A Sinful Problem

Are we hopeless? Faith and autism in the Church.

What to do, what to do with a faith that relies so heavily on connecting to others, to walk a mile in anothers shoes (as it were) while empathy is a problem, in almost all of us, to some degree? Is there any way for us to achieve as genuine and complete a faith as neurotypicals? Can we connect to God? Can we connect to our brothers and sisters?

The answer to the connection to the people around us in church is pretty much the same as it is everywhere. It’s tricky, complicated, and never entirely understandable.

Often it seems, especially after an afternoon of Googling, that controlling the children (and some adults) among us so that we do not distract those for whom the ‘normal’ ways do work seems far more important than that we develop a relationship, a connection to God.

And yet, we CAN!

God has no more problem understanding and connecting to the autistic mind than He has connecting to the neurotypical mind. He knows how to connect to us, no problem at all. Autism does not affect the part of us, heart, nous, however we call it, that connects to God.

Look, Ma, I’m a church!

Looking at the way a church is organized, there are quite a few comparisons that can be made to humans. The narthex and nave are our way of acting and our mind, in a sense. The altar is where the exciting things happen, and like in the church it is the heart and center, so it is in us. Our heart, the part of us that can connect to God is that.

I’ve not been to too many churches, but I’ve seen a few. Large churches and itty bitty tiny ones, where basically all that fit were the members of the choir; all four of them. Churches in rooms that weren’t originally designed to be churches.

The overall structure of the services does not really change. But in a large church, where the readers symmetrically march 20 yards into the church to do the readings, where the deacon censing the church takes about ten minutes, things obviously are a little different from a tiny chapel where, if the priest takes two large steps, he will have completed the Entrances and be right back at his previous spot in the altar, and censing is a matter of trying not to hit anyone. Nothing changes, and yet many things need to be adapted to the circumstances.

So it is with autism. The altar does not change; that is where we connect to God. But our mind is affected, and this has an impact on what works, and what doesn’t. The things that usually work, may not work as well for us, or not at all. The different setup of those with autism may make the connection between nave and altar very difficult, as if some of the doors of the iconostasis, the icon wall separating the altar space from the nave, get kind of stuck, interfering with the normal way of doing things.

It may be especially difficult because ironically, for most of us our default setting is to try and do things RIGHT and BY THE BOOK.

We inevitably fail. And are cut off from that part of ourselves, but that part is not destroyed.

So what then? We can connect to God. God can connect to us. The Church with its 2000 years of experience in the ‘how’ of things is not to be discounted, but some things simply do not work well for us, and some things are incomprehensible. But it is the ‘how’ that should concern us. The goal is the same.

Connecting to God is the most important. We would prefer a neat, organized, structured theology, resulting in a clean, defined path with obvious milestones, but the very fact that it isn’t, that it isn’t any such thing that moves to deification, that is our salvation. It sets us free to move towards that deification in any way we can, instead of frustrating ourselves in attempting to do what we can’t.

A problem of sins

Isn’t sin complicated?

It would be easy enough if we could just stick to the lists.

Something like this:

Have you committed, since your last confession (please place check to indicate sin committed):

  • Murder
  • Theft
  • Fornication
  • ….

And so on.

It isn’t hard to understand that those are sins. Murder is frowned upon, generally speaking, even if the definition of what constitutes murder may vary from one country to the next, and even from one decade to the next. Still, law is law. Problem solved.

If only. But in sin and confession, it doesn’t quite work that way. Sin is far more elusive when it deals with our own passions, and our relationship with others. A reaction that is right some of the time may not be at other times. There is a very high element of unpredictability, and the rules seem to change from one situation to the next.

We have autism – therefore we are automatically in the wrong. This is more or less the general consensus. Unfortunately, most of the time we have very little idea of even doing anything wrong, let alone know how it affects the other person!

The whole concept of sin itself is a bit of a mystery, because a simple idea of good and evil is insufficient.

Another issue is remorse. Remorse apparently relies on a feeling, and quite a complicated series of feelings at that. It is, I am told, not the same as guilt, which is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. Guilt just means beating yourself up all the time, figuratively speaking. I’ve yet to figure out remorse – it is far more complicated and I haven’t figured it out yet.

This makes confession complicated. What is sin, and what is not? Do we confess it all, just to be sure? It turns out some priests (and those in line behind us) find this exhausting. Causing other people exhaustion is a sin, too!

For those of us to whom this is a problem, it is not one easily solved. Again, an understanding priest can be a great help at this point. If you do not have such a priest, find one. It is no slight to your own priest. Autists find neurotypicals difficult to understand and this causes all sorts of social problems. Many neurotypicals find autism difficult to understand, and this causes all sorts of social problems. WE find it difficult to understand at times and we LIVE with it! Aside from that, attachment and trust are frequently secondary problems, not for any deficiency in the people involved, but simply because our differently connected brains also form attachments in different ways than usual. Find a priest you trust. Be pragmatic about this. It’s your sanctification at stake, after all.

Even though our parish has five priests, for confession and communion I am comfortable with only one (well, in as far as I am ever comfortable with confession and communion, that is). That is no slight on the other priests, all of them very worthy people. It is just the way it is.

Joe: One can do the right thing and be sinning. One can do the wrong thing and not be sinning. Sin falls outside right/wrong. So I can not just look at what I did (right/wrong) to gather what I need for confession. Even causing others pain is not a slam dunk for sin. Sadly I am struggling very hard to identify what boundaries define sin. Seeing sin as an injury/illness is the direction I have recently started looking and it appears to hold promise……...


2 thoughts on “A Sinful Problem

  1. Sin/guilt/remorse/confession/right/wrong these are things that as someone on the spectrum confuse me quite a lot. I end up thinking things sin that I am told are not sin, and thinking things that are not sin that are. When I’m offended and hurt by someone, I’m told that “I just misunderstood” discounting my feelings in the whole matter, making me wonder where the boundaries for this sort of thing lay. Remorse? Hmm? Overall a good post, looking forward to more.


    1. I was very surprised that so many of us have the same difficulties with it.

      Yes, I have the same experience – when something upsets me and it is something neurotypicals think unimportant, it is easily brushed aside. There was an episode of the Big Bang Theory where Penny asked Sheldon to swap stories about secrets with her, and he shared a story that got Penny upset, believing he was having her on. When he told her she hurt his feelings, she said ‘but it’s not important, Sheldon!’ and he replied ‘it is to ME!’


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