As a homeschool mom with autism and social anxiety, some of my greatest parenting worries revolve around social skill development – making friends, navigating a variety of social situations, participating in classes and activities with other people, and so on. I worry that I’m avoiding things that are beneficial for the kids because of my own anxiety; I worry that they aren’t going to be able to make close friends and have the incredible blessing of loyal and persistent friendship; I worry that they’re doomed to be awkward and lonely because of me; I worry that I’m not doing enough to help them engage with other people and become familiar with social norms.
But now, in this season, all that weight is temporarily lifted: because everyone is supposed to be at home, and all the classes and activities are shut down anyways. It’s such a relief not to have those worries pressing down on me! And it is so beautiful, in a quiet and peaceful way, to be able to devote this time to cultivating our own family relationships and creating an atmosphere of love and contentment in our own home, without the constant nagging voice whispering that I should be doing something more, something else, something better.
I’m not sure how I’m going to phase back into social endeavors over the next few months. My default preference is to stay home with occasional trips to parks, pools, and libraries; my default inner response is that my default preference should generally be overruled as being most likely defective in some way. (Obviously this is a cause of some internal tension…). But I hope that as the social acceptability of outings and personal interaction increases, I am able to remember the goodness and value of time spent at home as a family and not automatically bow to the cultural pressure that says more (activities, acquaintances, experiences, etc.) is necessarily better. I hope that I will be able to find the path that is best for our family – with all of our neurological differences – instead of trying to fit someone else’s notion of what we should be doing or aiming for.
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).
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.
When I first read Peter Gray’s Free to Learn a couple years ago, I was struck by his descriptions of young children playing together. In the interactions he transcribed, these children were negotiating social hierarchies, defining relationships, experimenting with emotional expression and response, making small talk, and learning to understand the thoughts and feelings of other individuals – all through the context of undirected, independent, imaginative play with each other.
At the time I was both impressed and discouraged: impressed at the ability of the human mind to use pretend play as a means of acquiring important social skills, and discouraged at the thought that I hadn’t yet seen my son engage in pretend play with another child in that way. He could parallel play with his baby brother, and that was about it; other children overwhelmed and even frightened him.
But lately I have watched him playing with Limerick, roaring and yelling and screaming at each other, and when I cautiously peek around the corner they quickly assure me that it’s all part of the game, and their characters are angry, not actually them. Their pretend animals ask each other if they can come in, or share space, or help with something difficult. The boys ask each other, outside of the game, about what they are each comfortable with and what the other one’s preference would be for the kind of game they play, back and forth until they reach a compromise.
I have watched him playing with Aubade, laughing and wrestling and generally being silly, until suddenly she pretends to be sad with a pouty frown and a slump of her shoulders, proclaiming that she is sad, and he instantly changes his mood to match her emotional expression, curling up next to her to give her snuggles until she decides she is happy again.
While his understanding of other people’s emotions may not be as intuitive, and while social norms and niceties may always be more of a second language, he still has the innate desire to connect and belong with others. And so with the people he loves, he works hard to understand them, to compromise with them, to adapt to their wants and feelings. We’ve done a lot of “play coaching” with him and his siblings over the years, to get to this point, but now, every time I see him bend and adjust, every time I hear him ask what his siblings would rather do instead of demanding things go his way, I am so encouraged by how much he has learned, and by how much he can do without any adult around reminding him. Those hours of play have really been effective in helping him pick up and hone his budding social skills – and I have no doubt they will continue to be.
I remember the first time I revealed my depression to another person, and the first time I admitted that I had wanted to commit suicide. It’s not an easy thing to be open about; it’s shameful, and dark, and has the potential to hurt the person you’re talking to quite a bit (especially if they knew you when you were going through it and didn’t open up to them until years later). I’ve found a way to accept it as a part of my story and talk about it now, though, and I hope when I talk about it that I can encourage others who experience it. I have a mental illness, I can say, without being ashamed or guilty. I have been in these dark valleys, and heard these poisoned voices, and felt the dank stagnant breath of despair on my face. If you are there, I can say, where hope seems entirely absent and all light is lost, where you are lost in a pathless wilderness and the very thought of finding a way out seems pointless, I have been there too, and I am a witness that it is possible to return to the land of the living.
Autism has been a more difficult name to claim for myself. While I don’t have a medical diagnosis, it’s not doubt about the validity of the label that stops me; I can see every symptom in my autistic son mirrored in myself, I score well above the cutoff for every ASD questionnaire I’ve ever taken, and it’s evident to others to the point that my husband laughed at me when I told him I wasn’t sure if I could be autistic myself.
