“This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, hum-drum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalist, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.” – G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- “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.
- 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.
- 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.
Not quite a week into Lent, I’ve already had many opportunities to think about the nature and experience of fasting. It is a constant running up into a wall that isn’t normally present, a rebuttal of habit and comfortable patterns, a never-ending awareness of hungering desire countered by a never-ending “no.” No matter how insignificant my fast is compared to many others throughout history and tradition, it is still satisfying to reach the end of another day without breaking it, without crossing those invisible boundaries – and the crossing, the satiation of that gnawing desire, when it does happen, doesn’t feel nearly so good as it promised.
It’s an interesting demonstration of the power of our internal rules for life: of the strength that our decisions and convictions hold over us, even when we aren’t very good at holding true to them. That internal satisfaction is a deep motivation, regardless of whether anybody else knows of our success in following the path we have chosen or staying within the lines we have drawn. So Lenten fasting is an exercise in strengthening our will by holding ourselves forcibly to the (arbitrary-seeming) rules we have designated for the season; in the end, ideally, our will is then better-equipped to hold fast to the laws of God and the way of faith.
For that, ultimately, is the most important thing about Lenten fasting. It’s not primarily about the surface things we give up – alcohol or chocolate or frivolous Internet browsing, or more traditional limitations on consumption – but is rather about training our minds and emotions and wills to forego pleasure for a greater end, about focusing our pursuit of God. If I give up a certain activity, it is so that in the empty spaces it leaves I can devote more time to prayer or edifying reading. If I choose to eat less, it is so that through the physical emptiness inside I can remember in my prayers and actions those for whom hunger is not a choice; or so that I can be reminded of the spiritual emptiness I can become so deadened to, that results when I fail to feast on the Bread of Life.
Up against the wall I will come every day, for these forty days, and sometimes I will fail, and sometimes I will succeed, and in the end I will come to the cross of Christ and know that those failures will make me more glad of His grace, and that those successes will strengthen my ability to love and emulate Him more fully. In the end, having walked through the desert of self-denial, I will come to the spring of the water of life, bursting forth in the Resurrection for my refreshment and renewal, and it will taste the sweeter for the burning sands and parched lips of the journey.
One of my favorite things about our church is the group of people I’ve gotten to know through the special needs branch of the kids ministry (called Equipped, for future more succinct reference). I’m not one who ever really feels that I belong in any particular group, but it comes close here – at the least, I feel like here are people who desire to understand and support our whole family, and who have a solid foundation and similar experiences on which to build that understanding and support.
To provide a concrete example of what I mean, I skipped our small group’s Christmas get-together (familiar people, familiar place, convenient time of day) because I was worried about the social expectations involved; but I jumped at the chance to go to the Equipped Christmas party (only some familiar people, unfamiliar place, inconvenient time of day) because I knew that whatever behavioral issues came up we would be unconditionally loved and accepted, and because I knew there would be other people there like us potentially dealing with the exact same behaviors and struggles. To be not alone, and for one’s difficulties to be understood and normalized, is an incredible gift.
I think it is for this reason that minorities and people with other differences often find themselves isolated from what could be called the mainstream culture (it may only be mainstream relative to a certain location or culture subset, of course). It is just so much more comfortable for any human being to be around people who are similar to them, with whom they can connect across some significant differentiating and identifying characteristic – and for people who are typically outnumbered or alone in those key characteristics in everyday life, a chance to not be the odd one out is like a breath of fresh air.
It is of course good and important to know how to live in mainstream culture, and it is at least as good and important to understand minority cultures of which one is not a part (I am always thankful for every person who tries to understand autism instead of judging or ignoring it, who isn’t offended by my refusal to participate in Sunday morning “greet your neighbor” moments for instance!), but it is also good to find a place where you can be yourself – and as a parent, to connect with a community where your child can be themselves around other children like them, so they too can have a place and time to no longer feel different and alone. And that is the gift that my church is striving to give to her children with differences and disabilities, all these neurotypical parents seeking to understand and support their children instead of forcing them to hide their true selves and appear “normal”, and it is (even incomplete and imperfect) a beautiful thing.
