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Asperger’s and spiritual direction

June 17, 2013

A AAt a recent gathering of spiritual directors, we were discussing the lack of information available for people working with people with Asperger’s Syndrome. This prompted me to do some basic research and I discovered that there is quite a lot of material out there if you are prepared to look. What follows is information I have gleaned from the National Autistic Society, a person with Asperger’s via The Ship of Fools bulletin board and various internet support groups. N.B. ASD is along a spectrum – not everything below applies to everyone.

“On some level, that is true with me. Aspies tend to fixate on a few areas of interest, and religion and politics happen to be mine. Asperger’s includes a deficiency in social skills, and social isolation is one reason that I believe in God. Although I have problems with evangelicals and evangelicalism, I’ve always liked the way that they present God as a friend, as someone who loves me and has a plan for my life. Even on days when I do not fit in, I can find a friend in God. Aspies like structure and predictability, and Christianity gives me that. Not only does it provide me with regular rituals such as church attendance, prayer, and Bible reading, but it also assures me that God is in control of my future. I prefer the idea of divine providence to an unpredictable notion that everything happens on its own, without any plan or purpose.”

“On the positive side, Aspies are quite capable of contemplative prayer. There is an idea around that we are so rational, non-social, and anti-emotional-expression (think Mr Spock from Star Trek) that we would “obviously” enjoy intellectual matters (Bible study? theology?) and would be “non-mystical”. But I think it is quite possible for an Aspie to be focused more on music or contemplation/mindfulness (very calming) instead – or on other things (social justice?). We do vary a lot – there is no one Asperger spirituality.

“In my review of what Aspies have written about spirituality and religion, it seems the most common stumbling block is a negative experience with Christians. Aspies usually want to have contact and relationships with others. However, they lack many of the social skills required to keep such a relationship. Many individuals with Asperger’s believe that, since their schools, jobs or peers had rejected them or made fun of them, surely the church will be a place to find solace and understanding. After all, the Bible commands us to love God, to love people and to follow the golden rule. This sounds like a welcome refuge to individuals who are often socially rejected, misunderstood and ostracized. But too many times, Aspies experience the same rejection in the church.”

Peter J. Naughtin, of the University of Melbourne, wrote his PhD thesis ‘Spiritual Direction For Adults With Asperger’s Syndrome in 2010. I have drawn heavily on his work because nobody else seems to have written in any detail on this subject. Of overwhelming importance is the author’s assertion that ‘Without proper training in counselling adults with ASD, a spiritual director would be advised to not take on anyone seeking direction. Otherwise, the process would become a frustrating exercise for both director and directee.’ The complete thesis can be found at,PJ_Spiritual_Direction_for_Adults_with_Asperger%27s_Syndrome.pdf

GrandinNaughin refers to Prof. Temple Grandin’s ‘Thinking in Pictures’ where she discusses her spiritual perception of reality. She thinks in a visual way and mentions the remarkable ability of autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills. She can run 3D simulations in her own mind of concepts in order to understand them. She says she has a very logical mind and uses pictures to construct ideas. Being a scientist, she bases her belief in God on the fundamental laws of nature and physics and changes her views with updated knowledge. For her, religion is intellectual rather than emotional. She sees God as an ordering force in the universe. She goes along with Einstein who did not believe in a personal God, but marvelled at the amazing harmony of natural law which reveals an intelligence of such superiority. However, both music and rhythm open the doors to emotion such as when listening to the music of Mozart. She finds Gregorian chant soothing and hypnotic.

For ‘honesty’ she has an image of placing one hand on the Bible.

Incomprehensible concepts in the Lord’s Prayer need breaking down to specific images:

  • for the phrase “for thine is the kingdom” she imagines a rainbow and an electrical tower.
  • for ‘thy will be done’ she imagines God throwing a rainbow bolt.
  • ‘Amen’ makes no sense – ‘why would you have a man at the end of a prayer.’

In ‘Religion and Positive Teachings’, Temple Grandin says:  “The autistic/Asperger’s mind tends to dwell in negatives; this is something parents and professionals should be aware of and find ways to counteract. It is beneficial for a young child to be schooled with positive teachings. One way to do this is through religious training. Helping a child understand what to do in concrete ways, demonstrating to him or her actions that are giving and positive and helpful to others, can counterbalance this tendency toward negative thinking. If a child asks about something negative like stoning as it’s mentioned in the Bible, I would recommend parents tell the child that in modern times, people no longer do that. Keep it concrete and simple.

