The Spiritual Component of Autism

The response to my last post on autism and Asperger’s really overwhelmed me. I didn’t expect to get such a positive response. I was literally bracing myself for the worst. The post seemed to touch a lot of people, particularly women who believe they may be on the spectrum. Just being able to make one person feel less alone made that post worth publishing.

I’ve been thinking about the connection between autism and spirituality. The first and most obvious connection is that religion and spirituality is a special interest that can fly under the radar of those looking for classic “weird” autistic special interests, like vacuum cleaners or slaughterhouse design. Although I did attempt to cultivate more acceptable special interests as a child (I became obsessively interested in Barbies because that was more acceptable to my mother), I was a religion geek. How many 15 year olds spend hours reading about the Reformation, the Cathars, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, Catholic saints days, Anglican hymns and specifically requests a study bible in a particular translation, complete with maps?

I think my interest in religion stemmed from my realization that I was socially inept and unable to cope with simple things that everyone else found so easy. Religion tells you how to live your life, and so I believed that by being religious and following the rules I would learn how to cope and succeed. It didn’t quite work that way. And although I had to deal with the same frustration that other AS people face when we realize that social and religious rules are often broken and don’t offer reliable guidelines for how to actually interact with other people, I did find solace, hope and tools to become a better person.

So since my deep interest in religion and spirituality comes from my autism, what gifts might my autism bring to my spiritual life? As I was pondering this I ran across this video, and was surprised by the Mohawk Shaman’s take on autism:

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“To be autistic means you can become a shaman. Your autism is your license to begin practicing if you would decide to follow a Red Path. Red Paths don’t come quickly, they come through experience. When you stop seeking wisdom is when you begin to get a little wiser.” - Dr. Edward Hall, Mohawk Shaman

I know there is a tradition in some cultures in which people who are different are considered “touched by the Gods” and often take on religio-magical vocations. This is both a recognition of their different gifts, and a way to isolate them from “normal” society, which may be both a blessing and a curse.

Think about the idea of fixated special interests. Now think about astronomy, astrology, augury and all of the intricacies and technicalities of religion and spirituality over the years. What is the Kaballah if it is not the product of someone’s fixated special interest? The delicate intricacies of Chinese astrology? The festival calendars, the prohibitions, the omens, the dedication of the Vestals? The Druids who memorized lore for years on end, are they not the archetypal autistic?

Perhaps many of those intricate and mysterious priesthoods we read about in the history books were originally built by autistic people, who by their emotional distance and dedication to the details and minutia of the festivals and observances, fulfilled the role of keeper of mysteries better than someone of neurotypical makeup?

I think many people who are on the autistic spectrum crave structure that isn’t debilitating but comforting. How many priesthoods, monasteries, and religious vocations provide autistic people with the structure, solitude and sense of purpose they crave? How much rigid dogma comes from the influence of autistic people in religion? And what place do autistic people have in Paganism, and how do we benefit from their gifts?

The Other Side explores the correllation between autism and Paganism, and provides this insightful quote from Isaac Bonewits:

“I suspect that most of us in our overlapping subcultures — Neopagans, science fiction fans, renn-faire roadies, medievalists, computer techies, Mensa members, etc. — suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome (“A.S.”). This is a multi-syndrome subtype of mild autism, characterized by:

  • high intelligence and creativity,
  • mild to severe Attention Deficit Disorder (which I prefer to think of as “Attention Dynamic Difference”),
  • usually with “Hyperactivity,”
  • often with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ( “O.C.D.”), and
  • perhaps most importantly, “dysthemia,” which is a difficulty in understanding the non-literal content of human communication, such as facial expressions, body language, voice tonalities and other social cues.

When you combine all those characteristics, A.S. seems to equal I.N.S. (or “Incipient Nerd Syndrome”) and much of the bizarre personal behavior and miscommunication that plagues our communities suddenly becomes understandable — not to mention the oh-so-common “cluelessness” that characterizes many of our best known members!”

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • sunfell

    I will comment at length later, but could not help but notice what I call the Geek Triad: Paganism, Technology and Fandom. Many of my peers have deep interests in all three of these general areas. And many display traits that might place them ‘on the spectrum’.

    Also, I am willing to bet that if we put anGeek/ Aspie Filter on history, especially inventions and inventors, we’ll discover that many things- from weapons to cooking to language were probably invented by folks with Aspergers. Steve Silberman, in his seminal 2001 Wired article, “The Geek Syndrome” made mention of People Like Us sitting in the back of the cave knapping flint to get a better spearhead, while the Nypicals talked and screwed and barely tolerated us. Geeks made us civilized, Nypicals reap the bennies (as do all of us…).

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

      It would be curious to find out if autistic adults have a higher incidence of atheists and Pagans compared to the general population.