Every fall and spring the women’s ministry at our church creates a Bible study and hosts a few events for all the women at the church (in addition to the regularly-meeting discipleship small groups). I’ve never attended any of the events before, or been part of the study groups, just because life has been busy, but I have been feeling the need for more structure in my spiritual life to give me direction and motivation, so I went to the first meeting of the year a few weeks ago (leaving Paul to do bedtime with all three kids 😉 )
Large group events like this can be challenging for me for a number of reasons. The first is simply the uncertainty: I had no way of knowing the schedule or plan for the event, nor did I know if anyone I knew well would be attending. The second is the number of people and the accompanying audio and visual (and potentially olfactory) stimulation. I often have significant anxiety or discomfort in church every Sunday because of this factor, and there was no reason to expect it to be different at this event. A third reason is my desire to appear normal and fit in; I really don’t like attention and so I somehow needed to find a way to handle any stress without looking like I was stressed (this is called masking).
Fortunately, as a 29 year-old, I’ve developed a few strategies for coping with these challenges.
To deal with my uncertainty, I thought back to other group events I’ve been to in the past and created a potential outline for the night: mingling, some talking from the front, maybe some music, probably some discussion questions. Other than knowing that mingling always comes first, I figured the schedule would be some modular arrangement of those four activity types, and I would just need to be prepared for all of them. I put my smile on, focused on looking at least near people’s faces when conversing, and thought of some basic questions to bring up that no one would be offended by (like asking about their previous experiences with the women’s ministry at our church – a particularly good icebreaker for the kickoff event for a new semester).
For coping with sensory overload (during both mingling and music) and for staying focused during the presentations from the front, I brought my fidget cube and a pen and paper. I am not really a note-taker, but writing is a fairly effective stim when listening to a speaker; the fidget cube is perfect during discussion and small talk as it is small and discreet, and can even be used during music. My goal for the night was not to pick my skin at all, and thanks to near-constant use of my alternate stims I mostly succeeded! I definitely flapped a lot in the car on my way home to shake off the tense/overloaded feeling though 🙂
[Flapping connects back to the masking issue: hand-flapping has never been a major stim for me because it is just such a big obvious motion and I feel extremely anxious and self-conscious if I do it anywhere anyone can see me. Skin-picking is more typically more subtle (unless I start bleeding…), as is rubbing my fingers together back and forth, and the fidget cube and writing are almost normal. But as I’ve been learning more about the purpose of stimming, which is to help the body cope with sensory processing difficulties, I’ve been trying to give my body opportunities to stim naturally without instantly shutting it down because of my social anxiety. Right now that looks like stepping out of an overwhelming environment and letting my body work through the overload before going back or moving on to something else, and finding a more private space where I can relax in the way that works most efficiently for me. Bluntly, I’ll leave church a few minutes early (like I always have, to pick up the kids), and instead of just walking to their classrooms I’ll let myself flap on the way; it only takes a minute or so and it decreases my inner tension so much.
Also I dislike the word “flap” but that’s what the action is usually called so it’s not really up to me to rename it…]
Anyway, the event was overall a success! Was it exhausting? Yes, of course – but it was also spiritually encouraging. I got to be with other women who love God, talking about Him, reading His word, singing songs of praise and worship to Him, and I even got to have a long-ish chat (far away from the realm of small talk) at the end of the night with an incredible woman who I deeply respect for a number of reasons, leaving me better equipped to pray for her and for family.
While my definition of a challenge may be very different than yours, I think it is true for everyone that it is sometimes very worthwhile to attempt challenging things – and that it is always worthwhile to give yourself the compassion, understanding, and acceptance needed to adequately prepare for and evaluate yourself during those challenging things. These were some of the ways I accepted and made accommodations for my own struggles (instead of telling myself I should just fight through them and be normal) – what are some of your strategies for doing so?
Once upon a time there was a church which had a female pastor. Now, this pastor wasn’t the lead pastor, or even the primary teaching pastor; she led the family and children’s ministries, actually, and spent most of her ministry time with women and youth. But she had the title of pastor – Pastor Barbara.
She was beautiful. She had long, curly brown hair and a nose with that perfect spark of defiance bringing its straight lines singing up from her face. She had a gentle way of moving – never too fast or too sudden – and a gentle way of speaking – never too loud or too harsh. And when she saw the children she loved and taught and prayed for, her whole body would glow with that love and light, like an emanation of the Holy Spirit through her presence.