“A nice, positive approach for a Christian upbringing would be to give a child one of the “WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?)” necklaces or key chains. Then teach the child concrete examples of what Jesus did, or would do, in various situations. For instance, Jesus would not cheat in games. He would not lie, or steal another child’s toys. When I was little, I stole a toy fire engine from another child and mother made me give it back. Moral upbringing must be concrete. A good person is considerate of others. One example I remember from my childhood was being told, by a very sleepy mother, that asking her to open a stuck glue bottle while she was sleeping was not being considerate. Fair play and good sportsmanship are important to teach. Jesus would play fairly and would not be a poor loser. He would not scream and rant if he lost a game. It is unfortunate that in our society today, so many sports heroes behave badly on TV and there are no consequences for their actions. It teaches a wrong moral lesson for a child with autism or Asperger’s (or any child) to see a famous basketball player not being punished for kicking a TV cameraman. If a child views things like this, it is important that a parent tell the child that Jesus would never do that.

“Teach your child love and kindness in a concrete manner, with very specific examples. For instance, an example of kindness would be bringing flowers to an old lady in a nursing home. There are hundreds of ways parents can share the real essence of their faith with their child with autism or Asperger’s, through daily demonstrations of the goodness that is at the foundation of their religion. This is more important, and will help the child in his or her future more than will learning to recite passages of text, or trying to teach him or her higher level concepts that the child will have difficulty understanding.” Religion and Positive Teachings, Autism Asperger’s Digest | May/June 2002

Naughtin also draws upon the work of Abe Isanon, who interviewed Adam (a high functioning ASD) about his spiritual thinking. Adam appears to live a normal life, holds a job and lives independently, but lives an extremely lonely life and struggles to cope with much inner turmoil. He struggles with the emotional dimension of his impairment which was acute in adolescence. Isanon explains that to understand Adam’s spiritual perspective it is important to keep in mind his cognitive impairments and the way he processes information.

He thinks in images and when tired he can be haunted by particular images that he plays over and over in his mind. He finds any form of abstract thought extremely difficult to cope with and uses pictures to remember abstract ideas. He uses sense impressions as the primary way of assessing and processing information. He has problems with concentration. His emotional empathy is limited. His obsession for religious experience compensates for and is a refuge from his emotional turmoil.

He does not like gatherings of people for religious experience such as liturgies. He grew Catholic but a religion based on dogma and law is beyond his capacity because he struggles with abstract ideas and universal principles. He does not like institutionalized religion. He conceptualises God as a source of light whose rays penetrate all reality. Emotionally sharing with others is difficult His struggle with spirituality is a struggle with the turmoil of his inner self. Jesus is not an objective reality, but a projection of himself struggling to be free.

“He sees Jesus as he did as a child – dressed in a simple white robe, a Jesus of simplicity, a person of compassion and existential presence. He identifies strongly with solitude and silence and with Jesus’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane. He is happy to experience Jesus in a childlike way. He does not relate to Jesus on the cross, or the parables, the miracles.”

“Concepts of salvation, suffering, miraculous events are alien to him. Eventually through his struggle, he has come to terms with his disability and constructed a spirituality to accommodate his specific cognitive and emotional impairments Adam works with children with special needs and his experience with them is central to his spirituality. …… Working with them and in meditating he is totally at ease with himself…. (because) he does not have to cope with the emotional demands that go with adult relationships He does not experience others in a conventional sense and relates to others on his own terms, not theirs.

Adam states that if the Christian Faith is to be relevant for the lives of autistic people it must respect the culture of those without the ability to think easily in terms of universal ideas and abstractions. Notions of creation, salvation, redemption, resurrection, eschatology are cognitively beyond them

Isanon concludes that Adam’s religion compensates for his inability to socialize and relate to others. He constructs a spirituality to accommodate his ASD – related problems; his understanding of reality and religion is primarily experiential, not theoretical; his religion is a path to self – discovery and has been a means of making sense of his reality; dogma unrelated to his immediate experience is beyond him. He bypasses some of the central tenets of Christian faith. (Incarnation, Trinity, Salvation); God is an untouchable light whose rays give life to all creation. Contemplation of Jesus is achieved by simple mantra. Meditation is important as it provides him with a means of stopping or slowing down the barrage of images and obsessive talking he experiences with his emotional impairment. Non discursive prayer helps him to rationalize and express thoughts and feelings that confuse him; his spirituality is lacking in concepts but is unique to his own way of thinking, as with many ASD people. He places a mental blanket over what he cannot cope with and withdraws into a world of his own; in using meditation he has learnt to transform these periods of isolation and developed his own contemplative dimension of spirituality. he believes his spirituality “effects a creative synthesis between the contemplative and active aspects of spiritual experience.”

