Hi! My name is Daniel Michalski. I am a Christian. I am a Master of Divinity student at Westminster Seminary California. I love to travel. I’ve been to 22 countries on 4 continents! I like cats and goats (and more cats). I had five lizards growing up. My favorite color is green. I’m the opposite of a picky eater, the only food I don’t love is ketchup. I’m an ambivert, in between extrovert and introvert, so I get energy from either being alone or from socializing! Oh…and I’m on the Autism Spectrum.
Autism is an unusual way of processing information. It has strengths and weaknesses. The basic elements of autism are difficulty reading body language and non-verbal communication, impaired motor skills, difficulty with eye contact, unusually strong senses, difficulty with symbolic language and humor, ability to hyper-focus, and an excellent memory. Because the autistic brain focuses on certain areas such as memory, detail, routine, and precision, it is impaired in non-verbal and social areas. Non-Autistic people, those with typical nervous systems, are called Neurotypicals.
I didn’t grow up with a knowledge of my Autism. I grew up in the tiny town of Bonners Ferry, Idaho. A lot of my symptoms weren’t as evident because I spent most of my time with family, so we were comfortable with each other. Plus my little brother has Down’s Syndrome and Classic Autism. We only knew about his Down’s Syndrome, so we never connected the similar traits that he and I had. Even with some hurtful misunderstandings and our not knowing about my condition, my Mom was an excellent mother and didn’t harm me at all. Sadly, the same cannot be said for many Autistics who grew up in Christian or non-Christian homes. Many Autistics from Christian homes were abused and treated as disobedient and evil for their disability.
But I can remember certain events that might have made someone who was familiar with Autism notice me. I had a lizard at school and was going to have a funeral for him, but one of my classmates joked about the lizard, and I took him seriously. I made the whole class stay inside while I buried him behind the school. Also, many times people would speak to me, but I would be so focused on something that my brain was filtering them out completely. I was oblivious that having one friend at a time or teaching myself what a metaphor was via a literal definition wasn’t typical.
When I turned 18, I moved to California, got a grocery store job, and started wondering if I was a different species from everybody else. I felt like there was an invisible barrier between me and the world around me. I didn’t understand how people wanted to bond and thought someone trying to fist bump me was punching me. Because of confusing events like this, I retreated into my own mind. I almost stopped communicating altogether, and just bagged groceries while off in another dimension. I studied theology alone and traveled. Unbeknownst to me, a manager recognized me as Autistic and helped me throughout my time there. The general manager, who didn’t know about Asperger’s Syndrome but was a Christian, also helped me out.
When I was 21, my friend Robb Coleman, now a SEBTS Ph.D. student, suggested I might have Asperger’s Syndrome. I looked it up, and two things jumped out at me: I had no idea what non-verbal communication was, and I had forced myself to learn how to look people in the eye (it was physically painful). The condition’s description fit my life perfectly and explained many confusing things. I understood finally why I felt like a stranger in the world and couldn’t socialize well.
It explained why my gait was often described as odd or like a foreigner. It explained why I had trouble doing tasks requiring fine motor skills like driving, holding a pencil rather than grasping, and balancing a fork. It explained my sense of being an observer and not a participant in life. It explained why it hurt to look people in the eye and why I needed to run after too much sensory input. It explained why I had such sensitive hearing, and my nerves felt constantly overloaded.
But now I had another dimension to deal with. I was a Christian and committed to being part of the Church community. Being a Christian with Autism presents particular challenges.
One struggle is difficulty socializing. Most Autistics want to socialize but have severe troubles doing so. This is both because of hyper-stimulation from sensory input (every little thing around you putting pressure on you) and from difficulty with body language. A Church is a loud environment, and often Autistics will retreat from the fellowship halls or even the assembly because of the noise and sensory input being overwhelming. As one of my Autistic brothers puts it, “the general [Autistic] tendency towards isolation and doing things solo versus large, loud, obnoxious groups of people who want to hug and love each other and shout” makes Church difficult. This is compounded by the conviction that in spite of how difficult the trial God has called us as Christians to be part of this noisy group of fallen sinners. In a community of Christians, we are to live with one another and be involved in each other’s lives.