      • sunfell

        I think that if our numbers were polled, you would find a high incidence of agnosticism, rather than outright atheism or sincere ‘true’ belief. Agnostics aren’t ‘fence sitters’ like believers (and non-believers) tend to think. Instead, I believe that their understanding and experience have led them to take this logical point of view. It is my own. Yes, I am an agnostic Pagan, and am comfortable with it.

        I feel that folks like us (geeky/Aspie) tend to be less overtly religious because finding a true pattern of understanding is difficult. Aspies tend to seek after patterns and apply logical rules to things, and run into trouble when attempting to apply logical rules to irrational religious belief and dogma. That was what happened to me. Most Christian sects are ‘boys clubs’ which exclude and even denigrate women. I ran into that particular gender-bias wall at a tender age, and could not understand why my being female made any difference. Didn’t God love all his creations? Apparently not, and I was sent packing- actually asked to leave the CCD class because I was ‘disruptive’. Disruptive meaning that I asked provocative questions. It drove me to more closely examine the religion of my own childhood, then religion in general. They all have their sets of rules (which you have discovered), but they also have lots of non-standard loopbacks, holes, and conflicting data. I could not do the mental pretzels required to be a true believer.

        I do not see religious dogma as created by autistics at all. Instead, I see it as a extension of harsh social control and power-over- particularly for females.

        • Nicole Youngman

          Not on the spectrum here, though I have some familiarity with it through friends who are, and I can relate to a lot of what sunfell says re: being an agnostic Pagan. I wonder if it can go either way with Asperger’s folks–either to acceptance of and fascination with the minutiae, or rejection of all the illogical stuff? I’m sort of thinking out loud here, because my friend who has Asperger’s had a friend of hers who also has it down to visit a couple of days ago, and this guy reminded me so much of my f-i-l (who I’ve long suspected has it as well) that it was a bit creepy. But my f-i-l is very fundamentalist (though much nicer about it that most people) and my friend’s friend seemed politely interested in the Vodou shops we went to but commented a few times on the irrationality of it all–”obviously it doesn’t work if they’re practicing this in Haiti and Haiti is still such a mess.” Thoughts?

  • Bookhousegal

    I’d be cautious about trying to cast all Pagans or mystics/shamans  as Aspies, though:   especially with some of the characterizations used.   In reading your last post on this,   and stuff in the comments,  though, I found some interesting material for thought that I’ll get to presently   (Allow me to add my support and encouragement, there, by the way: from the experiences you describe,   you may not have been quite aware of just how many of us are quite familiar with either those experiences ourselves or celebrating/practicing/being in community with others who do.   One thing I like about our Pagan community is we’re generally predisposed to *value* different ways of seeing and experiencing the world,  more than exclude them. )

      I found a lot of the stuff about womens’ experiences on the spectrum quite familiar,  especially regarding some partners I’ve had in life,   (especially in terms of the whole,  what was it called, ‘Intense World’  theory?   That one certainly makes a lot of sense:  interestingly,  I wonder if autism isn’t the only possible response or adaptation to that sort of situation.   

    A lot of the experiences cited are very familiar to me,   though perhaps not so much all of the responses attributed to Aspie’s.     It’s interesting for me to think about since I’ve been dealing with what’s now known as complex PTSD all my life,   and still experience ‘empathic overload’  and and sensory overload quite a bit, though my usual resonse had always seemed to be a bit more like dissociation than anything, rather than ‘shutting down,’  more like stepping back  or getting out.    I certainly wouldn’t characterize myself as literal-minded or unable to pick up on social cues,  …rather the opposite.   (Actually,  I tend to associate that with the literal-minded followers of those ‘religions of the book’   that are so hard to dialogue with,)     Hyper-sensitive was generally what I’d be called,  and it still happens.     I’m more accustomed to a sort of social hypervigilance,   and I actually find it generally quite uncomfortable to feel too worn-out or shut-down to keep track of it all.  

    I suppose it’s one reason I tend to *like* a lot of Aspie people,  though, or those near it:  reason can be a mutual refuge, and though sometimes signals can be missed:   (to me,   a little tension about the brow can feel like I’m shouting:  in close relationships,   that can add up:   the relative lack of cues getting across can be broadly-harmonious but make small things seem the bigger,   but it’s generally good.   I’m pretty easily overwhelmed by things a lot of Aspie-ish types cut right through: I’m generally  good at reading people and situations and other layers of meaning and pressure.    We can make a very good team that way.    ) 

    I’m not sure I really believe in ‘Neurotypical’   as such,   (I do read people quite well,   and I’ve been pretty hypervigilantly watching the ways they react for a lot of years:    what I see is not that there is a ‘Normal healthy one way to be with a bunch of ‘disorders’   causing variation,      any more than I see that about people’s sexuality,)  )   ….I think ‘Neurodiversity’  *is*    ‘normal’   for the human species.    Some just want to elevate something as ‘Normal.’   Then wonder why trying to *be* that in all respects in every individual just doesn’t work out collectively.  