Chris Mitchell’s ‘Asperger’s Syndrome and Mindfulness’ explores the importance of meditation in the life of an adult with ASD and discusses meditation in the language of Buddhist philosophy and technique.

Mitchell is an adult who has lived with Asperger’s and discusses the problems such people have –anxiety, low self-esteem, social isolation, personal unhappiness. He shows that meditation is a technique for managing these conditions and the ups and downs of life. He refers to the importance of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths: Suffering; the origin of suffering; the cessation of suffering and the Eight fold path. Buddhist teaching points to attachment as one of the main causes of suffering. Many ASDs have obsessive interests, collecting all sorts of things. These obsessions distance them from people and lead to isolation. Another issue is anxiety and worry or in Buddhist language, craving. If people are able to understand the causes of suffering they can realise the truth of who they are. Meditation allows this understanding to develop. The technique of focussing on the breathing in meditation helps calm the mind and concentrates mental energy, enabling the person to experience thoughts of peace and calmness and facilitating clarity of thought. Meditation leads to insight into the true nature of things and who we are. It also leads to learning loving kindness and compassion to others. This assists people with ASD from attaching blame to people for present and past offences done to them. This he understands as attachment and meditation helps to free him from such attachment. Buddhist teaching on meditation enables him to see the truth of who he is as a person with ASD and not to hide or pretend to be normal’

In his ‘Using Mindfulness Practices to Develop Calm in Asperger’s Syndrome’, Mitchell wrote: Many people with Asperger’s Syndrome experience high-level anxiety, much of which originates from excessive worrying about the future, both immediate and long-term. Though many like to have predictability and routine within their life where possible, the very notion of wanting things to be a certain way can take a person out of the present and this can increase anxiety.

“Personal goals can be motivational factors, but one has to be careful not to become lost in a goal to the extent that trying or planning to achieve it induces anxiety.  Mindfulness practice, particularly with being tuned with the present, can enable the focus of attention to be on the stage one is at. With this focus, the goal of completing a thesis becomes doing the research and work involved; going for the finishing line in a marathon becomes the process of running the marathon, and going for the summit of a mountain becomes doing the climb itself. Doing this, one can find flow and avoid the sense of anxiety.

“Mountain treks have also helped me in relation to my Asperger’s Syndrome by helping me to cope with change more effectively, including coping with constantly changing weather conditions. Trekking in a group of people has also helped me socially.  Because each day is a new challenge, when someone makes a social mistake or says or does the ‘wrong thing’, it is much easier to move on from it rather than hold onto it. Being tuned in to each stage of the trek through mindfulness enables me to find flow both socially and physically, as well as to open up to new and varied experiences, which can ultimately reinforce social skills and coping strategies in normal life.

Naughtin makes the following observations about Mitchell’s work: ASDs can instantly like or dislike a person, especially professionals with whom they have often dealt; he shows the importance of understanding the linguistic profile of the client and the difficulties they have with conversational turn-taking rather than just talking continuously on a topic of interest; there is also the tendency of clients to be pedantic and to interpret literally what is often said; the client needs to be given time to process the information discussed; he believes in the importance of planning counselling sessions of shorter duration with clear, structured and systematic goals; he suggests that a review with the client of each session take place by presenting the main points of the previous session and making them available to the client at the start of each session.

(There is an ongoing debate on whether Spiritual Directors should refer back to previous sessions at the start of a new one. The current orthodoxy seems to be that we work with what the directee brings anew top each session, though an occasional review is order.)

Personal interaction in sessions can be stressful for ASDs and asking them to explore inner feelings and thoughts and engage in self-analysis does not come easily for the person with ASD. To relieve this stress he suggests engaging the client in therapeutic conversation by interacting on computers. This can be more relaxing for the client and enable them to express greater insight than might be possible in direct exchange; use art and music (songs, drawings of situations) and comic strip formats to express emotions and thoughts. Indirect strategies can give great insights into the inner world of ASD; this interaction with a counsellor benefits adults with ASD and can result in greater maturity and insight into their feeling and emotional states; people with ASD experience great difficulties in understanding and resolving past injustices to them – bullying, misunderstanding, betrayal, rejection. These experiences can intrude on their thoughts for many years after the event.