There was a small girl at this church who adored Pastor Barbara wholeheartedly and unstintingly, although mostly from a distance as she was a quiet child. She enjoyed above all the new songs that Pastor Barbara would sing with them! For her, songs were a release from the uncertainty of social interactions, because the songs (at least the children’s songs that she knew) would specify how you were supposed to act. Take for example “Father Abraham:” no one would ever move that way in everyday life, but the song says to do it so everyone does it and no one has to worry about being out of sync.
A few weeks ago, while I was nursing Aubade in the mom’s room just off of the church sanctuary, I received a text on my phone asking me to please come to where I had dropped Rondel off for class.
This was highly disconcerting. I have known for years that Rondel struggles sometimes in the class environment; I’m not sure if it is the structure, the people, or the noise, but something about it can be difficult for him. Some weeks he’s protested about having to go to church at all, and threatened to hit or kick the other kids; some weeks he’s come out of class and told us about all the things he didn’t like. Other weeks he’s come out full of excited news about the toys he played with or the snacks he ate, however, so it has never been all bad. And this particular Sunday I wasn’t expecting anything to happen, because Rondel had told me on the way in that he was going to do well in class and was looking forward to the story.
When I reached his classroom, a woman I’d never met before introduced herself to me as the leader of the special needs branch of the kids ministry at our church, and told me what had happened: Rondel, perhaps overwhelmed by the chaos of class, the lack of individual adult direction and attention, or the noise of the worship music portion, tried several times to run away from the classroom. Since the kids were in the big music room at this point (all the older classrooms come together for a worship time in the middle of the hour), this woman had been present as well and had assisted Rondel’s classroom leaders in keeping him safe by taking him to the sensory classroom until he was able to calm down. By the time she showed me to that classroom, Rondel was happily and calmly playing with one of the pastor’s daughters, a sweet little girl with autism.
This triggered a cascade of events. Rondel’s teachers told me that they are normally able to accommodate him in the regular classroom because they typically have three adults and one can focus more on helping Rondel cope with the structure, the stimuli, and his own emotional reactions. Apparently this week it was especially difficult because there were only two adults in his classroom, and while the adult to child ratio was the same, they weren’t able to give him the focused attention he needs. So while this is the first time he’d actively tried to run away and needed to be diverted for his own safety, he doesn’t handle the classroom environment like most of the other children can. I’m sure that was hard for his teachers, and I’m equally sure it was hard for him, and was contributing to his complaints about church. Something needed to give.
J., the woman who directed the special needs ministry, set up a meeting with us the following week and asked us to fill out a questionnaire online. After talking it over, we agreed that for now we’d like it if Rondel could continue going to the sensory classroom each week, so that he could still hear the story, learn about God, and engage with other kids, without the stress and discomfort of the normal classroom getting in the way. The last thing I want is for him to associate church with anxiety and stress – and if he’s having to work that hard at emotional regulation the whole time, he’s not going to be learning anything else anyway. Eventually we’d like him to try to integrate back into his regular classroom with a “buddy” – a designated adult volunteer who helps prepare him for class beforehand and stays with him the whole time to help him with focus, impulse control, emotional reactivity, stimulation, and so on. We’re waiting for a few more volunteers though; I think we’re the third family in line for a buddy 🙂
In the meantime, I’ve already seen a marked change in Rondel on Sunday mornings. I asked him which classroom he’d like to go to and when he answered that he’d prefer the sensory classroom I asked him what he liked about it. After describing the swing and how he can push himself, the beanbags that he can crash into, and the Duplos he can build with, he said, “And I like the other kids there.”
I’ve never heard him say that about a group of children before, besides his cousins.
In just two weeks with this ministry my little social boy, my hypersensitive extrovert, had finally found a place where he could be himself around other kids and still fit in and make friends. He had gone from threatening to hurt and fight with the other kids to telling me how much he liked them, even remembering one of them by name.
I don’t know how all of this will play out in the long run. It’s made me simultaneously more worried and more reassured – worried, because what if something is wrong inside Rondel’s brain that is going to make his whole life more challenging for him; and reassured, because it feels like validation of what I’ve been feeling Rondel’s whole life, that something is just a bit different for him, and because I know there are people on our side in this, rooting for him and supporting him. Whatever does happen in the future, however, Rondel and I are abundantly blessed in this moment to be receiving the unconditional love – giving, serving, and non-judgmental – of the body of Christ through our local church. And for that I am unequivocally thankful.