    We’re supposed to vary.    This is why we talk so much. :) 

    I gave some thought to a question that got sidelined,   ‘Who are autistic Deities,’    ….I don’t know if I’d necessarily ascribe any particular deities to being that.    Or any other ‘neuro’  state.    I’m sure there are many faces that can be related to what Aspies find to be strengths,    individually or in terms of some category….. but one thing that keeps coming to mind is the writings of RJ Stewart and particularly the why-don’t-they-reprint this ‘Dreampower Tarot.’   (there’s an online version)   As a way of relating or experiencing,   this may be useful.  

  • http://kauko-niskala.blogspot.com Kauko

    I’ve spent some more time thinking over A.S. since your post the other day and I’ve become more convinced that I might well fall on the autistic spectrum. It probably went unnoticed in my childhood because things in my family were pretty turbulent back then. I’ve begun to take notice of more of my habits recently. When I was at the grocery store this week and I was waiting in line to check out I realized that I began mentally preparing myself for how to deal with talking to the cashier. I actually had to tell myself that when I was greeted I should respond back with something like ‘I’m good, how are you?’, because I cannot naturally just talk to people (unless it’s regarding something I have an obsessive interest in, as you talked about in your post). Then, a few days ago, I woke up and saw there was a text message from my best friend saying that his partner had been in a car accident. I literally had to stare at my phone for a few minutes trying to figure out how I was supposed to express concern in my reply to the text message (it’s not that I didn’t feel concerned that he was all right, I just found it very difficult to communicate that concern). I’ve realized that a lot of the way that I operate socially is really  just an act that I’ve learned to do over the years because it’s expected of me.

  • Anna Korn

    Bonewits’ comments could also apply to communities of scientists. As a person active in both Paganism and science, I can see this. Isaac used to talk about how most Pagans were poorly socialized. High functioning AS people are also poorly socialized. So are child prodigies.

    • http://twitter.com/ouranophobe Áine

      So are gifties.

  • Natalie Reed

    Had wanted to comment on your original post on the subject (sometimes is just says “please wait” forever). Just wanted to say that I think your use of the word “gift” in reference to AS is very enlightening and a wonderful way of approaching what could otherwise be thought of negatively. It is our differences that push us forward – that allow us to learn new concepts and grow.   

  • WhiteBirch

    Star, I’m interested in hearing more about your experiences as you continue to explore this. I am not on the autism spectrum myself, but being a person with depression issues, I do experience some social disconnection, being easily overwhelmed, and not able to access or express my emotions appropriately, as well as some of the other things you discuss. Your explorations of what this experience means for you spiritually, I think could very well have a wider application, and I’m hoping you’ll keep talking about it as you explore. Thanks for being brave enough to share it, I can appreciate the struggle it must have been.

  • Ellie

    I am on the autistic spectrum and my daughter is autistic. We both have a mystic approach not dogmatic to religion, being psychic and able to communicate with one another over distance. I think it is easier for a person with autism to be spiritual but it is almost impossible for an autistic to explain their spirituality to others.

  • Guest

    Autism Types Video: http://youtu.be/T9Yd8E-IlVw

    I’m 51, a Einstein-Morrissey-Carroll Aspie, no schizophrenia, more of a tactile-pattern-visual thinker than a verbal one. Spatial intelligence is my dominant intelligence. My grandson is profoundly autistic and nonverbal. I believe another family member to be on the autism range but he is not formerly diagnosed.

    Thank you for writing this. A lot of people think Autism is the new special snowflake syndrome designed to satisfy predatory medical, pharmaceutical and other professional needs. And attention seeking. They can’t seem to fathom that it’s a spectrum of very real differences within the even broader spectrum of neurodiversity. They often don’t know about synaesthesia; they don’t know about a lot of things. They seem to dogmatically resistant to anything that challenges their persistent perception of ‘what normal is’ and it’s hold on the human race and religious landscapes.

    It’s my impression that autistic females often tread upon a lot of hallowed ground, as it were. The late Isaac Bonewits pointed out that, in the major paradigm, “logic/unemotion is associated with rationality, goodness, and men, while illogic/emotion is associated with irrationality, badness and women.

    See “”Please violate only one stereotype at a time,” by blogger ballastexistenz: https://ballastexistenz.wordpress.com/2007/12/16/please-violate-only-one-stereotype-at-a-time/ 

    If that’s true, and I think it is, then women on the autism range may challenge several stereotypes and other seriously, deeply entrenched things all at once.  That’s just too much for most brains. So people may become concerned or alternatively dismissive and write off women on the autism spectrum as stuck up, cold…or something…anything other than what might challenge their sense of reality.

