Saturday, April 26, 2014

Interviewing Autism (A Christian Perspective) - Part 3 - Living With Autism: The Challenges to & Benefits of Faith, as Well as Some Talk About Tangibles

Previous links:
Part 1: Interviewing Autism - "An Introduction To My Life, Conversion, & Diagnosis" 

Part 2: Interviewing Autism - "An Overview of Autism As It Manifests in Me

In what ways has being diagnosed with autism challenged your Christian faith? You know, David, I don’t know that I can say that the actual diagnosis of autism has been a challenge to my Christian faith.  Instead, discovering the truth of autism within me has actually been an incredible encouragement to my faith.

The diagnosis has finally solved some of the mysteries of my life and faith journey. It has granted me a greater understanding of this thorn in my flesh that at times wars against my spirit, and now gives me an anchor which helps to moor me against the assaulting doubts when they begin to rise.

I now understand the physiological and psychological wiring that makes doubt a greater temptation for me than it may be for others.  My battle to believe actually makes some sense now and thus the diagnosis has granted me an additional helpful hook on which I am able to take my thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ.  Autism has explained so many of the dark shadows that have always served as haunting apparitions upon my soul and psyche and in an interesting way the diagnosis has served as a catalyst to enable me to settle into Christ more easily.  For that I am grateful.

You’ve spoken of your struggles with doubt. Do you think that it’s harder for an autistic to believe and to keep believing?  Good question, and one that I think garners both a “no” and a “yes” answer! 

Is it harder for an autistic person to believe and to keep believing than it is for a neuro-typical person?  In one sense, I'd have to say that the answer is a resounding “No!”  

Surely, as the Scripture declares, all men enter this world blind, deaf, dumb, and dead to the things of Christ and fully bound as slaves to sin (John 8:34Romans 3:10-12,231 Corinthians 2:14Ephesians2:1-5).

We see, in the Biblical declaration of total depravity, that every single person who was, is, and will be stands on equal spiritual footing (regardless of physical handicap, environmental upbringing, and social status or stigma).  We see that we all face the same sin filled spiritual disability. We are all, equally in a “heap big trouble.”  

Our spiritual disability is not merely that we are all born paralyzed in sin and in need of a divine Physician to fix us (though that would be a bad situation), but much more critically that we are all born DEAD in sin and in complete need of outside divine Omnipotence to resurrect us!  (A dead man can't do anything and is the extreme epitome of desperate disability!) 

Due to this deep seated, dead, depraved state, belief is completely and equally unattainable for any of us in and of ourselves, and all of us who do believe have arrived at this place of grace as a result of God's miraculous heavenly intervention.

Recognizing these things, we must say that it’s not harder for the autistic to believe because apart from God sovereignly stepping in and granting us eyes to see, and ears to hear, and new life to live it is utterly impossible for any of us to (Matthew19:25-26).

As to the difficulty of continuing on in belief, Robert Robinson, in his classic hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” penned these honest words that are to some degree owned by each of us: “prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” 

We all are given to various forms and fits of fainting in the faith.  Thankfully, we are not left to keep ourselves from falling but are powerfully preserved by the Great Shepherd’s goodness which “like a fetter binds our wandering hearts” to Him. 

So, “Is it harder for those living with autism to believe and to keep believing?” In one sense, the answer is, by necessity, “no” - for it is equally impossible for any of us to believe and keep believing apart from the great grace, marvelous mercy, and lavish love of God enabling us so to do. In another sense, however, it is a yawping "yes!"

Understanding and accepting the universality of what has just been said about our natural sinful state, I do believe we must be cautious to not discount the reality of individual physical disabilities that may weave their black threads through a particular person’s spiritual life. Just as some folks genetic “wiring” may make them more vulnerable to drunkenness, another’s may make them more vulnerable to doubt.  The “wiring” gives no excuse for sin – ever, but understanding that “wiring” may provide us with wisdom as to how we may best help the struggling soul. 

As I sought to explain earlier using the “film/screen/frayed wire” scenarios and the subsequent severe struggle to connect with even tangible reality that comes from it, I really don’t think there can be any question that autism has had a profound hindering effect upon my own struggles with belief.  I have spoken to a number of other higher-functioning autistic Christians who concur. 

