Friday, December 9, 2011

Autism and Religion

       There are efforts to educate teachers, law enforcement, health care professionals and others on the issues of Autism and how it affects their professions. What about clergy. Autistic people can be just as spiritual and religious as anyone else.
       I do see efforts of religious groups to be more inclusive in their services. I'm more familiar with the Catholic Church because I have belonged to it all my life. I know that some parishes are having special inclusive family masses and there have always been outreach to people with all types of disabilities to receive the sacraments. All this tends to deal with issues of those with severe Autism. This is all great, though what I want to discuss is issues of people with milder, less visible forms of Autism relating to their religions as well as my own experiences with Roman Catholicism.
       Autistics can be rather literal, concrete thinkers. Many of us have no problem sitting still through a service, receiving sacraments reverently, or even reading Sacred Scripture or learning theologies. Many (though not all) of us are rather rules oriented and can be very orthodox in our approach to our Faith. That's not to say that all people who are religious are fundamentalist. A problem I sometimes see is that many with ASD have a problem with group dynamics, also a lot of religious education is theoretical and a lot is left to the individual to put things in perspective and apply our faith to our daily lives. On the other hand the detached tendencies of many Autistics along with intellect and introspective can give some a unique approach to spirituality which can be useful to others, especially in Religions that have a mystical tradition. It may seem like a paradox that Autistic people can be very intuitive and able to see a bigger picture.
       I can't say I've ever read the Torah or the Koran, but I know the Bible speaks in a lot of parables. It was originally written in non-Germanic languages and then translated into almost every other major language. There is constant debate over how literally one should take the Bible. Liturgical Christians such as Catholics and Eastern Orthodox also have Sacred Tradition which is a part of the Faith in addition to the Bible. Most denominations have well trained theologians including moral theologians to help us understand and apply our faith. I wouldn't even be surprised if some of then are on the spectrum themselves.  
       St. Thomas Aquinas mentions how the will of God is written into the hearts of every man. I believe this. While our natural instincts are not going to tell us what mountain Moses received the Ten Commandments on or that Catholics can't eat Beef Wellington on Good Friday, I believe everyone has some innate sense of right or wrong. Some use it some don't. Many Religions have a legalistic way of interpreting their rules, other are more nuanced. When I say "legalistic" it has nothing to do with how conservative or liberal a denomination is on contemporary issues BTW. Most would agree that there is more to learning and living any faith through rote knowledge alone.
       In Catholicism and other Sacramental Christian denominations, there is the Sacrament of Confession and it is sometimes mandatory. Some Churches explicitly require a complete enumeration of all sin (in Latin Rite Catholicism only mortal sins need to be enumerated). Many Autistic people have a hard time expressing their feelings and sin can be elusive to communicate in proper context. Most of my experience with the Sacrament growing up is a lot of people standing in line, when it's your turn people tend to give a quick laundry list of sins to an exhausted priest. An example: "I told a lie 3 times, I was angry 6 times, I was jealous of my neighbor 4 times, I hated someone 1 time, I missed mass 2 times..." and one better not forget the sexual sins... Then you get a penance and many times everyone gets the same one anyway. While I love and respect all the Sacraments, this common approach to the sacraments seems more like legalistic, Obsessive-Compulsive, neurotic, bureaucratic silliness. Especially with the fear that if we miss a mortal sin and die without achieving "perfect contrition" which is very rare, one is likely to spend eternity in unspeakable physical and mental torture. That would include all the nice people we know and love who may die with un
       Where at least the Church has made great progress is in acknowledging "scrupulosity". It is now accepted that this is a manifestation of Obsessive-Compulsive disorder and there is help available. I think it is also just as important to note that many with ASD may have similar issues. Another strange thing is many people with obsessive scrupulosity can give up and go from one extreme to another (such as moral laxity). Scrupulosity can occur in any religion or moral system. It tends to miss the forest from the trees. In a way scrupulosity is like being a hypochondriac toward your spiritual health.)
       I think it is important also to not confuse our faith with fellowship or faith with the worldly institution. Both are important, but one shouldn't let experiences with rejection from fellow members, witnessing hypocrisy, or anything else affect our beliefs (I don't just mean religion either). Also one should never confuse a religion with the forever squabbling ideological cliques withing them. This is partly why we have so many denominations splitting, merging, feuding. People are frequently looking for a perfect institution where everyone agrees with them on contemporary social issues like gender roles, contraception, gay rights and even climate change. Sometimes an institution or group identity can become a "false God". I'm not implying that I think people with any diagnosis are exempt from morality and or their own set of rules. I just have an issue with the "mindless bureaucracies" that many large institutions can borderline on becoming.  I do think it's important that Autistic people understand their faith and have help putting things in realistic perspective.

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