    I’ve been called a C.U.N.T., a rather rude acronym for “can’t understand normal thinking.”  I’ve been told I’m too intense and logical. These traits seem to be understood as unemotional and questionable in a woman and all this gets into areas of social acceptance, identity, sexuality, roles and credibility.  It can get very deep. 

    Not that I’m any great writer, but I write far better than I can converse face to face (part of the reason I blog, and yes, I have pages on autism and related topics). I can have strong feelings but don’t express them outwardly in the same way most might. But can’t they see that I’m passionate about things and have emotions by observing my behavior patterns, demonstrable character and interests?

    Well, maybe they’re more social creatures than pattern thinkers.

    Sometimes more social types piss me off. More often, I’d just like to learn how to socialize and make friends. I have one. I married him in 2000.

    In any event, autism awareness can never be about index card definitions or only one side making the effort to communicate, active listening and all, across different reality tunnels.  Otherwise, it’s too dehumanizing. Yes, that’s the word.

  • Guest

    Although I recognize the wisdom and other valuable things that come from organized religions, I also am not attracted to dogmatic structures or orthodoxy mainstream traditional religions. But many on the autism range are. I suspect they have fewer pattern thinkers among their ranks.

    As an eclectic Non-Monist Panentheist Pantheist Polytheist that tends toward nontheism (not to be mistaken with atheism or agnosticism), my focus is on how we treat ourselves and each other. It’s on actual behaviors, on behavioral patterns. I value orthopraxy (correct practice) focused on correct practices including but not limited to ethics, functional virtues, logic, hospitality and equality. It is not another “one and only true right way” mentality since most things can be done correctly at least several different ways.

    I met up with Neopaganism during a time I was introduced to second wave feminism (egalitarianism) , the idea that everything is political, the rejection of the idea that the feminine divine takes a lesser/nonexistent/obscured/controversial/taboo role, and the rejection of the Madonna-Whore complex and other idiotic ideas. I had a lot of questions because was recovering from severe domestic abuse and was trying to grapple with how even highly intelligent people could be so abusive and messed up. Sexist. Creedist. Into dualism, black and white logic errors. Either / or’s. Unable to differentiate duality from dualism and its fruits.

    http://sari0009.xanga.com/559083265/dualism-polarization-polarism-gigo/

    So I came to study imaginative choices of power, logic and demonstrable character. This makes more sense to me as an autistic pattern thinker. In contrast, dogmatic thinking inside and outside of religion leads to identity wars that encourage all sorts of cruelty, hypocrisy and rule breaking. Everyone gets shoved into a difference slot even if it’s like trying to slam round pegs into smaller square holes. Homosexuals are seen as unethical even if they’ve lived more ethically and more compassionately than most of their neighbors. Pagans become this Other than get pegged by stereotypes and other demonizing baggage with disregard to behavioral and lifestyle choices that don’t fit all the creedist garbage. And “God forbid” if you’re a female autistic p-p-p-Pagan. Heh.

    Imagination is the bridge between cognition and functional virtues and plays a huge role in changing paradigms because you have to be able to imagine different to become different, to learn/create your options.
    I consider personal accountability, excellence, and connections (to people, with nature, between
    topics) as far more important than anything having to do with Gods, Goddesses, or archetypes, anthropomorphized or not. That’s pretty definitive of nontheism but it doesn’t mean I don’t ever get deep into deities, like earlier versions of Kali as a dark creative-destructive earth mother who offers Kali’s boon, Loki with his lessons to teach, or Aphrodite, but it does mean my focus is more on what we do, our demonstrable character…what we practice. Consequently, I view the likes of orthodoxy (religion =/= dogma!) or the hard vs. soft polytheism debate as a 100% antagonistic waste of anyone’s time and resources.Living the Equality metaparadigm, as opposed to that of abuse, may not be as full of drama but it changes a person a depth that it’s spiritual.
    http://sari0009.xanga.com/603410074/imagination-and-virtues-of-equality/

    Also, religion is but one possible component of a multidisciplined path necessary to equality in civilization today. I therefore distinguish religion from religionism — religion doesn’t make a good lens for all reality, it never did. This attitude is sadly erroneously interpreted, by anyone who desired to use religion in power struggles (even if they don’t go to church or whatever) ,as anti-religious or not religious.

  • Jenwytch

    I was browsing the net looking for more articles about Aspergers/Autism and Paganism, came across your blog and noticed a link back to mine …thank you! :D But the link is broken :( which probably explains why I never saw it on my WordPress dashboard). Your link tries to go to my first (2008) version of that article, but I rewrote/improved/added to it in 2009 so if you want you can correct the link to go to http://theotherside.wordpress.com/2009/04/20/autism-psychic-paranormal-paganism-connection/

    I really like your blog and will be coming back to read more!

    Cheers,
    Jenny/Jenwytch :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/ Star Foster

       Thanks! I’ll update the link!


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