Archive for October, 2008
Of all the aspects of my personal identity, the one that has probably had the most profound effect on my spiritual experience, and indeed life in general is being autistic. I was a highly verbal and intelligent child yet my parents and others could tell there was something rather odd about me. I got upset more easily than other children. I didn’t make eye contact. My social development was off. I was labeled at age 8 with Asperger’s Syndrome, a “high-functioning” form of autism.
As a young kid I found church boring and meaningless, and I let everyone know my dissatisfaction by throwing tantrums. People with autism are often quite literally-minded and so the metaphorical language of religion was very difficult for me to understand. I like the hands-on activities in Sunday School, making Nativity scenes and such. But “salvation”,”sin”,”grace” what did all that mean? I was confused. I know more than a few people with autism who are agnostic or atheist, or perhaps deists, viewing God as being very distant and transcendent. We don’t just follow the flock religiously, any more than we follow it in any other way. Religious leaders need to understand that we are often very logical thinkers, question things and think for ourselves. And we don’t generally care if we offend people by doing so.
Since conditions like autism fall into the very secular fields of psychology and neurology, I think it’s important to point out its spiritual dimensions. I’ve worked with many mental health professionals, and it’s one label, therapy technique and medication after another. They mean well, and some of them are helpful, but after a while it gets rather dehumanizing. I came to realize that some of the spiritual practices I was learning, like meditation could help me deal with anxiety and other difficulties related to autism.
Furthermore, naturally autistic behaviors such as stimming (short for self-stimulation)- movement like rocking, hand-flapping etc. can be incorporated into meditation & other spiritual practices. The only such behavior (that I’m aware of) I do is pacing- I will walk back & forth or around in circles while I am talking. I find that it makes it easier to think when I’m walking. Thus for folks on the spectrum I’d recommend using movement in meditation- walking labyrinths, dance, hatha yoga. In addition many of us also have AD/HD and may find sitting meditation difficult. Practice of various martial arts can also be a great way to develop physically and spiritually as well as develop focus and discipline. My fiance participated in a karate program specifically for children with AD/HD and other learning disabilities and he found it to be very effective. Another thing that many people with Asperger’s and autism have difficulty with is motor skills and clumsiness, practice of martial arts, yoga and dance can all be great ways to work and these skills and make friends while avoiding some of the social pressures posed by team sports.