Slowly, very slowly, awareness of the existence of autism is growing in the Church – but mainly focused on children. However, autistic children grow into autistic adults. The challenge is not just how to survive services without overly upsetting the neurotypicals – the challenge is the same for us as it is for all Orthodox Christians – move towards theosis, unity with God. To do that, despite being Orthodox, we must at times employ unorthodox methods.
First things first:
- He/She/It etc…mostly we’ve written ‘we’ but where ‘he’ occurs, you may read whatever other gender (or lack thereof) you feel is appropriate.
- The writer of this article is not inclined to be politically correct, not seeing why one has to state ‘I have autism’ (or worse, ‘I am on the autistic spectrum’ as if it’s some sort of playground apparatus) instead of ‘I am autistic’ to imply that this is not the whole of what we are, but one can say ‘I am a man (or woman, see above)’ and everyone will already know that it is not the whole of what we are. No insults are intended, only impatience.
- When it comes to severe autism, combined with intellectual disabilities, we do not have the skills to address the problems these people encounter in church and in their spiritual life. We strongly advocate that an interest should be taken in supporting spiritual growth and finding solutions for church attendance for the ENTIRE spectrum. However, while we (on the milder/highfunctioning part of the spectrum) are better able to explain and share experiences, that does not mean we are in any way capable of doing so for those who cannot. We know our limitations and hope that, by making a first tentative effort, others will pick up those parts that we by necessity have to leave for now.
How it started
After several unsuccessful afternoons of Googling, I drew the following conclusions:
- There is information on autism within the Orthodox Church.
- There is quite a bit written about how to keep autistic children sedate during services.
- There is not so much written about how to actively engage autistic children during services
- There is nothing at all written about the difficulties adults with autism face during service.
- There is nothing at all written about connecting to God and moving towards deification when one has an autism spectrum disorder.
And unfortunately I was looking for information on 4 and 5.
So it seems that there is only one way to get the information I am looking for – digging it up and writing it down myself. Of course, the downside of this is that it is subject to many errors, so I engaged some friends to read along.
I’ve written something about the topics I myself and some friends have encountered most frequently:
- Are we hopeless? Faith and autism in Church
- A problem of sins
- How to survive services, a practical guide.
- Love is all around – how to bring it in.
- Moving towards God in mysterious ways
My experience is limited, as I’m on the spectrum, but do not represent the entire spectrum. But hopefully enough of us will find this somewhat helpful. I am Orthodox, even if I’m a convert who is still very much learning what Orthodoxy is all about. So, despite the positive experiences I have had as a Baptist, I am now Orthodox and writing from that point of view. I have autism, and write from that point of view. Neurotypicals are of course welcome to read along, but I’m writing for us, we who lurk somewhere on the autism spectrum and try to survive in Church.
I am also an adult, and this appears to be something that has been overlooked – that autistic children grow into autistic adults. We don’t grow out of it, although of course our behaviour and ways of handling difficult situations changes as we grow up. At the same time, expectations for adults with autism (especially high functioning ones) are much higher.
A completely unnecessary introduction to autism
(Which those who already know about autism can skip, but those who think they know about autism might want to read)
Officially, autism is a complex developmental disorder of the brain. In smaller words, the brain of people with autism works differently. It is also a spectrum, which means there is a huge variety among people with autism. Nearly half have average to above average intelligence; a quarter do not speak (yes, these two may occur in the same person).
It is distinguished not by a single symptom, but by a characteristic triad of symptoms: impairments in social interaction; impairments in communication; and restricted interests and repetitive behavior. Again, there is considerable variety in how and how severe these symptoms manifest themselves. Also, adults have often learned coping methods, which means the symptoms may appear more muted than they do in children.
Three main theories exist to explain the difficulties:
- Theory of Mind: although this is by now a dated term, the general idea is that the brain of autists is better with systemizing, but doesn’t do as well with empathizing. Interpreting and relating to other people is more difficult.
- Executive functions: organizing, planning, structuring. Autists brain have problems in sorting out the details and structuring activities. Structuring requires getting a good overview, which can be difficult.
- Central coherence: the filter in a normal brain that immediately identifies the main subjects from the details, saves these important subjects to the brain while discarding the details, and makes sure all parts of the brain interact properly to form the bigger picture doesn’t work or works less efficiently in autistic brains. Everything that enters the brain is perceived and saved as equally important, while at the same time, the internal interaction within the brain is limited. Gaining an understanding of the bigger picture takes much longer and sometimes cannot be achieved at all.
Most likely all of these theories are to some degree correct, and a combination of them comes closest to the truth.
With severe autism, the problems are usually apparent to just about everyone, even if it may not be clear to everyone what the underlying cause is. With mild autism, the problems may not immediately be obvious even to the initiated. Adults with mild autism and average to higher intelligence likely have found any number of coping methods for at least some of their symptoms. The role in which they are encountered may also make a difference – several of us report being able to do things while functioning as caretakers that we are otherwise unable to do. The fragmentation of our brain does not necessarily allow for automatic transfer of skills from one area to another.
The spectrum is broad and varied, as are the people on it. We experience similar difficulties, but never exactly the same.
So, on this blog I intend to post a series of articles with our experiences and the difficulties we encounter, mostly written for ourselves – those on the autism spectrum. Not just about the practical problems we encounter, but also about how we live in this Orthodox faith, and the way we travel towards God.