Religiosity and Autism

A review of Why Religion is Natural and Science Is Notpublished in Psychology Today reported a lack of ability of those with autism to believe in God. Researchers have suspected:

“that religious belief and understanding is obstructed by ASD and that this results from impaired theory of mind capacities.”

New studies confirm this finding. My instant reaction was big surprise, and tell me something I don’t know! It’s not a big surprise that abstract thinking is typically difficult for people with autism. It may be hard to believe for some, but belief in God is not a prerequisite to be part of a faith-based community.

The article seems to make a connection between belief in a higher being and participation in religious life. Once again, these researchers are asking the wrong question.

Here’s why.

It is irrelevant to most families of children with autism whether their child with autism is a believer or not insofar as theory of mind issues make it a near impossibility. What is important, however, is that the faith-based community with which they are affiliated wholeheartedly embraces their child as a member! I suggest that the question that needs to be studied is which faith-based communities are most likely to integrate people with special needs into the broader community, irrespective of their ability to believe in a higher being. The biggest problem that families of children with autism face is not whether their children have faith, but rather, whether the community will accept their family now that they have a child afflicted with autism. Moreover, although children with autism may be tolerated, how will faith-based communities deal with these children when they reach adulthood? It’s one thing to integrate disabled children; it is quite another matter to embrace adults with autism in a faith-based community without the knee-jerk instinct to segregate.

The correct question to study is whether typically developing adults have the capacity in a faith-based organization to embrace people with special needs rather than just give lip service to it.

Sabrina Freeman, Ph.D. on Twitter
Sabrina Freeman, Ph.D.
Sociologist (Ph.D. Stanford '95), autism advocate, author of several books & a DVD on autism, mother of an adult w/ autism, founder of FEATBC in '96.
Sabrina Freeman, Ph.D.

Sabrina Freeman, Ph.D.

Sociologist (Ph.D. Stanford '95), autism advocate, author of several books & a DVD on autism, mother of an adult w/ autism, founder of FEATBC in '96.

0 thoughts on “Religiosity and Autism

  • December 27, 2012 at 11:39 am

    @NeverSubmit@xanga – I don’t see that it matters – if I cat can suffer it deserves not to be abused.  I don’t think morality and how we treat people is determined by worth or value to society or human-ness, but what capacity they have to suffer.  Even if severely autistic people (who I suspect probably exist if only because hoffman is a hard-core actor who I don’t see half-assing the research for the role) can’t empathize with others, I don’t see how that makes them any less deserving of compassion or fair treatment.  If anything like any handicap it makes society all the more obligated to help them.

    Which is of course not to lump you in with severe autistics, high-functioning people with disabilities are another ball of wax altogether.

  • December 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    @agnophilo@xanga – To be perfectly honest, I do not know.  If they did, it certainly wouldn’t make them less human, but there is a great deal of rhetoric that says that it would.  It’s a form of “othering” used against autistics so frequently that any claim is automatically suspicious. 

    More to the point, however, what means could possibly exist for proving it?  Whether or not minds exist at all is something batted around in philosophy classes to no end for the same reason the same classrooms spend so much time on whether or not god exists.  In actual practice, we give each other the benefit of the doubt: we assume each person we meet has both a mind and the capability to imagine we have a mind.  Autistics deserve the same benefit. 

  • December 25, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    @NeverSubmit@xanga – Are you saying rain-man-like autistics don’t exist?  I’m not arguing with you by the way, I’m genuinely curious.  I have basically zero experience in this area.

  • December 25, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    @agnophilo@xanga – There’s no evidence that they exist.  Whenever someone is held up as an example, it’s either a misunderstanding that has been heavily spun, or someone who is unable to prove the accusation wrong in a conventional manner.  Sometimes evidence to the contrary has been deliberately ignored.  

  • December 25, 2012 at 11:34 am

    @NeverSubmit@xanga – Fair enough – I thought you meant something else.

    For what it’s worth I don’t think everyone in the autistic spectrum is incapable of understanding other peoples’ thoughts and feelings, though there are some parts of the spectrum that are like that, no?

