When I was in college, my baby brother was diagnosed with autism. As we learned more about his condition, it became really clear that it ran in the family. Autism is one form of an “autism spectrum disorder.” Many people have a few characteristics of autism in a very mild fashion; some people have most or all of the characteristics of autism in a very intense fashion. The more characteristics you have and the stronger they are, the further along the spectrum you are considered. I have Aspergers, which is about halfway between autism and “normal.” But because it ran in the family, nobody had ever considered it something worth talking with a doctor about; for my family, it’s “normal.” (Side note: autism is absolutely not caused by vaccines; the so-called scientist who claimed that it was faked his data because he stood to make a lot of money from vaccines he had created to replace the standard ones.)
Most people think Aspergers and autism are horrible things to have. I don’t. I am happy with who I am, and how God created me. Yes, there are some things that are harder because I have Aspergers, but there are also some great gifts and blessings that come along with it, too, that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Nobody is perfectly “normal,” and the world would be a very boring place if we all were!
What symptoms do I have that affect me as your pastor? Some people on the spectrum have issues with their senses or with being touched, but I don’t. On the other hand, I do have the autism spectrum tendency to focus obsessively on certain issues. One of my major areas that I love learning about and talking about is the Bible, theology, and general things having to do with the Christian faith. (Which is handy for a pastor!)
I have difficulties “reading” other peoples’ social cues. Things like body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions can be difficult for me to interpret. I have to be concentrating on it specifically. Most people understand body language without much need to focus on it. For me, I have to stop whatever else I’m doing and look at a person and say to myself, “He’s sitting back in his chair, his arms are folded, and he’s looking off to the side a bit. That probably means he’s bored.” I can do it, but the more other things that are going on (and the more tired I am) the harder it is. Because it’s difficult for me to read social cues, I sometimes put my foot in it and offend people. If I ever do that, please let me know—I can’t fix the problem if I don’t know there is a problem. When I miss things, it’s not because I don’t care; it’s because I can’t always see things that other people think are obvious.
My own social cues (body language, tone of voice, etc.) don’t naturally fit expected norms. My voice is often very loud (at age thirty, I still struggle with “inside voice”), and my body language is often very closed off. Sometimes (particularly when I’m tired or distracted), I have trouble figuring out how much eye contact is enough and how much is too little or too much. So people sometimes think I’m upset or angry when I’m actually happy. I have learned to “act normal,” to use body language and tone of voice that most people will understand, but it is hard for me and often slips when I’m concentrating on something else or when I’m tired. In the year I’ve been here, there have been a couple of times that I’ve heard second-hand that people think I’m angry with them, and in each case, it wasn’t true. I still don’t know exactly what it was I did to give them that impression, which is frustrating because then I don’t know how to do things differently so it doesn’t happen again. If you think I’m upset with you, please come and talk with me. Chances are, it’s just a misunderstanding, and even if it isn’t, I’d much rather deal with things directly than let them fester.
Those are the two big issues, for me and for many people on the autism spectrum. Taken together, they’re why some people think we have no emotions.
You may have noticed that I can be pretty single-minded. This is also one of my symptoms. For me, changing the subject can be hard. Here’s an analogy: my thoughts sometimes feel like they’re a train going down a track. To switch topics, I have to derail the train and get it started down another set of tracks. (This is why small talk will never come naturally to me, although I’ve learned to do it.) Normally, this isn’t a big deal for me, but sometimes it can be. I also tend to be very literal; I have a sense of humor, but even when I’m laughing at a joke I may have an urge to correct the absurdity that makes it funny.
Like many people on the autism spectrum, I do repetitive things. I’ve trained myself to mostly do things people don’t usually notice, when I’m in public, like tapping a foot. But if you stop by my office on a weekday and see me pacing, that’s also repetitive behavior. I think better when I’m pacing.
If you want to learn more about how my Aspergers specifically affects me, you’re welcome to ask me about it in person. If you want to know more about the autism spectrum generally, I highly recommend books by Temple Grandin and John Elder Robinson. There is also a very good HBO movie about Temple Grandin. Two of my favorite websites are http://autismandempathyblog.wordpress.com/ and http://autismwomensnetwork.org/blog/. Please ignore the advocacy network “Autism Speaks” and psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, as both are notorious for ignoring the experience and perspectives of people who actually have an autism spectrum disorder. Both Autism Speaks and Dr. Baron-Cohen are very prominent, but they tend to be unhelpful at best, if not actively harmful.