Do They “Get” Religion?

We had quite a bit of drama last Sunday over getting the kids to church. One in particular—our second, a 12-year-old girl with Aspergers—gave us a lot of grief. First, there was the feigned illness excuse. Then there was the pulled muscle stratagem, in which she faked a sore back because she had been throwing the football with her brothers the day before. Then, when all else seemed lost, she pulled a very clever ploy: the constipation gambit. Just one minute before we absolutely had to get out the door, she ducked into the bathroom, locked the door, and protested that she really had to go, warning us that it would take a long time.

By this point, I was done. I had been working with the others, trying to get them ready, all the while fielding this girl’s anxious protests. So by the time she played her final card, I gave up and told her to stay home. I also made sure that the computers were not accessible. I may have been done, but I was not going to be anybody’s fool!

Then came the afternoon, when she was set to go to Sunday school, or CCD as we Catholics call it. She had sworn up and down all day that she would not try to get out of it, but as soon as the time came, the same old excuses came up. Only this time with far more emotion: desperation, anxiety, fear, anger, recrimination, exaggeration. You name it, she threw it at us. Again it was clear that, short of physically throwing her in the car and dragging her to class, it just wasn’t going to happen. (Note: she’s big for her age, and not all that easily moved. If I were to try the physical approach, I would likely look like an abusive dad.)

This was all so frustrating for me. This girl is getting close to her confirmation, and to this point everything related to God or faith or the Church has been a struggle. As you can guess from previous posts, I take my faith pretty seriously, and one of my highest goals is to see all my kids come to a personal embrace of their faith, just as Katie and I have. But this is probably the best picture of how this girl’s guardian angel must feel on Sundays.

Image

Literal Brains, Spiritual Truths.

It took me a few years to get to the point where I’m not all that surprised by this. For quite a while I tried to force my expectations on them, wondering if they would ever accept the faith that is so important to Katie and me. It’s hard to admit that this may never happen because of their ASD, but I’ve come to realize that it’s a very real possibility, if not a downright probability.

After all, teenagers on the autism spectrum tend to have a harder time with religion than their neurotypical peers. ASD kids are very concrete thinkers. Inference and abstraction are foreign concepts. So the thought of an invisible Person whose presence and influence can be detected by intuition and emotion can seem absurd. Aspies tend to be fiercely independent and unwaveringly evidence-based, so there’s not much room for faith in a brain like that. There’s not much room for the idea of submitting one’s heart and mind to an exterior, mysterious God. If my girl were in the upper room with St. Thomas, she would have outdone him in his demand to probe the wounds of Christ before believing that he had risen from the dead.

All this can make the whole idea of a religious service, whether it’s a solemn Mass or a nondenominational electric guitar-fueled gathering, extremely foreign. Then, when you consider all the sensory issues involved—incense, lots of unfamiliar people, loud music, all that sitting and kneeling and standing—it’s a melt down waiting to happen.

At times this has left me wondering if I should even bother to teach the faith to my children. Maybe it would be better just to aim for good, moral kids who stay out of trouble. If their brains are wired so differently, why pretend they’re going to “get it” anyway?

Meeting God.

But I just can’t do that. I may have to accept a different script for my children’s lives than I had intended, but I’m still not giving up. For all the trouble it can cause, and for all the creativity it can demand to get them to Mass, I still believe it’s worth it.

That’s because I believe in a God who acts—and who acts dramatically. You see, while many of my convictions about religion were formed by the Catholic intellectual tradition—I studied philosophy and theology at a Catholic liberal arts college—these convictions came to life for me because of a deep interior conversion experience.

It’s a long story, but suffice it to say that when I was a junior (32 years ago this month, in fact), I had an experience of God that was intensely personal. Everything I had learned in my brain became real to my heart, and I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was real, that Jesus loved me, and that his Holy Spirit was alive and working in my life. I felt a joy I had never known before, as well as a freedom from guilt and a new sense of purpose to life. I’m convinced that without this experience, I would have lost interest in God years ago.

That’s why I’m not giving up. I know that God is bigger than ASD. I know that he loves my kids. And if he loves them, he can’t help but want to show them his love. So I believe that somehow, somewhere, in some manner, he will do for my children what he has done for me. He’ll make himself known and touch their hearts. I don’t know when. And I certainly don’t know how. But I believe deeply that he will do it. I just have to adjust my expectations of what that will look like.

Doing My Part.

So in the mean time, I’ll keep doing what I can. I’ll keep making sure that they have the data in their minds so that when God moves, it can transfer to their hearts. I won’t try to force faith on them. And I certainly won’t get my expectations too high about their emotions or their spiritual intuitions. Where some of my friends’ older kids are beginning to own their faith, I’m not expecting my kids to do that any time soon. At this point, my main concern is to make sure that the information is there. It’s to help them feel as comfortable as possible in church. I know they may never be all that comfortable. But at least it’s a start.

So here I am doing my part. The rest is up to you, God. Good luck!

And if it never happens for them, if they never “get” the experience I had, I won’t sweat it. As I said above, God is bigger than ASD. He’s also bigger than any one model of religious experience or salvation. Even if they can simply come to accept the premises of faith and try their best to live an upright life, I’ll be happy.

Because you made them the way they are. You know who they are. And you won’t let them down.

4 thoughts on “Do They “Get” Religion?

  1. Leo, I don’t why I’m not so much a concrete thinker as many Aspies, but I do believe in God, even from a very young age. There can be mean people everywhere, even in the Medical field, and when I was 7, I developed small red bumps, about the size of used pencil erasers, mostly on my stomach, but 1 on the inside-back of my left leg. Oddly, when the doctor looked at the bumps and saw the one on my leg, he looked at me with a bright mean look, like he was really going to enjoy taking that one off. I started praying for God to take off that one, because I knew that cutting it off would really hurt. The doctor cut off all the bumps on my belly, and then turned to my leg, and couldn’t find that one last bump; he was angry! God answers prayers – maybe if your kids saw Him answer their prayers, they would know how real He is?

    • That’s a great story, Kathy. I love hearing how God works in people’s lives! I do encourage my kids to look for God in their lives, and to ask him to bring their needs, etc., to him in prayer. So far no miracles like the one you reported, but we’re not giving up. I think that, secretly, some of my kids believe in a God “up there.” But they struggle with the idea of anything even closely approximating a relationship with him or the thought of him working in their lives. So I take them where they’re at, and slowly try to bring them along. It’s hard, though, when they have an aversion to the public and communal aspects of our faith. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. Kudos to you for persevering in teaching your children the faith. My middle child, third born of five, probably has a mild form of aspergers, his oldest brother has autism. He is the reason I got involved in children’s ministry. When he was younger, he would complain, very loudly, about going to church. I can still remember those proud parenting moments of him yelling, as loud as he could, that he hated church, he didn’t want to be there, right as we’re walking in for Mass. I ended up spending every Mass with him and his younger siblings in the children’s room. Same thing with saying grace or other family prayers. But something changed for him when he was 10 and preparing for Confirmation. He asked me why we didn’t pray the rosary as a family. He insisted on showing more reverence when saying grace. And while our efforts to pray a nightly rosary haven’t worked out well, he asked me last week how say the closing prayers as he’s been trying to pray the rosary on his own before going to bed. He still really dislikes church and looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, but I’m so encouraged by what he is doing. Keep trying and praying for them!

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