American Association of Christian Counselors
Asperger’s Syndrome and Spirituality
Individuals with Asperger’s Need the Church to BE the Body of Christ
By Rev. Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A.
As I recall a time in my daughter’s life when she was not drawn toward the church or Christians, I wonder how others with Asperger’s Syndrome feel about the church, religion, and spirituality. I googled “Aspergers” and “Religion” to research Aspies’ thoughts about this matter. (Individuals with Asperger’s often refer to themselves as Aspies). To my surprise, there are hundreds of articles written about Aspies and religion. Psychology Today recently featured two articles on this very topic:
Bullying, Hypocrisy, and Church: An Asperger Perspective on Religion
The Pain of Isolation: Asperger’s and Suicide
The reality of many Aspies’ experience with religious hypocrisy grieves me.
Aspies are known to be literal, black and white thinkers who want or need evidence or proof. Spiritual faith does not require proof. Many are known for great intelligence, and Aspies tend to value knowledge and perfection. Aspies are also known to have narrow interests and can obsess about topics of interest to them. How would these tendencies relate to an interest in spirituality? I found articles by Aspies who not only report a deep connection to Christianity, but to many other religions as well. However, many report rejecting faith, as well.
Aspies have the ability to grasp spiritual concepts and to develop a personal relationship with God, but relationships can be a challenge if not an enigma in the Aspie mind. Aspies are not known for their social skills, relationship building, or affect recognition, but I can tell you they are usually quite adept at detecting incongruencies between one’s stated beliefs and one’s actual behavior.
As I read articles by Christian Aspies, many have a black and white beliefs about God, the Bible, and what behaviors are acceptable and not. Some of them confess to being overly perfectionistic or legalistic in their faith, but their understanding of God and His Word is real. I can see this in my own daughter’s understanding of these matters. She too can be quite legalistic in her faith and get caught up in what Robert McGee’s Search for Significance calls “the performance trap.”
For example, she can become easily stressed if she receives money and forgets to tithe on it the very first Sunday she has the opportunity. She can raise money for missions and have a thought that she wished she had raised the money for herself and feel overly guilty for having a natural human thought. This is a wonderful teaching moment as I try to guide my daughter through her now teenage faith.
In her childhood she experienced some things that made her feel disconnected from church. When she was mistakenly expelled at the Christian school associated with our home church after being promised, “We are your church. We love you. We will never expel you,” she called the headmaster and staff pastor “a liar.” She screamed, “The church lies. He did not love me for who I was.” She carried bitterness and hurt from that experience for nearly four years. Thankfully, she remained tender toward God, but she had a negative feeling about “the church” as an institution. This is just one example of literal, black and white thinking.
I wish my daughter’s experience was an isolated incident. But, as I read articles about children and adult Aspies, many are quick to point out the hypocrisy in the church. It seems these individuals have paid attention to the sermons about how Christians are called to live and what the Bible calls sin. To individuals with Asperger’s, the biggest proof for the nonexistence of God is when they see people in the pew living double lives. For a black and white, literal, visual proof thinker, one negative interaction with a “Christian” can cause them to write off spirituality all together.
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.
This reported rejection by their peers and places of ’refuge” could explain the research that reports that, by the age of 13, nearly 50-60% of Aspies have contemplated suicide. This is double the national norm of “non-Asperger” teens. Research shows that the rate of suicides among Aspies is on the rise. When Aspies are asked why they contemplate suicide, the most common response is the pain of isolation and rejection.
Jesus said in John 13:35, “Your love for another will prove you are My disciples.” For an Aspie, this could quite literally mean a meaningful relationship with God and other believers, or rejection of God and disconnection with His people. Sadly, it could be a life and death decision. The stakes are high.
Will we be the Church? Will we reach out to individuals with Asperger’s and seek to understand them? Or will we reject them because of their odd behaviors and our own discomfort interacting with them? As counselors and ministers, we must take the lead in living out the Gospel in such a way that we offer hope, acceptance and safe relationships to those who are different from us, including those with Asperger’s.
If you’re interested in learning how to work effectively with children and adults who have Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorders, don’t miss tonight’s CounselTalk Webinar—Learning to Thrive: Navigating the Challenges of Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Stephanie Holmes will be joining us live at the AACC studios from 6-8pm, ET!
Stephanie C. Holmes, M.A., is an ordained minister and Licensed Christian Counselor with the Board of Examiners for Georgia Christian Counselors and Therapists and was formerly an LPC in North Carolina. She is a Board Certified Christian Counselor through the AACC’s Board of Christian Professional and Pastoral Counselors. Stephanie’s career path changed when her oldest daughter was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2004. She began to change her focus to the world of IEPs and 504 educational plans and understand how to help special needs students in the classroom. In addition, she also helps families deal with their frustrations and challenges having a special needs child. Stephanie practices counseling at her home church, Calvary Atlanta, and advocates for special needs families.
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