I mentioned this briefly in part one, but the most recent study that I have read regarding autism and faith (from PLOS One) says that those on the autistic spectrum are only 11% as likely to believe in God as are their neuro-typical counterparts.  If accurate, that is a staggering statistic!  But remember, as I've already discussed, for the person with autism who may find connecting with and believing in the tangible world to be such a slippery slope, how much more challenging is it to connect and believe in the intangible world? (You’d be less challenged trying to climb Everest in swim trunks and flippers!!)  If what is seen and natural is so regularly questioned because it is not known in an experiential way due to the physiological effects of autism, then how much greater the questions and confusion regarding that which is unseen and supernatural? Far greater!!

Another area where autism and belief in the gospel can collide is in the gospel’s picture of “resting” in Christ. 

You see, I'm not sure that the person with ASD ever really rests.  The autistic mind is always working in some way.  The autistic body is always experiencing some sensation.  There is always a form of action.  (Even in sleep my husband notes that my toes move and I believe that my toes move because even in those moments that I appear to be resting I am still trying to find some way to connect with this life that I seem so disconnected from.  Even in the stages of sleep I’m still trying to find something firm to put my feet on – something tangible to connect with – some road to “real”.)

A mind and body that never really rest are always really wanting rest!! Living on the spectrum I long to be able to find a way to just float off somewhere, to truly let go, to sit - and to sit without my toes trying to touch terra firma in order to assure me that terra firma is truly there. I'm exhausted in my existence and would love nothing more that to recline in calm and peaceful tranquility. (This issue may explain the high number of autistics who battle alcohol and drug addictions. That self-medication gives a sense of pseudo-rest in the face of utter restlessness.) Real rest always remains allusive and in that “allusivity” lies the great difficulty (at least it was a difficulty for me) of being able to truly know how to take hold of and rest in the gospel of Christ.

I hear Jesus say, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” and I find myself stretching towards that promise with an eager longing. 

“Rest? Rest?  You’re telling me that there is rest found in You?  Oh, I want rest. I really want rest!”  

And then I find a laterally running train of thought that is saying, “Rest? Rest?  What is rest? There is no rest.  Rest is too good to be true.  Christ's promise is too good to be true. It is all just fantasy and fable” 

And then I struggle that even if there is rest, I don’t understand how to sit down in it and let go – because I never truly sit down in anything and let go!! 

Please understand, the fact that I can’t comprehend rest in my autistic physical life is one of the burdensome areas of the disability that has made my belief in the heart of the spiritual reality of gospel rest a very hard pill to swallow.  By grace, I have swallowed it - though perhaps more in principal, precept and promise than in practical procedure. 

In these things I am left to say: Thanks be to God, who is more able than I am disabled and whose enlightening Spirit regularly assists me to see, and even to a degree, comprehend the tangible teaching of this seemingly intangible concept of rest as it unfolds with such eloquence in the pages of the Bible.

God knows that rest is what I need so desperately and in Christ He offers it so graciously.  God knows that rest is a thing that I, as a person living with autism, am unable to achieve, and in the power of the Holy Spirit he has provided His own capability to conquer my incapability!

All of these things that I have mentioned can serve as tricky trip wires that make belief a challenge - particularly for the "high-functioning" soul on the spectrum.  Therefore, these are important things for pastors, elders, family, and friends to realize because the proper understanding of the autistic’s temptation in this area is the first step in knowing how to patiently and practically help them bear the burdens of believing.

In what ways has your Christian faith helped you with autism?   Wow!  So many things flood my mind as I look at this question.  The Puritans regularly wrote about the notion of practical divinity and about the way that all of our learning is to make a real difference in all of our living.  My Christian faith (as weak as it seems at moments) is such a strong anchor to me amidst the often turbulent storm surges of autism.

Early in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin speaks of how “true and substantial wisdom” flows from a proper understanding of who God is and what He is like, balanced with a necessary understanding of who we are and what we are like.  It is a profound proposition and I think it cuts to the chase of the most practical answer to your question.