Instead, I think what makes it difficult for me is the admission, in accepting this diagnosis, that I may struggle with certain things for the rest of my life without a “fix.” That some of the aspects of myself I’ve always hated, some of the traits I’ve never accepted, are part of my neurology that will never go away. I can take a pill to shut out the blackness of my depression; there is no pill that will help me fit in with a group, or know how to move my face the right way when I listening to someone talk, or recognize when a friend is being sarcastic and when they’re being serious. I can go to a therapist to talk through unhelpful thought patterns and try to replace them with healthy and positive ones so that a depressive trigger won’t need to set off a ruminative episode of self-hatred; I can’t go to a therapist to talk away the irritability caused by spending all day with three kids whose normal play and conversation feels like an assault of noise, or the emotional breakdown induced by a last-minute schedule change, or the heights of anxiety scaled every time a new event or social appointment is upcoming. I mean, a therapist could potentially help me find ways to cope with those physical and emotional reactions – but they are still always going to be there.
As we’ve gone through the process of Rondel’s diagnosis and my accompanying self-discovery, I’ve read and read blogs and articles from the #actuallyautistic community – I’ve sought to have my understanding shaped by the words of autistic adults and self-advocates. So I know that autism is just a different wiring, a different way of perceiving the world and being in the world. I know that very often it is social norms and expectations that make autism difficult, not autism itself – that is, the difficulties do not exist because autism is bad, but because it is different in a world not designed to accommodate differences. I love that autism has given me a mind like a database and an unfailing eye for patterns. I think I can give autism some credit for saving me from the girl drama of middle school and high school, for giving me dedicated and focused attention on things of interest and importance to me, for helping me to be an honest and trustworthy person, for developing my (often repetitive) love of books and reading.
But sometimes it is just hard. I don’t want to be a different person, but sometimes I’d love to be part of a conversation without constantly having to evaluate and compare my responses with the responses of the other people involved, without having to laugh at a joke even if I don’t get it at all, without having to guess whether a statement was meant to be funny or sarcastic or not. Sometimes I’d like to be invited when church friends or coworkers have a BBQ or a game night – and sometimes I’d like to receive an invitation with casual nonchalance instead of panicked uncertainty. Sometimes? – I wish I could actually be normal instead of just pretending to try to fit in.
But maybe it is harder to try to be someone I’m not, and waste my life wishing I were that other, neurotypical, person, than learning to accept and embrace who I am, struggles and all. Maybe it is harder, in the long run, to wear a disguise every day of my life and pretend that I never need help or support. I just know that right now I’m still too scared to take off that mask.
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.
Rondel and Limerick are near-constant playmates these days, and the presence of another child to play with is doing amazing things for each of their social play skills! Every day I see them create and play elaborate games together, both physical games or pretend games, with agreed-upon and negotiated setup and rules; I hear them get into arguments and fights and resolve conflicts independently of adult input; I watch them learn to observe and take into consideration the things that are important to and enjoyed by each other even if their own inclinations are different; and I see them choosing freely to share their toys and cups and take turns with coveted items. (It’s pretty adorable to hear your 2.5 year old ask his brother to “please move Rondel”, and even nicer to see said big brother make room for the little one – and best of all to see both of them accepting “no” as an answer and offering other options in the attempt to find a solution that leaves everyone happy.)
I don’t force them to share and take turns. If they seem stuck I might suggest those as possible solutions, but unless they’re overtired and getting physical about their conflict, they usually do better without my input, and can come up with solutions that seem “unfair” to me but result in them playing happily together – successful in resolving their short-term conflict with the added benefit of gaining diplomatic skills and confidence for the long run. Honestly, my interference can often make things worse, it seems!
I also don’t try to make them play together. When they want to, they can play alone; but they almost always choose to play in the same room even when they are doing independent activities, for the shear pleasure of showing each other their creations and telling each other their ideas and plans.
In short, they are friends, and they are learning the skills by which friendships are strengthened and maintained.
If they can learn these social skills so well just from each other, with minimum parental guidance for safety and advisory purposes, simply because they are intrinsically motivated to maximize their mutual environment, what else might they learn through that same motivating power? Forcing them to memorize and drill phonics or addition would be as effective as enforcing my ideas of fair play on their interaction: in other words, it would likely lead to resentment and poor skill acquisition. But when they are ready to learn, motivated because they are interested, caught by the beauty or use of a thing, they will learn with the speed and power of a wildfire in drought.