SPIRITUAL SENSITIVITIES

Schneider cites the Bible (Mathew 18:3) saying that we cannot enter Heaven unless we come as little children. He analyses the meaning of ‘child-like’ and describes several features that characterize it: trusting and exhibiting:

an insatiable curiosity, coupled with great joy in learning something new, or finding the answer to a question that has been hanging fire for a while. Even in the days when I would not get involved with the world, I always was like that, and from that high school sophomore year onward, it consumed me. (Schneider 1999, p.60)

Like Schneider, many other autistic individuals seem to retain this child-like curiosity and openness to the world. In contrast, ‘normal’ people typically lose the ability to wonder. Though having become ‘cool’, ‘these people are missing what could be a very full life. It is almost as if their epitaphs would read: “Died at twenty-five; buried at seventy-five”’ (Schneider 1999, p.60).

Contrary to the traditional view that autistic people experience difficulty or inability in understanding spiritual and religious notions, due to their differences in sensory perceptual, cognitive and linguistic development, religious and spiritual experiences seem to come more easily to individuals with autism. Some develop ‘spiritual giftedness’ and what Stillman (2006) calls ‘the God connection’.

In one of the first books to deal with spirituality and autism, Spirituality and the Autism Spectrum: Of Falling Sparrows (2001), Abe Isanon defines spirituality as the spirit with which we confront concrete reality, and to accommodate the special character of the autism condition, specifies that

the spirituality of autism and related conditions is, in essence, a liberatory spirituality, a spirituality that seeks to give meaning not only to the life of the person with autism but also to that of the carer (p.14).

A central theme of the spirituality of liberation is ‘living with Spirit’, or, as Sobrino (1993) puts it, it is being-human-with-spirit, responding to crisis and bringing promise to concrete reality.

Researching spirituality in autism, Bill Stillman, an adult with Asperger syndrome Opens in new window (2006, p.73), comes to a similar conclusion that children and animals, being ‘the purest of innocents, often perceive spiritual experiences only because they haven’t yet been conditioned not to.… The person with autism may simply not be fully cognizant of her very special gift, and may assume everyone communicates this way.’

In his three books devoted to spirituality in autism, Stillman (2006, 2008, 2010) provides numerous anecdotes illustrating such features of autistic spiritual connection or giftedness as the heightened awareness, innate gentleness and ‘exquisite sensitivity (a capacity to perceive all things seen and unseen)’.

For some, ‘these blessings came in the form of ‘Gifts of the Spirit’:

  • Examples reportedly range from knowing what someone is thinking before it is said;
  • foretelling future events that come to fruition; and
  • enjoying special, unspoken bonds with animals.

Still others are said to have perceived visions of grandparents and other loved ones in Spirit, or even communed with angels — abilities seemingly reserved for Old World saints and prophets. (Stillman 2006, pp.6–7)

We are often blind to ‘autistic spirituality’ because it is not ‘projected’ to our culturally constructed reality, so these experiences might go unnoticed by the majority of people.

Besides, not every person with autism displays these sensitivities. However, it is reasonable to expect that it is more common in the autistic population than in ‘normal’ people due to their differences in sensory perceptual and cognitive functioning.

To give just one example of a spiritual experience, Donna was a very young child when she discovered that:

the air was full of spots. If you looked into nothingness, there were spots... My attention would be firmly set on my desire to lose myself in the spots, and I’d ignore [everything], looking straight through this obstruction with a calm expression soothed by being lost in the spots… I learned eventually to lose myself in anything I desired — the patterns on the wall paper or the carpet, the sound of something over and over again, the repetitive hollow sound I’d get from tapping my chin. Even people [with their conversations] became no problem. I could look through them until I wasn’t there, and then, later, felt that I had lost myself in them. (Williams 1999b, p.9)
    The data for this work have resourced from the manual:
  1. Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Different Sensory ... By Olga Bogdashina

During spaceflight it is possible to actually see cosmic rays as points or streaks of light (Gerald 1972).

Though most humans are unable to consciously perceive most forms of magnetic radiation because the frequencies are beyond those of visible light, [it is possible] at least theoretically… to register electromagnetic radiation that lies outside of the normal range’ (Jawer 2009, p.170).

Sensitivities to magnetism and electricity are well researched in some animals.

There have been reported cases of individuals who can hear radar as buzzes and hisses (Frey and Messenger 1973), and someone who receives radio broadcasts through his teeth (Murchie 1978). It also seems that for some autistic individuals sensitivity to electricity can be an everyday experience.

  1. The feeling senses

Apart from hearing, this category includes awareness of pressure, sense of weight, sense of balance, awareness of one’s proximity to someone or something in their surroundings, and a broad sense of what Murchie calls feel — particular touch on the skin… awareness of intra- and intermuscular motion [proprioception], tickling, vibration…cognition of heart beat, blood circulation, breathing, etc. (Murchie 1978, p.1979).

These feeling senses can also include what is often called sixth sense, or gut feeling; sensing (the term suggested by Donna Williams 1998); and the ability to predict human behavior, relying on ‘pattern-recognition skills which occur intuitively’ (Schoonmaker 2008).

  1. The chemical senses

These include traditional smell and taste, and appetite, thirst and humidity.

  1. The mental senses

These include pain, sense of danger, sexuality, relaxation and sleep, a sense of humor or playfulness, time sense, territorial sense, an aesthetic sense (appreciation of the arts, etc.) and intuition.

Many autistic individuals have a highly developed aesthetic sense, for example:

the city lights and reflections playing upon the river…statutes, beautiful parks, old wooden cathedrals, and marble sculptures, paintings by Renoir and scenes by Monet, captured me and brought home the beauty of ‘the world.’ … The frosted trees and icy fields… the beauty moved me so deeply I found myself crying. (Williams 1999c, p.157)

  1. The spiritual senses

These include conscience, the capacity to sacrifice, the ability to experience ecstasy, religious bliss, feeling in unity with the cosmos.

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