The Word of God teaches me who I am by nature – created in the image of God yet, since the fall, simultaneously a stubborn sinner, a daughter of disobedience, a child of wrath.  It teaches me what I deserve because of who I am and because of what I’ve done – eternal misery and hell.  (I know it's not a pleasant thought, but it is an important thing to ponder - Romans 3:23, Romans 6:23)

The Scripture goes on to tell me who God is by nature – holy, just, and righteous and therefore it reasonably explains to me that because of who He is, He must deal with who I am. 

The Bible’s story continues on in telling me that God is not only holy, just, and righteous, but that He is also, kind, gracious, merciful, and full of compassion.  Therefore, He – of His own good pleasure - has prepared a plan that would justly deal with all of my dark deeds while remarkably heaping love upon me and saving me from my sins.  That plan was Jesus Christ and the cross of Calvary – a place where justice and mercy would meet in an everlasting embrace, transferring me from the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of light, and making me no longer a slave of perdition but bringing me as a son to the King’s banquet table – much as Mephibosheth was brought to David’s! (2Samuel 9)

So, how does that knowledge of God and of myself grant me, as Calvin says, “true and substantial wisdom” regarding my autism?

First, knowing myself reminds me that I have nothing to complain about where the pains of my disability are concerned. 

So often we cry out, “Why me?” when in reality our question should be “Why not me?!!” It has been said that “anything this side of hell is pure grace,” and knowing from whence I’ve come, and of where I was heading, and from what I’ve been spared, I am reminded that even autism is part of that “pure grace” place. 

Jesus Christ - in living the sinless life I could not live and in dying the sin spawned death I should have died - has saved me from the eternal hell which I most deserve and has given me eternal life which I could never earn! In light of that glorious truth, how can I rightly complain about the pitiful prick of anything - of anything else that falls upon me for but a moment (2 Corinthians 4:17)? 

Understanding this very thing, Thomas Watson wrote “my sufferings are not as great as my sins.” God has saved me from my sins so, like Job, I shall cover my mouth with my hand and like Paul, I shall give thanks for the thorn that He has wisely implanted.

Second, as I meditate on the character of God (as revealed in the Bible) and seek to practically apply those truths about Him to the area of my autism, I am utterly amazed at the lessons that are to be learned!! 

Besides the previously mentioned truths of His grace and mercy towards me as a sinner, there is the icing on the cake of His supreme sovereignty in all things! The Bible teaches me that an all-wise and sovereign God has purposely knit me together in my mother’s womb – just as I am.

“I am fearfully and wonderfully made” – even with autism. 

This “dis-order” did not occur apart from Divine order!  I can’t blame vaccinations, or smog, or some other scrounged up scape goat that randomly caused me to be like this.  God – the good, holy, and righteous; God – the God who loves me with an everlasting love; God- the God who withholds no good thing (not even this autistic thing) from His children – that God has chosen to make me this way for such a time as this and I am as I am for the glory of His name and for the good of His people! (Exodus 4:1; John 9:2-3) In that there is comfort and peace and great hope!

My Christian faith gives a purpose to this pain and therefore allows me, by grace, to travel this path with joy in the journey!  (Though my stubborn sin often trips up my travel on the route!)

Are there any spiritual advantages to having autism? This is one of those areas where I clearly speak from my personal place as the “higher-functioning” person with ASD who also displays some Savant-like characteristics. 

People with autism tend to have areas of extreme special interest.  For me, in God’s mercy, the Bible is one of my primary areas special interest.  I pour over its pages with a rabid voracity and have done so since the day after I was saved (and to a lesser extent before I was saved, which was part of God’s means for saving me!). 

For me one of the greatest advantages of my autism is the way that my mind dissects the Word, categorizes and systematizes related passages and themes, and stores massive chunks of Scripture in the memory vault.  Autism has allowed me to hide God’s Word in my heart in amazing ways, and that hidden Word has been used by the Holy Spirit repeatedly in helping me to take my thoughts captive when the whispers of doubt have warred against me; to give an answer for the hope that is within in when unbelievers have asked;and to speak words of comfort and encouragement to my brothers and sisters who are weary in this world.

Also, anytime our loving God is pleased to place a thorn in our flesh there is some form of benefit. The thorn of autism has served as a regular reminder to me of my own weaknesses, of my continual need for Christ, and it also serves as a pretty steady pummeller of my pride. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) Anything that drives me more to Jesus is of advantage!

