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Monday, 27 February 2012

Disability and Religion, Pt 2: "Through a Different Lens: Autism andthe Divine"

Autism and God

Following up on yesterday's post, I'd like to write about a recent broadcast of "Tapestry" on CBC Radio. I've long enjoyed enjoyed host Mary Hynes' exploration of all things spiritual, and was delighted to hear her devote an entire program to talking with people with autism and the people who work with them about the autistic experience of God...which appears to be as varied as the experience of God in people without autism. The link to the podcast is here:


It's nearly an hour long, but worth the listen.

For those that haven't got the time to listen to the podcast but would like a summary, read on...

Finding the Spiritual in the Everyday

The first interview is with Temple Grandin, a woman with autism who is known all over the world for the work she has done to develop more humane methods of slaughtering animals such as cows and pigs. She talks about how, in keeping with past descriptions of how she sees the world in pictures, she tends to see God as pictures of galaxies that came back from the Hubbel telescope. She also talks about how her work in slaughter houses has actually been a spiritual experience for her. This sounds strange, until she explains how her work has prompted her to think about mortality and what she believes our priorities should be for life on earth. It prompted thinking about how we should treat both each other and the animals with which we share the earth. She spoke a few times about the importance of doing something in life that makes a difference. I wanted to hear more about how a life of thinking in pictures and presumably having trouble understanding parts of social life got her to a place where it sounded like she could speak from a...logic-based place of empathy about the animals with whom she she works, but a place of empathy all the same, that seemed to form the basis for some of her spiritual beliefs...but it was time for the next interview.

Moving In the Opposite Direction

The next interview is with Anthony Easton. Anthony has his Master's in Theology, is religious but not spiritual. Diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum at age 14, his idea of God is a universe full of patterns that we can't adequately describe with language. He likes theology because it's an attempt to describe the patterns, and it also appeals to what he identifies as the part of his autistic mind that likes the taxonomies and ordering rules that he uses to make sense of the world. "There are no more an autistic document than the Creeds," he says, referring to the Nicene and Apostles Creed, which state what Anglicans believe. For Easton, theology gives him the order that he needs to find his way to God. I think that this is a fascinating idea. Many of us reject theology and dogma as too confining, favouring a more free-flow approach to spirituality in which it's easier to feel "connected". Easton needs the patterns to feel the connection, to the point where he becomes upset if the service liturgy isn't performed properly.

What Would He Choose?

Reverend John Gillibrand is also an Anglican minister. His son Adam is 18, and has a form of autism that makes him very low-functioning. Gillibrand feels the same stresses that all parents of children with severely disabilities do, but wants very much for Adam to be accepted in church and community life as he is. He speaks about questions about how to integrate people with disabilities into settings where their behaviours may be disruptive, and about how he determined what sort of decisions Adam wanted to make about his religious life. I like how he says that Adam "constantly lives at the boundaries of his own understanding" in his life and how, rather than try to squash that sense of exploration and learning, he tries to learn from his son by adopting it in his own spiritual journey...it's just a different way of looking at things...

"I Just Work Differently"

Finally, Jennifer Pittaway does a piece on a group for young men with autism who are approaching the age of bar mitzvah at Toronto's Beth Tzedec Synagogue. The boys have done a lot of thinking about what bar mitzvah means for them as young men with autism, and the synagogue is obviously working closely with both the boys and their families to make the event as meaningful as possible - even if it means making some small changes to the event. I'm particularly struck with how much thought Eli has put into what the bar mitzvah means for him as a Jew - and how much he dislikes the "autism" label. He says, "I just work differently," which is exactly how I explained my physical disability to the teens with whom I used to work as I tried to to assist them to understand their own disabilities.

Writing this post, I'm reminded of how diverse we are. I know that it's difficult for social institutions to welcome diverse views of the thing around which they're centred...but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could, as a group, just accept that everyone has a different conception of God? Then we wouldn't have to say, "As someone with autism/Down's Syndrome/name a developmental disorder, what's your experience of God?"...we could just say, "As a person from whom I'd like to hear the answer...what's your experience of God?"

Is there anything really stopping us from doing that already?

Sermon over. Amen. :)


  1. Interesting pair of posts. As you note about Easton, religiousness and spirituality are not the same. They can overlap, and do for a lot of people, but not everyone.

    For me, after my brain injury, Buddhism became important. It's worth noting that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion.

    I hope there's a Part 3!

  2. I haven't got plans for one, Bob, but I think I'll see what other research has been done on this sort of thing. How does differences in brain "wiring" affect our conceptions of spirituality? There are obviously differences even within groups, but is one type of brain "wiring" going to fall within a given set of parameters in terms of what it experiences? For example...I most closely align myself with Buddhism as well...is this a "brain injury thing"? Intriguing stuff. Thanks for reading!

  3. Anthony Easton13 May 2012 at 21:26

    Hey, this is Anthony--I have my Master's in Theology, but I am very much not a priest.

  4. Hi Anthony - thank you for commenting. My apologies for misunderstanding. I will make the correction.