The Autistic Christian ought not to retreat from the Church and the Neurotypical Christian ought not to shun those who have trouble socializing. Sadly, I have seen both. I have seen and experienced being rejected, ostracized, and treated as if I don’t exist by Christians who seem to feel it is easier to ignore people who are different than embrace them. It’s discouraging and painful to have been treated as non-existent or rejected as a bad person even by pastors simply because I have difficulty with social skills and eye contact. I have seen Autistics who gave up on Church (or Christianity) because of difficulties with communication. Anyone will shrivel or die spiritually when not connected to Christ’s Church. Friends, this ought not to be so! We are one Body in Christ, and by working together, we can help each other.
Because of how Autistic people think, we face some serious dangers when it comes to Christianity. Because we tend to think in pictures rather than words, we want a concrete image for an idea. This can be dangerous when it comes to God and wanting a mental image of Him. Some Autistics end up collapsing the Creator/creature distinction. Others try to form a picture, for example by putting Him within space-time. As difficult as it is (and all people struggle to some degree with God’s otherness) the Autistic Christian must embrace mystery. We have to realize if we are to be orthodox that some thoughts we cannot form an image of; the God beyond space and time is also beyond comprehension or imagination.
A second danger is in having true faith. Because emotions are seldom involved in our thought process, and we think in strict, logical terms, it is easy for us to have mental assent without true faith. Such mental assent, because we believe what we think vigorously, may appear deep and heartfelt while only being acceptance of a list of propositions. But true faith is knowledge, assent, and trust. The Autistic Christian must understand the need to go beyond accepting bare data and rest in Christ as Creator, Lord, and Savior.
A third danger is in confusing mistreatment from Christians and personal pain from growing up in a confusing, overwhelming world with a reason to doubt God. Most Autistic atheists I have spoken with in-depth are atheists because they experienced pain and suffering, not because God is not rational or perceivable through the created realm. They make a hasty move from experienced pain to belief that he is not there, though that may often simply be anger at Him and not true unbelief. Two things that help Autistic Christians in this area are understanding all humans are fallen and trusting that God can use evil for His good purposes.
A fourth danger is from our brain’s emphasis on the visual to form ideas. Because we need sensory objects to form an idea, we can become imbalanced. The Sacraments as the visible gospel are vital to our spiritual life and often to grasping the Gospel itself. The danger for Protestant Autistics is struggling with the gospel if we do not have a weekly Eucharist. The danger for Orthodox and Catholic Autistics, because those Churches focus less on the preached Word, is to have the visible gospel without the clear, spoken Word of the gospel.
Because Autistic people express their ideas verbally and have trouble expressing their emotions, we can be taken wrongly. This is especially painful and difficult when it comes to empathy. The stronger I feel something, the harder it is to express. I feel empathy with my whole body and heart but have great trouble expressing it. For this reason, people often think we lack empathy (or other emotions) when we really are just bad at body language. This can result in a Church setting with people thinking we are spiritually immature or callous, making it difficult to be part of the community and difficult to express our care for others in a way that they would appreciate. I am still unsure if I adequately express my concern for others in a way that most people would understand.
I have had trouble with how I get to know people as an Autistic person and how boundaries are set. We tend to feel upon meeting someone that we fully know them and trust them. I feel like I know a person I just met at Church or on the street as well as someone I’ve known my whole life. Then, if trust is broken, it’s hard for me to trust the person at all. I don’t have natural categories for acquaintances, friends, best friends, and family members. It all feels the same. This can result in not understanding why others are reserved after a first meeting (I naturally assume distrust). It also leads Autistics to trust people we shouldn’t trust and be hurt. Sadly, there are predators and bullies in Churches as anywhere else in life. Being even more open at Church, we can fall prey to abusive people within the Church quite easily. Additionally, we feel comfortable speaking to anyone about any subject and don’t have a natural sense of how close someone is to us. This can result in unintentional breaking of trust or gossiping when the Autistic person isn’t sinning but simply not realizing certain things should only be said to certain people.
These are some main concerns and struggles for a Christian with Autism, though I could speak at much greater length. I experience the world differently, but ultimately we all do as humans. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can and should all work together as the Body of Christ. So, with compassion let us as Autistics and Neurotypicals build each other up and bear with one another in love. The Neurotypical Christian can help the Autistic feel more comfortable and to learn social skills, boundaries, and body language. The Autistic Christian can use their interests to grow the Body and show them the deep wonder of the ordinary world God made. In all our weaknesses, God uses our weakness for His glory!