One additional thing that I personally consider a benefit of autism, and a thing that I think  the church at large could learn from, is the forthright honesty that many folks with autism strive to live by and often display.  

Most on the spectrum have a deep disdain for duplicity and a strong desire to live without guile.  Therefore, the person with ASD is often the first one willing to speak the truth to you and will also be one willing to do what is necessary to live honestly with you. (Though we all need to do a better job of doing that as Christ would, rather than as the proverbial bull in the church china shop!) 

I don’t always see this characteristic fleshing itself out in the church.  Many seem given to games and pretend play in their relationships with one another, and that is always puzzling to me.  I know for myself that there is a great longing to see reconciliation and restoration occur in Christian relationships where a breach has happened.  On more than one occasion I have gone to brothers and sisters with whom I know there is an issue, asking to be able to sit down with them and do the hard and necessary task of repairing the breach.  Sadly, I have found that many neuro-typical Christians seem satisfied with immature and unbiblical pretend practices of reconciliation (pastors just as much as parishioners).  They duplicitously smile and wave at one another in the crowd while having nothing to do with one another behind closed doors. 

Sometimes I wonder if this autistic characteristic of wanting to honestly put the cards on the table and earnestly work through how the gospel tells us to properly play them isn’t a characteristic the church of Christ needs a little bit more of!!

You’ve written about how autistic people need to have tangibles rather than intangibles. Can you explain that a bit more?  I've referenced this some in an earlier question and will speak of it more in the next, but tangible things can serve as a firm rock upon which the person living with ASD can find some semblance of stability amidst a world that seems so filled with ever fleeting wind. 

If you think about the "frayed wire" analogy then you might be able to understand that tangible things are sort of like the "electrical tape" of life.  Tangibles help us to wrap up the loose wires (at least momentarily) and allow us to gain even a nano-second of clearer connection.  (Then the tape falls off and we start back in with the "snap, crackle and pop" of life!!)

Now, think about the "life as a film" analogy. When everything in one's existence is viewed in “film” or in “frames,” and then when that “film” and those “frames” are stored in the recesses of a mind with a very deep mnemonic recall vault ... well ... please realize that the simple sight of things can still leave the person with autism a bit puzzled to properly discern and decipher what it is that he or she is actually seeing.  Think of it like the old advertising slogan - “is it live or is it Memorex?” 

Viewing all of life in this moving “picture” mode, coupled with the ability to often pull up a very vivid “instant replay” mode, can cause the person with autism great confusion as to whether what is seen is that which is actually “playing” live (right now in the moment) or whether it is simply an extremely detailed “re-run” of a past “show.”  

For myself, I’ve often described this movie-like visual form of processing and thinking (which is attached to my deep memory) as being an issue that causes me to have never felt as though I’ve truly lived a moment of my life nor ever really escaped one.  What I mean is that my sensory neurological handicaps (the "frayed wire") never allow me to really connect to the present moment and my crazy deep autistic memory never allows me to ever escape from the past ones. 

That said, things that are concrete and corporeal can moor the meandering mind.  When I can reach out and tangibly touch the tree I know it is more than a memory – though for me, even my memories hold a unique form of physical feeling, though different from the real thing.

Some of my autistic brothers and sisters in this world are known to smell the people they love when they walk through the door, and some go as far as giving their friends and family a good lick or two.  This may go back to that need for a tangible connection with what appears a pictured image. The touch, the taste, the olfactory fragrance gives credence that what they are seeing is actually in the here and now and not merely a memory of a moment long gone. 

Tangibles tether us.


  1. Do you have any idea just how helpful this series of questions and answers is????? Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Miranda. My friends keep telling me that it's helpful. I keep doubting them. :) I pray God will use it in some way!

  3. I am sreekanth James father of an autistic boy who is mute. Your information about faith issues helped us to understand your connectedness with God. It gives us great comfort as parents we wonder whether our kid has any connection with God as he cannot express it with us. moreover me being a pastor and as family in ministry faith means a lot to us. Thank you for sharing your experiences. Pray for our son smithin.