(Again I must credit Father Meletios Webbers book Bread&Water, Wine&Oil for an explanation of mind and heart. But don’t blame him if I get it wrong. Assume I’m a really bad student. Hesychasm is not my strong point.)
I’ve mentioned this in an earlier blog, but it bears repetition and further exploration because it is a very important point:
Autism is a brain difference, not a mind difference.
In the mind rests our ego, our logismoi are partying in there, through it we perceive the world around us. It is a useful thing and created by God, so intrinsically good, but it has been, since the Fall, running rampant and making us believe that it runs the show.
It does not, or at least, it should not. It is right that we must strive to rest the mind in the heart, however vague and incomprehensible that may sound. It has to know its proper place. It doesn’t get to run the show. We are in control of the mind, not the other way around.
However, our mind is not the same as our brains. And autism is a brain difference. The mind uses the brain, certainly. But so does the heart. The heart may quiet the mind, but it cannot shut down the brain. (and a good thing too, or we’d end up dead.)
The goal – whether the road we travel is that of hesychasm or any other – is only one: To connect to God, to attain unity with Him. That is where we, all of us, ultimately belong.
Our brain works differently. It works differently ALL THE TIME. Autism isn’t something we can switch on and off at will (or even at random). Yes, we have days where we are not overstimulated and can deal with things that are difficult. That is not the same as autism being absent, because overstimulation lurks just around the corner – because details can hit us hard – and while we may muster the energy for a while to practice our social skills, they still are a learned behaviour at best. If it truly were a mind issue and not a brain issue, then the act of getting the mind to quiet and the heart to take over would take away all difference between neurotypical and autist.
But – and this is very, very important – this is not the case. People who have accomplished this have not stopped being autistic. Many do not accomplish this because of being asked to use tools that are alien and inefficient. Autism renders those tools alien and inefficient, and there are few alternatives available.
All this affects how we connect to God. Not THAT we can connect to God – that is something that nothing in the world can ever take away – but HOW.
Last week I wrote in a blog about my action-prayer experiment. Other experiments are ongoing, and what works for me may not work for another. After many attempts and frustration, I’ve concluded that at this time, in the ways I have been taught, the Jesusprayer does not work for me. I may find a time and place where it will work, but for now, that’s the way it is, and I direct my energy to finding things that do work.
And that is the whole crux of the matter. We need to find our own ‘how’. Someone mentioned in an earlier blog how her headcovering has helped her feel more secure in church, enabling her to attend services. While it is usually only common for women to wear headcovering – if this is something that works for autistic men, as well, then why not? Give it a try. Granted, people may give you some strange looks, but they were already doing that anyway. (Also, if you use enough covering, you will no longer see them).
Suppose someone has been travelling to a certain place for years and years by the same road. At a crossroads they take a right. But then someone else comes, and to this person there is no road to the right, or if there is, it is closed off. This person takes the left road, and eventually ends up at the same destination – only approaching from the other side. What right or wrong is there in that? Only if the person who goes right, tries to force the person going left to take his preferred route instead. Or if the person going left forces the person who has been comfortably reaching his destination by the road to the right, to go left instead. (Encouraging this person to try the left road sometime, as an alternative, could be good, but that is another topic).
Lucky are those who can take both left and right without problems!
What we need from our priests, from our neurotypical brothers and sisters, is the freedom and possibly the help to find our own ‘how’ without condemnation – unless we really do something unwise – and what we need from ourselves is to take that freedom and use it responsibly. What we need from each other is to share our experiences.
It is especially important that we do so, because a new generation is growing up, a generation growing up in a Church that is becoming more and more aware of their autism, but doesn’t always know what to do with them. Keep them quiet, yes. Tend to their spiritual needs, not so much. Yet the Church has a responsibility to teach these children, too, how to connect to God. For her to refuse to do so, to assume that autism means that such a connection is impossible, would be extremely unorthodox. We cannot expect neurotypicals to understand exactly what is going on with us, just as we cannot understand exactly what is going on with them. The children and teens with autism that are growing up now are going to need adults who have explored and are still exploring the how of connecting to God with an autistic brain. We need to teach them not to be afraid – God is there and waiting, wanting to be connected to, and perfectly capable, from His end, to do so once we find our ‘how’. We don’t have to become saints to do that – ordinary unholy people struggling daily to make sense of this alien world, struggling to get through services, struggling to understand other people, finding their way over unexplored terrain towards the loving embrace of God, those people will do.