Lessons Autism Teaches Me
It has only been a few months since learning of Corey’s diagnosis of being on the Autism Spectrum. High Functioning Autism, formerly known as Asperger's, and ADHD together. The ASD / ADHD joint diagnosis is a relatively new diagnosis, and so was a bit difficult to diagnosis. But now we have a clearer picture of things.
When we first heard the diagnosis, we were a mix of heartbroken and relieved. We were heartbroken knowing that ASD plus ADHD is not easy, especially for the child living with it. It presents a whole set of obstacles in a society that highly values conformity and predictability.
There is also a sense of loss a family feels – the loss of some sense of a so-called normal, regular life. This feeling is not exactly “keeping up with the Joneses” per se. But it is us looking at other families with neuro-typical children and wishing that we had just a few days of that and us wondering, “what would that be like.”
This is not to say that neuro-typical families have it easy. Life in 21st century America is far from easy. And this is not to say we love Corey any less or that we would like to switch children. Of course not. We love Corey more than we could ever express. I love my son profoundly and unconditionally and in a way that knows we are meant to be his parents and he is meant to be our son. But there is a sense of loss of a more comfortable life, a more-normal life, whatever that means. This is something all parents of ASD kids we’ve talked to understand without thinking twice.
Yet, at the same time, the Autism diagnosis was a relief. Holly and I had suspicions for a while that we were dealing with something more than just ADHD. There were things we couldn’t explain with an ADHD diagnosis. Corey’s learning to read early was not typical, not for ADHD kids. His obsession with collecting all 43 books of the original Thomas the Tank Engine series released in the UK and then his insistence on reading them in order whenever he read them – not typical ADHD. His savant-like behavior toward, for example, computer operating systems, was hard to explain with ADHD. I mean the kid can sit and talk about the historical development of the Windows operating systems for an hour easily. Without losing focus, without the need to take a break, without hyperactivity. That is not just ADHD. Come to find out early reading, obsessions with collecting, a very strong attachment to Thomas & Friends and later Minecraft, a singular focus on a very specific topic like Windows Operating systems – this is all typical High Functioning Autism kinds of things.
To get the Autism diagnosis helped us to understand Corey a lot more and thus help him more. That indeed was a relief.
Now, as a minister, a job in the public realm, I have had to really ponder what this means for me in my role. It is not an ordinary job I have. I’ve had to consider what is helpful or harmful when it comes to the expectations of me as a minister and my family.
One of the expectations I feel regularly is the expectation that Corey come to church. Now, my feeling is most likely not justified. Most people understand and do not judge. However, I still feel it.
We allow for Corey’s lack of church attendance for a few reasons. By sharing with you these reasons, we also get an inside picture of Autism is and how it plays out in everyday decision.
First of all, Corey goes to school 5 days a week. For neuro-typical children, there is work involved in going to school. Learning and studying requires exercising the brain. However, for Corey it requires so much more. As therapists at school and elsewhere have said to us more than once, the cognitive load, the extra work Corey’s brain must do to just Corey interact socially is very, very strenuous for him. For neuro-typical kids, talking to your classmates and playing at recess is easy and natural. For Autistic kids, it is grueling work. For Autistic kids, it does not come naturally. Their brain functions differently and social engagement requires a brain workout. Then you add onto this the necessity of learning what he needs to learn. His ADHD makes this extra-difficult. So when Corey comes home at the end of a work day, he is worn out.
Adding a sixth day of Sunday school is very hard to justify. Especially when Corey’s father is a minster.
Second of all, special education teachers are hard to find in public schools. They are extra-hard to find in Sunday schools. In other words, Corey presents an extra layer of demands and difficulty for a Sunday school teacher that does not have the training in dealing with children with special needs. Many might say, oh kids are kids and a kind, faithful Sunday school teacher can handle it. Maybe, but at the expense of a level of ease and comfort for not just the teacher but also for the other children. So this means Corey is not comfortable, his teachers and classmates are not comfortable, and all for learning about things he learns at home.
Lastly, is a particular characteristic of kids with Autism that adds to the difficulty. People with Autism approach religion very differently. Autistic folks often find questions of faith and spirituality difficult. They are very logical and literal and need clear and verifiable answers in the here and now. Faith and spirituality is usually not so logical or literal. If there were clear and verifiable answers seen in the here and now, there’d be no need for faith, which is the confidence in things hoped for and a conviction about things unseen. What is hoped and unseen is not evident and clear here and now, and Autistic people have to work extra hard at understanding or expend mental energy trying.
In other words, Autistic kids are usually not at all interested in religion or church. Not many kids are, but the work involved in Corey willing himself to go or our making him to go and then his being in Sunday school is far more mentally and emotionally intensive. When you add a lack of interest onto all the other variables involved in learning in a public environment, you have a recipe for a very unhappy Sunday morning. So we let Corey decide if coming is something he wants to do.
Thankfully, for Corey, I am a minister who can teach him about the Bible and Jesus and the need to live a life rich with love and compassion and wisdom. In other words, I love this stuff, and Corey naturally gets me talking about it.
Interestingly, of all the religions, the one that regularly intrigues and grounds Autistic folks is Buddhism. My own interest and knowledge of Buddhism will hopefully help me to help Corey see the strength and beauty found in faith.
I’d like to end this talk with a brief discussion of neurodiversity and religious diversity. Neurodiversity means the diverse ways individual's brains function in our population. A person on the Autism Spectrum, their brains function in a different way, and so they process things and learn things in a very different way. The same goes for a person with ADHD or a person suffering from PTSD or Alzheimer’s. The same goes for absolutely of us. Our brains and minds each are very different, unique to us. Neurodiversity is a given in this life.
Neurodiversity naturally has an influence on religious diversity.
That people on the Autism spectrum have a statistically verifiable preference for Buddhism, that they feel an affinity with Buddhism, that there seems to be a built-in match between people on the Spectrum and the Buddhist faith points to this: religious diversity is natural. Different people, with different ways of brain function, with different ways of processing and learning, and of different cultures naturally means there is different religions. What works for me when it comes to religion and faith, even within the same religion or faith, may not work for you.
Why? Because neurodiversity and religious diversity are a natural part of earthly life. Embracing this makes life so much easier. More than this, celebrating this makes our collective lives so much better.
That God sees our hearts, that God with divine grace accepts us where we are and seeks to move us to lives of the Spirit, that God in creating diversity rejoices in it, teaches us to do the same. See the heart, in grace accept others, move one another to lives of the Spirit, rest and rejoice in the diversity of creation. That is the lesson ASD teaches me.
I close with some thoughts Corey shared with me the other day. It may be a surprise to some, but I don’t talk a lot about religion with Corey. I am a big believer that the timing must be right. But the other day, I asked him what do you think of religion? I thought he’d say, oh, dad, religion is boring. But no, he had some profound things to say. He answered my question about what he thought about religion this way: in some ways it is good and in some ways it is bad, he said. I thought this was a rather thoughtful answer.
Then I asked him, "in what ways is it bad?"
He answered, "when people don’t see that differences are a good thing and okay. I don’t like it when people don’t accept people that are different. It is good to be different."
I confirmed this: “we learn from each other’s differences, don’t we?” His answer, "yes, we do."