During the past year I have become aware of a disability which should be of grave concern for all churches. This disability is called Asperger's Syndrome (or AS), which is like a high-functioning autism. I am a former member of your church, and have only this past year been diagnosed with Asperger's after 20+ years of not knowing why I was different from others. I am writing you to make you aware of this disability, the impact of religion on people with AS, and of the importance of churches to be sensitive to those afflicted with it.
Asperger's is a congenital neurobiological disorder affecting 0.25% of the population. The syndrome includes autistic-like behavior and marked deficiencies in social and communication skills. As a diagnosis, it has been known in Europe since the 1940's, but has only been included in our medical diagnostic manuals since 1994.
One of the social issues that affects the lives of children with AS is religion. I have done a study on this through both a web page and being in contact with a listserv on Asperger's Syndrome. I am including in this letter some of the things that were disclosed by adults with Asperger's and also by parents of children diagnosed with this syndrome.
I will point out that since AS is on the same spectrum as Autism, many of the comments here may be from that viewpoint. Also, some material may sound confidential so I am not going to use names of people . I will just refer to them in pronouns or in nouns denoting title such as brother, sister or daughter.
People with AS are very literal-minded and do not understand abstractions or symbolic language.
**"According to my experience, autistics believe exactly what they are told." (Http://www.accesscom.com/~hcross/mindblind.htm)
**"Last week, we went overseas, and when the plane was over the clouds, he asked me: "So this is where God lives? I can't see him." (Http://www.accesscom.com/~hcross/mindblind.htm)
**"They also are taught that there's this all-powerful guy named "God" who can do anything he wants to you (No, that's not what they said, but what they taught) I forbade his grandmother to take him to that place ever again." (Listserv by St. John's University for Asperger Syndrome)
People with AS tend to have obsessions or fixations, such as on heaven, hell, and The Bible.
**"My daughter is fixated with angels. My son told her that when you die you go to heaven and become an angel, and that she could go to heaven right now if she wanted to."(Excited at this point) "(Goody, Goody!) and she asked him how. "All you have to do is kill yourself. At the point where he was about to describe how, I barged right in the room and told her not to listen to her brother, for he doesn't know what he is talking about." (Listserv by St. John's University for Asperger Syndrome)
**"...this is why I personally do not like the Abrahamic religions like Christianity, because they are too fear based." (Listserv by St. John's University for Asperger Syndrome)
**"... this distrust of religion seems to be a common theme." (Listserv by St. John's University for Asperger Syndrome)
This is a story that someone told me. It is probably in the nature of a joke, but what is important is that people with AS tend to take things quite literally, just as the boys in the story. So I include this for your contemplation:
**There were two young brothers, 8 and 10 years old, who were exceedingly mischievous. Whatever went wrong in the neighborhood, it turned out they had a hand in it. Their parents were at their wits' end trying to control them. Hearing about a pastor nearby who worked with delinquent boys, the mother suggested to her husband that she would ask the pastor to talk with the boys and he agreed. The mother went to the pastor and made her request. He agreed, but said he wanted to see the younger boy first and alone. So the mother sent the younger to the pastor.
The pastor sat the boy down across his HUGE, impressive desk. For about five minutes they just sat and stared at each other. Finally, the pastor pointed his forefinger at the boy and asked, "Young man, where is God?" The boy looked under the desk, in the corners of the room, all around, then said nothing. Again, louder, the pastor pointed at the boy and asked, "Where is God?" Again, the boy looked all around but said nothing. A third time, in a louder, firmer voice, the pastor leaned far across the desk and put his forefinger almost to the boy's nose, and asked, "Young man, I ask you, where is God?"
The boy panicked and ran all the way home. Finding his older brother, he dragged him upstairs to their room and into the closet, where they usually plotted their mischief. He finally said, "We're in Bi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-g trouble." The older boy asked, "What do you mean, 'BIG trouble?'" His brother replied, "I'm tellin' ya', we're in B-I-G trouble. God is missing and they think we did it !!!"
Since I have a mild diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome, I will chime in on this as well. My mother tells me that when I was around 6 or 7 I became obsessed with the issue of death. I questioned my teachers and after school childcare workers about it incessantly, to the point that they called my mother and asked her to do something about it. I told my mother I was angry she let me be born, just to die at some point. I was apparently terrified of where God would send me.
Later, when I was about 9, at a Cub Scouts meeting, I told this girl (older daughter of den leader and I think was one of my baby sitters as well.) that she was not going to heaven because she swore alot. I told her this because that was what I was taught in Sunday School. Her mother became very upset and called my mom to complain and said her daughter would not babysit any more. As a result, my mom withdrew me from that Sunday School and I did not go back until I was old enough to truly understand the concepts of religion and learn not to take everything literally.
Just recently, when I first brought up the subject of religion on the Asperger's website listserv, it started up a storm of controversy among people corresponding on the listserv. It brought pain to many with Asperger's through bad memories of their experiences with religion. Some were disturbed because through the opinions given, it seemed that religions were getting "slammed" or at least particular religious faiths were. People on this list are getting fed up with the religion posts, but religion does have an grave impact on someone with AS, as you may have concluded from my comments. Many people with AS have turned away from religion and have become agnostics or unbelievers, or join occult groups. Religion, specifically Christianity, has failed them in some fundamental way.
One problem is how to bring up the topic of religion in a non-threatening manner. Another problem is that since there are so many varieties of religious beliefs that people are always going to disagree. The Asperger's listserv is meant to deal with AS and its problems. Religion is an important issue, but my problem is how can I address it if others are going to find it to be offensive? In general, churches of all faiths and denominations need to be aware of and sensitive to the unique needs of Asperger's people.
At this point, I do not want it to be disclosed that I have Asperger's through my name only, but it is acceptable to mention that a former member of your church has this disabilty. In the coming weeks or months, I plan on announcing my disability in some manner to the church I go to, maybe not directly, but in a manner I feel most comfortable with. It is also okay to mention that I am a person fighting for this cause. (I have a published letter to The Tribune, Mar. 7 on this matter) However, I would be more than happy to meet with you and discuss Asperger'sSyndrome in greater detail.
Thank you for taking time to read this long letter. I hope to hear from you. Please contact me by e-mail or letter--I am not as comfortable talking by phone. I would welcome, however, the chance to talk in person.