  • December 25, 2012 at 11:00 am

    @agnophilo@xanga – I did read the blog.  “It is irrelevant to most families of children with autism whether their child with autism is a believer or not insofar as theory of mind issues make it a near impossibility”

    Theory of mind means you can imagine other beings have minds.  Autistics are frequently accused of being incapable of this, because our well-documented communication difficulties mean on the one hand we don’t always pick up on exactly what other people are thinking or feeling, and on the other hand it is difficult for non-Autistics to pick up on exactly what we are thinking or feeling.  Stating that autistics have “theory of mind issues” basically ignores the issues we have with communication.  It is an ignorant and backwards assumption, but the OP accepts it as a given.

    What’s worse, however, is the assumption that this determines our ability to accept any outside cultural information at all.  That is extremely dehumanizing.  It’s as if we are zombies or robots incapable of having a fully human experience.  I call that bigotry. 

  • December 25, 2012 at 10:30 am

    @NeverSubmit@xanga – Me thinks you didn’t read the blog.  It was actually saying the exact opposite of what you think it was (I’ve seen other hateful blogs that I think you took this one for).

  • December 25, 2012 at 10:25 am

    So people with autism (barring high functioning autism which correlates to both genius and atheism) are going to hell then?

    Like the discovery of split-brain studies that showed that people in which the right and left hemisphere cannot communicate with each other, but can communicate with the world because each controls one half of the person’s body – they asked them “do you believe in god” and one hemisphere said yes and the other said no.  As the scientist involved put it, “it should’ve sent a tsunami through the theological world but it barely sent a ripple.”

    The reason is that christianity has nothing to do with doctrine, it’s just about believing what we think will make us feel good.  It would make us feel bad to think that autistic people, small children, aborted babies, moral atheists and people with split brains are doomed to hellfire, so we just dismiss the possibility.  The bible could say explicitly that they’re all doomed, it wouldn’t change what people believe.

  • December 24, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    hello…. i am not too sure if am experiencing autism at the moment??because i find that sometimes i enjoy being alone more,although sometimes i can feel quite lonely….also sometimes i feel quite scar of meeting people,and i may find myself feeling very nervous,scar and worry being with a big group of people…i have met a priest in my local church and told him bout my problem,and he says that  i may have autism…however,i have spoken and met a thraphy quite long time ago…he suggested that i do not have autism…so i really do not know what to believe

  • December 24, 2012 at 11:37 am

    @drgrcevich@twitter – Well said.  My little cousin is autistic and loves going to church.  Its one of the few times he shows any sort of emotion.  He is around 10 and doesn’t say much but apparently will talk to people in church every now and then.  It is clear he understands what is going on here.  However, the church they go to is very accepting and even helped them find a school for him to go to.

  • December 23, 2012 at 11:15 pm

    No problems with abstract thinking here.  I am also quite capable of imagining that other living beings have minds of their own.  Still an atheist.  But please, keep painting a false picture to satisfy your religious-based bigotry.  I hope you choke on the canvas. 

  • December 22, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Allow me to be insulted on behalf of both myself and my little brother. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “If you know two people with autism then… you know two people with autism.” Both of us have Asperger’s and neither of us have had any difficulty with abstract thinking. I won several writing awards in high school and he’s already the best writer in his grade (6th). We both adore poetry and, in a horrifying twist of atypical Asperger’s meeting typical, are very sarcastic with no ability to interpret sarcasm. 

    That said, we’re both atheists and his attempts to be involved in the Christian church with our mother are being shot down by a combination of his inability to not realize you can’t go to a church and tell people you don’t believe in their deity then expect them to be your friend and his overall atrocious social skills. He’s so much like me when I was younger my mother calls us by the same name. I live in Houston which has a very active atheist community and have managed to wriggle my way into the outskirts of it. 
    My spouse is a Christian and, if he isn’t with me to supervise the interaction, I crash and burn in ways that are nearly epic at all religious events. Even when I use my usual half-joking introduction (“Hi! My name is xxx and I have the social skills of a four year.”) I cannot reach any appropriate social level with them. Part of it is the fact that I feel I shouldn’t have to participate in their beliefs (I’m rarely there willingly) thus immediately marking me as an outcast and making them less prone to embrace my inability to… be NT.

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