Therapy can help them:

  • explore their thoughts and feelings and the intentions of others in these painful incidents;
  • achieve a relative appreciation of who they are and lead to greater appreciation of strengths and weaknesses of their personality – self concept is a key – who am I?
  • see they are different, but not defective – why am I different and can’t make friends?
  • deal with self-criticism and forgiveness of oneself.
  • reduce self doubt

Therapy can challenge the client to collaborate with others in pleasurable activities they can succeed in; guidance in Theory of Mind can help a client understand the intentions of others and become more objective in understanding others’ motives; is important in helping the client to develop an understanding of what personality is and its characteristics.

This enables the client to be able to move from just seeing themself in terms of what they do or collect; therapy can be valuable in helping clients develop skills in making decisions about friendships; its ultimate goal is to help the client understand and accept their unique personality.

Finally, Naughtin discusses the work of psychotherapist Paula Jackson: counsellors must understand they are working with clients whose theory of mind is based on logical knowledge and not identification with affective experience. They need to learn about the reactions and perspectives of others as they struggle to understand the behaviour of others; ASDs can appear arrogant, self-assured with a sense of superiority in comments they make. Therapists need to realize that clients are in fact unaware that they sound superior to others and don’t take this into account in dealing with others. They struggle to understand how they come across to others. Therapists must monitor their own reactions to this appearance of arrogance and always look for the intention behind the presenting behaviour. With time it becomes easier to clear up miscommunication. There is always the need to stop, wait and try to understand the intent of a comment; clients often are concentrating in communication on thoughts in their mind. Looking at persons can distract them in conversation. They can express themselves better if they concentrate on their mind rather than making eye contact. Clients struggle to deal with more than one thing at a time. Often they do not pick up what is going on around them. So you should not expect the client to notice what is obvious to you; if you want the client to know or do something you need to tell them directly, without irritation and in clear and precise language as possible; weak central coherence is a characteristic of ASD. Clients concentrate on details without relevance to the central meaning. This concept helps to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the personality type; Theory of Mind shows that clients often have great awareness of factual information, but cannot imagine the other person’s feelings or personal experience as it relates to information; finally she stresses that people with ASD need to live in a world with others, and to know their words and actions have an effect, to learn more than one perspective and to examine their own mind and the minds of others.

Naughtin concludes that it is quite possible that time be spent in silence with the person learning to practice the technique and answering questions about the practice as they emerge. Meeko stresses the importance of teaching practical ways of entering this silence and believes that large portions of time in spiritual direction can be spent with the director and directee sitting in silence.

Many with ASD could find this quite a comfortable experience.  Meeko states that it might become the most productive time of the direction session. Meeko, Andrew. “Mystical Empowerment: Spiritual Direction as Potential in the Context of Disability” Journal of Religion, Disability and Health, Vol 9(3) 2005

Follow up discussion can consider how successful the practice has been at home. Another technique that some spiritual writers suggest is keeping a journal of one’s spiritual experiences which might suit some people with ASD. Journal writings could be discussed with the director. Gradually the director is able to teach the value and truth of the technique for the person in dealing with their problems and developing a closer relationship with Christ. Gradually the person is lead to understand that Jesus is the one who wants to heal us and help each of us discover who we are and to heal the wounds we carry. The director can suggest that the pain of rejection, difficulties in dealing with social relationships, difficulties in forgiving others and oneself can be presented to Jesus in the inner silence for healing

Early stages in the relationship are important as they try to see if you accept them. Rejection is possible if trust is not quickly built. Be willing to play games where they excel to show their skills and this builds confidence in the relationship. It is essential that the director understand the way people with ASD manage emotions and feelings.

They often find it difficult to interpret the way other people think and feel. However, working with them in this area is essential to develop their skills and draw them out of their social isolation. Encourage them to talk about the issues that have brought them to you for direction -issues of self identity, personal hurt, difficulties in relationships, social isolation. Many find it difficult to understand pain and rejection, why people treat them badly and they need help to explore these feelings.

Focus on concrete thinking, their abilities to think visually, getting them to tell stories about their experiences, replay incidents that cause pain. Challenge them to express feeling and states of mind in drawings, through music that expresses feelings, games, acting out scenes they have experienced, writing down stories, poetry, reflecting on the computer and sending messages to you online. Don’t expect long discussions. Variety in strategies is important. Provide summaries of discussions before starting a new session to review what has been discussed

See also Asperger’s and church



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