The Spiritual Component of Autism

The Spiritual Component of Autism January 23, 2012

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:

“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!”

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