June 18 is Autistic Pride Day, a celebration pioneered in 2005 by the advocacy group Aspies for Freedom. Visit their site to join chat rooms on neurodiversity and activism. Autistic Pride Day affirms the unique strengths and talents of people on the spectrum. It aims to persuade neurotypical society that autism is a natural human variation that doesn’t need curing.
If you’re seeing an overlap with LGBTQ Pride, which we also celebrate this month, that’s no coincidence. Some of the coercive behavioral therapies still widely used to force Aspie kids to “act normal” are derived from the discredited practices of Christian ex-gay therapy. These connections are detailed by C.S. Wyatt at The Autistic Me in his 2011 post “ABA and NARTH” and CinderMcDonald’s 2014 Daily Kos column “Autism Acceptance Doesn’t Seem So Radical to Me”, among many other sources.
In my last autism-themed post, I cited a blogger who said it was an Aspie trait to empathize with objects–not, as the stereotype goes, to the exclusion of empathizing with people, but rather as a kind of emotional hyper-awareness. Now I’ve found another autistic blogger, Mel Baggs, who writes about our quasi-mystical personality type eloquently on hir Tumblr site With a Smooth Round Stone. (Mel identifies as genderless and uses sie/hir pronouns; hir other disability-themed blog is Ballastexistenz.) Discussing headcanon autistic representation in the Young Wizards book series, Mel says:
Of course the YW-universe tendency for literally everything to be alive on some level is one reason I love it so much. That’s how I see the literal, everyday universe we live in. And I see it that way because I’m autistic, because I’m a specific type of autistic person who tends naturally towards what some people call animism but I’m very hesitant to give a label to, especially given the ways “animism” has been used in the past.
Basically, whenever I have learned about “animism”, it’s been in the context of “this is what primitive religions do before they learn to be more advanced” and it makes me very angry. Also I’ve never seen “animism” used in a way that really gave meaning to the way a culture saw the world around them, and I’ve seen it used to obscure meaning. Which is why I don’t call myself an animist, even though in English it’s the closest word to some aspects of how I see the world.
Also people who tell me that thinking everything is alive is anthropomorphism, can shove their anthropomorphism up their collective asses. Everything is alive in its own unique way that has nothing to do with human thoughts and feelings, and everything to do with each thing having its own unique way of being in the world, totally independent of humans. This goes both for traditionally animate and traditionally inanimate things. My recognizing the aliveness of things does not mean I think they’re similar to me. In fact, to recognize that things are alive, you have to be able to step out of the way and stop using yourself as a mirror to measure the rest of the world by.
Yes I’m still pissed at a blogger I otherwise liked, who when I posted a post about how I saw things as alive, posted a long condescending discussion of anthropomorphism and animism and how both are primitive and childlike at best, and how that’s all I was doing, nothing special, nothing meaningful, nothing unique, nothing important. Just things that we can pin down with tidy words and tuck them away into boxes and forget about them because we already know our viewpoint is the superior one.
I’d love to find good sociological studies of Aspies’ religious beliefs and affiliations and how they differ from the mainstream. My guess is that a lot of us cluster around the rationalist/atheist end of the distribution, with logic like this: “Nobody here actually believes that crackers turn into the body of a guy who died and came to life and was also God, and I don’t see the point of saying that I do, just to get along socially.” And another lot, in which I am included, wind up in paganism or the most mystical denominations of traditional religions, because: “Well, obviously the Real Presence of Christ is in the host, because it’s in everything!” (Hmm, was Gerard Manley Hopkins one of us? “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…”)
We’re probably under-represented in mainstream churches, where conformity to unspoken social norms of dress, body language, gender roles, and personal interests is more important than whatever doctrines we profess, and everyone pretends that the reverse is true–how maddening! There’s also the issue of churches not being accessible and welcoming to people with sensory processing disorder and neurodivergent communication styles, as this Interactive Autism Network article describes:
Melinda Jones Ault Ph.D., a professor at University of Kentucky, looked around her own place of worship and wondered where the people with disabilities were. A longtime special educator, she said, “I knew they were out there.” So she began studying the experiences of parents who have a child with a disability, including autism.
Her research team found that a third of the 416 parents surveyed had changed their place of worship due to a lack of inclusion or welcome, and 46 percent refrained from participating in an activity because their child was not included or welcomed.
John Elder Robison has written a number of books and articles about living with autism. (He’s also the brother of Augusten Burroughs, of Running With Scissors fame.) In this 2014 Psychology Today column, he ponders why modern Aspies are more likely to reject organized religion, and speculates that some of the greats of Western religious history were actually on the spectrum. On the one hand, many beliefs don’t seem logical to literal thinkers, but on the other, in a pre-scientific world, religious practices provided the order and predictability that most of us crave. That was surely a big factor in my early attraction to orthodoxy. Conservative churches promised clear, explicit, predictable behavioral norms around the confusing subject of sex and romance, as well as a socially acceptable container for the magical thinking that my secular intellectual peers disdained as childish or crazy. Robison says:
As an autistic adult, I have never been what you’d call religious, but I’ve always thought of myself as spiritual. I never thought of my religious beliefs as being shaped by autism, but a conversation five years ago made me rethink that. Catherine Caldwell-Harris – a psychology professor at Boston University – approached me after a talk I did at MIT. She was doing a study of autism and its influence on religious belief, and her findings were shaping up to be very interesting.
According to her study, autistic people today are much more likely to reject organized religion in favor of their own independently constructed belief system, just as we are more likely to be agnostics or atheists. You can read the study here:
Note that the study relies heavily on autism tests and categorizations developed by Simon Baron-Cohen, which some Aspie activists and bloggers believe are sexist and underrate our capacity for empathy. See, for instance, this 2016 post on autism pseudo-science by Emma at Lemon Peel. The “high-functioning” label used in the study is also problematic, as Dani Alexis explains at Autistic Academic.
Neurodiversity implies a challenge to Christianity’s claim to universality. If we believe in the traditional all-powerful designer God, we must either see the autistic mindset as a deviation to be fixed, and go down the same abusive road as compulsory heterosexuality; or accept that God designed some people to be unreceptive to the appeal of “a personal relationship with Jesus”! Either way, you can see why churches have trouble being autism-accessible. Conservative churches pitch salvation, liberal ones pitch community, but the shared premise is that everyone is hard-wired to need their product, whether we know it or not. Whereas in fact, some folks may have the kind of brain that doesn’t pick up the signals of a personal divine presence in the world, or doesn’t need to anthropomorphize their sense of the sublime. And other folks may already be so tuned in to the immanent divine that the institutional intermediary is confining and distracting.