skills at work, intuitively grasping concepts that modern mathematics and engineering are still uncovering. As he writes, “[…] the church was as a bastion of structure, logic, and reason for its era. In those years, the church and the military were two places a young man could go to find order and rationality.  If you were a thinking sort of person, the church offered the kind of home some of us seek in universities and laboratories today.” 

My final thought would be that, ideally, the church would still be “a bastion of structure, logic, and reason.” God is equally the great engineer and scientist as He is the great artist and poet, is He not? So too church can be the pillar of logic, the laboratory of theological and philosophical inquiry, just as much as it can be the neighborhood block party or the safe space for sharing emotions and struggles.

Posted in autism acceptance month

autistic inertia

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Ever since I took physics and learned the word “inertia”, I’ve used it in an off-label manner to describe my own difficulties in beginning an activity, changing to a new activity, or stopping an activity that I’m interested in. I have a lot of inertia, I’ll say, so it’s hard for me to get started with something, especially if it isn’t something I have a lot of motivation to do (like cleaning the bathrooms!). Or: I am mentally like a very heavy ball rolling along and it can therefore be hard to stop my brain from pursuing its direction of interest (for instance, obsessive reading at the expense of all other good things like sleep). Then there is the emotional inertia: once I am angry at someone or about something, it is incredibly difficult to stop feeling that way – but once I am close to and grow to trust someone, it is equally difficult to damage my respect for and loyalty to them.

It always seemed to me that most people didn’t have quite so much trouble getting started on disagreeable-but-necessary tasks, or have to race to recalibrate to avoid panicking when plans abruptly change, or get stuck on one particular thing for quite so long. For example, no matter how far in advance I prepare for something, I am always struggling to finish it right as the deadline approaches – I just keep merrily going along in one step of the process and suddenly realize with horror I’m almost out of time to do any subsequent steps! Or I’ll set phone reminders and ask my husband to text me and think about it every day and still manage to “forget” to make a necessary phone call for weeks, because I don’t have the mental ability to initiate an activity I dislike without some type of urgent motivation (again with the dirty bathrooms…). Or I’ll find myself unable to read anything other than the one book I’m currently absorbed in, so I’ll just read it over and over and over again until the hunger for it finally abates (I read Lord of the Rings over twenty times when I was 18-20 years old, as a reference point for this. I just could not move on. And that was hardly a unique situation…)

A few years ago I tried looking up this concept online to see if anyone else had similar struggles, and to my great surprise I found that other people had noticed the same phenomenon and even given it the same name! There is something very reassuring about not being odd and not-quite-right all by oneself. From what I can tell, this inertia is related to several executive functions that can be impaired in autism, and is related to more commonly-referenced autistic behaviors such as rigidity, adherence to routine, discomfort with transitions, and perseveration. It is not due to laziness or stupidity; it’s just a result of the way the autistic brain is wired. And that is certainly a relief to hear when someone has spent years berating themselves because they’ve tried to change and couldn’t – and it also provides the accuracy of understanding necessary to design helpful solutions to the inertia problem. For example, no matter how many times I tell myself I need to get my lazy self in gear and clean the bathrooms, it isn’t going to happen and I’m going to be swamped in guilt and struggle to do anything else either – but if I tell myself something like, I’m in here anyway supervising a bath so how about I just wipe things down and see how much I can get done, I can usually get it taken care of and then have the glow of having conquered a difficult obstacle to build off of.

Anna Sullivan’s handout on inertia from Autreat 2012 is the most comprehensive description I’ve found of inertia, and takes the time to break down why it is in fact different from laziness or poor decision-making, and how it is possible for someone to not do something they actually want to do (personally, I have now or have had in the past significant challenges with four of her examples: I cannot make arbitrary choices, I used to struggle a lot with breaking a large task into smaller pieces, I cannot put myself into a desired mode of operation on demand, and I find it very difficult to move from a low-energy to a high-energy state). Reading through her list of practical tips was insightful as well – although I’ve stumbled upon a lot of those strategies myself, having them articulated objectively makes it easier to remember and practice them in the future. (If you click through to the article, note that the abbreviation AC refers to “Autistic and Cousins”, including other neurodivergent groups and individuals in the discussion).

Are you an inertial person? How does it affect your day-to-day life?

 

Posted in information, musings

quack quack: my autistic duck analogy

Whenever my husband and I talk with people about autism, or describe some of the behaviors and traits that are related to it, someone will inevitably identify with one or more of those behaviors and joke about how they must be on the spectrum too. As another logical conclusion would be that autism is an exaggerated or imagined condition, I am glad that no one I know has used their identification with an autistic trait as an opportunity to disbelieve the existence of autism! However, the situation is common enough that I’ve been searching for a good way to illustrate the difference between having one or more common autistic behaviors and actually being autistic.

An infographic from Little Black Duck (an Australian company specializing in autism communication services) uses the analogy of pregnancy: someone might have some of the symptoms that are commonly associated with pregnancy, like sore feet or nausea or weight gain, without actually being pregnant – there is a different underlying cause behind the similar or even identical presentations.

everyonesautistic-500x708

I think this is a helpful analogy for the most part, except for the fact that autism as a condition is defined by the presence and degree of certain types of behaviors. Pregnancy is very clearly distinguished from non-pregnancy by the presence of a fetus; there is no such clear-cut biological test to distinguish the autistic mind from the allistic mind. Those very human behaviors that present in both autistic and allistic individuals are the only metric used in making the diagnosis, and the line is drawn at a somewhat subjective conjunction of multiple co-occuring traits and the severity thereof.

To me, the clinical struggle of defining the autism spectrum seems similar to the zoological struggle of defining a taxonomical species. Perhaps a duck could be defined as a warm-blooded, egg-laying animal with wings, feathers, webbed feet, and a broad bill. A seagull could relate to many of these duck traits, but not having all of them would fall short of the official criteria. A bat or a snake or a duck-billed platypus could relate on a more distant level, while a moose or bear would struggle to understand the duck at all save from an external perspective.

Likewise, some people will relate to the social anxiety many autistic people struggle with; some people will identify with sensory sensitivities; others will connect with the difficulties of small talk and nonverbal communication. People with other neurodifferences, like ADHD or FAS, will probably have more behaviors in common with autistic people than the general allistic population will, but like the seagull will fall short of the official criteria for the diagnosis. On the flip side, some people will lack almost all of the autistic traits and behaviors, and struggle more to bridge the differences between them and their autistic family and colleagues. But just like ducks are still animals, and all of their characteristic traits are shared (individually or in sets) by some species or another in the animal kingdom, so too autistic people are still human, and all of their characteristic traits can be found scattered throughout the general human population. It is only when all those traits converge that a duck is defined, or autism is diagnosed.

Now I just have to wait for a conversational opportunity to use my new analogy 🙂 What do you all think? Does it make sense? How do you try to explain the difference between autism as a neurotype and commonly seen autistic behaviors?