March 2006 – Finding Faith on the Autism Spectrum
Hello Families and Friends of HeARTs for Autism!
I found this article written by someone with Asperger’s. He is an adult and accomplished as a teacher, writer and presenter. I find his insights quite interesting given what we as parents might struggle with for ourselves and for our children. At our HeARTs programs, several parents have brought up challenges they are experiencing in maintaining their faith relationships...this speaks of it from the ASD perspective. As I have said many times, in the end, our lives will not be measured by the deadlines, stuff we have to have, and the politcal correctnesses we adopt, but by the quality of the relationships we have and how well we deal with what we are dealt. Enjoy...
Robin V Schwoyer
HeARTs for Autism
Finding Faith on the Autism Spectrum
by William Stillman
Finding our spiritual faith is an individual and unique experience for all. Some of us come to it early on in life because our faith in a Higher Power has been instilled in us since birth. We may draw upon our faith in arduous times and find solace in knowing it offers us loving affirmation. Others may be brought up to practice faith; but enacting traditional rituals may feel more like going through the paces without emotional or spiritual commitment---you do it because you feel you’re supposed to. And some of us lose sight of our faith altogether. I must admit, at one time not so long ago, I was someone that fit within this last category.
It’s not that I was raised faithless. As a very small child, I was intensely, emotionally sensitive and wept and grieved regularly. This could be brought on by something visual that I found sad and upsetting, or it could be triggered by a certain piece of music or a melancholy lyric. I’m guessing that many of us on the autism spectrum have shared these kinds of feelings. And yet at some point, I became virtually detached. I attribute this to the abuses I endured while growing up. Maybe I was expecting to be “saved” or “rescued.” Isn’t this what the Creator in whom I was raised to hold my holiest of beliefs should do for one so persecuted?
Any number of us knows of the shameful humiliation and hurt that comes of being bullied for our differences. Such was my case. I so loved The Wizard of Oz as a young boy and could usually only connect with other children socially if we engaged in something related to Oz. Otherwise, I was a fish out of water. A passion like Oz is considered socially-acceptable for a very young child; problem was, I never outgrew it. And I learned the hard way of the staying power of stigma---not only for being very quiet, socially aloof, and lacking in physical agility. When my passion (not fixation or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder!) was no longer cool, I paid the price through daily verbal abuse, routine physical abuse and taunting in the form of being publicly mocked in front of teachers, students, cafeteria staff and bus drivers. Nor was I the type to shrug it off and get over it. In addition to severe depression, my continual mind-movie-replays of certain painful events led to (what I know now was) Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
I was in a gray void with no one to turn to except myself. But instead of seeking resiliency by drawing upon the strength of my Creator, I retaliated by pulling away. I cultivated a dark edge that incurred spiteful, sarcastic comments directed toward others, probably to deflect attention away from myself. I withdrew even further into my shell, if that’s possible. Do you know what it’s like to grow up across the street from a thriving playground, especially during the summer when there are daily day-long activities for all the neighborhood children? As the oldest of four boys, some of the other kids didn’t even realize my younger brothers had an older brother because I was never seen or heard from. I was, for all intents and purposes, an invisible non-entity.
When anyone one of us finds ourselves enduring very trying circumstances, we have two options---two pathways---that lie before us. The first path appears to be the path of least resistance. It is the path that allows us to wallow in self-pity and feel entirely justified as “the victim” for behaving badly and treating others poorly. After all, we’re just giving back what was dished out, right?
The second path may take some time to discern, depending upon the conviction of one’s faith. But it is the one and only true path. It is that path that implores us not to surrender to our circumstances but to rise above them with grace and humility. It is the path that shows us that we own our past experiences and they are uniquely ours alone. Our past is there for us to draw upon in order to use it to our fullest advantage to teach others; to give back what we know we can pro-actively offer based upon our personal experience. This is the secret of our lives: how to give back through good works and in compassionate service to other human beings.
Finding our faith in this way is a process. It rarely happens quickly, although some people do dramatically alter their lives as the result of an epiphany like a serious accident, drug overdose, near-death situation, or the unexpected loss of a loved one. For others, it takes the accumulation of many learning experiences until we feel we’ve found our footing on the true path. This is easier said than done for some of us, especially if we’re feeling suppressed, disregarded or persecuted for our very different way of being. This is a test of our faith. It wasn’t until after I turned forty a few years ago that things began to come together.
The impetus for my own personal growth came from self-knowledge and self-reflection. As I gravitated to the autism school of life-knowledge, I befriended a number of individuals---brothers and sisters---who shared similar, sometimes significantly more distressing experiences. I found myself welcomed into the fold by them and their families. I received validations for my own life experience in gentle, loving ways. I realized that the abuses I endured paled in comparison to the lives of so many others. I took especial notice of the warmth and love that radiated from deep within the eyes of those with out a voice in particular.
As I found my heart defrosting and opening more fully than it ever had, I became attuned to the ways in which my faith was responding to the call. Everyday, I became attentive to the loving signs and signals that manifested around me. I was having powerful dreams that nourished me and coaxed me onward, like the one in which I was standing at a podium in a lecture hall counseling other souls on the virtues of being in a paraplegic body. I found myself paying closer attention to the beauty in all of nature---glorious sunsets and delicate, impossibly-intricate plant life. During that winter, three little bluebirds, like those right out of the song “Over the Rainbow,” gathered on a bush outside my office window. At the height of a blizzard, one of them soared right over my house as I was shoveling my driveway. That was a gift, hand-delivered to me personally and I learned that bluebirds---especially in winter---were rare for this area.
The more I relinquished my hold on a façade that was not authentic, the more I appreciated human life and how every moment with one another is also a gift. Human differences matter not where true love reigns. I resigned to allow God’s will to unfold.
I’m wondering how many of us on the autism spectrum are in a place where our faith is strong and we are seeing clearly the manifest ways in which it is truly reflected back to us every day. For some, it may be harder to see than others, especially when trying to discern it through the muck of self-loathing and despair. But it is there, I promise. I’m living proof. And so long as I have my health and a voice to be heard, I will endeavor to be of good service to others---a strong advocate on behalf of those who cannot advocate for themselves. It is the way by which I can give back in appreciation of all the blessings of my life. The one true path.
©2006, William Stillman