Eyes of the Heart: The Relationship Between the Church and Characteristics of Asperger’s Syndrome

Hello again, readers,

You may have noticed that my recent posts have a lot to do with the church, God, the church’s relationship to people with disabilities, and so forth. That’s partially because it’s Easter and Passover month, but it’s also because these are just topics that have been on my mind for awhile or have come to me as I’ve gone about my daily business. This next topic might be a bit complicated, but I do want to explore it, if for no other reason than nobody else has so far. Plus, you guys are kind of giving me a practice run for a writing project I have simmering in my brain.

I got the idea for this post while surfing around on the Web and Facebook. On Facebook, I’m a semi-frequent visitor of pages like Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid, Handicap This, and the Asperger’s Women’s Association. The latter of these recently posted a meme that said (paraphrased), What many people consider normal or brush off, a person with Asperger’s may dwell on for days. I thought about that, and some other things came to mind.

First of all, I’m a dweller, too. It’s one of those melancholic occupational hazard things. Maybe that’s why, even after forgiving the people who perpetrated it, thinking about the discrimination of my teaching internship still hurts. It’s not that I want to dwell or stay stuck; it’s just that for me, and for many others, I bet, people and things that cause deep emotions have a way of sticking around. So I get the fact that Asperger’s, and maybe other disabilities, might make one predisposed to dwelling.

But two, society, and especially the church, considers dwelling on anything a harmful behavior. It’s even in the Old Testament: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” Paul echoes this in the New Testament when he discusses not looking back at his past, but looking forward and “[running] the race marked out before [him].” And I’m not saying he was wrong. Certainly God was not. And if anybody had a reason to forget his past, it was Paul. I mean, the guy mercilessly killed Christians for a living and thought he was doing God’s work. He made most Spanish Inquisitors look like sissies. You don’t even have to be a Christian to get that dwelling is unhealthy. Just turn on Dr. Phil or Oprah or any of those folks (and no, I am not making a statement about what religion I think they are) and you’ll see where dwelling can get you. The problem is that, in trying to avoid that behavior, I think people–even and especially the Christian church–may inadvertently minimize pain. In some cases, they may also end up penalizing an individual with a disability for something that is natural for them to do.

Dwelling is not the only characteristic common to Asperger’s, autism, and other disabilities that may come under fire. What about the fact that some people with Asperger’s and autism have highly specialized interests? By “highly specialized,” I mean, at times, to the point that the interest is all they talk about. To the point that the interest is all-consuming. Now again, on its own, that’s not necessarily a healthy thing to do. It’s why loved ones (not necessarily therapists and “experts”) should help the PWD learn to step back from certain interests or topics and focus more on other people and what they like. But does that also mean that the PWD’s interests should be ignored or penalized? Some people would say yes. In fact, some people in the church might accuse the PWD with a specialized interest of idolatry, claiming that he or she places the interest before God.

So, in these two examples, you can see what I think is going on here. I think the church is doing its best, but I also think that, if we’re not careful, the Judeo-Christian worldview could end up accusing people with certain disabilities of sins or unhealthy behavior where none exist. We could also end up accusing people who don’t understand fully what our accusations mean. Honestly, can you tell me that a five-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome is going to understand why a well-meaning, but misguided Sunday school teacher uses his obsession with dinosaurs as an example of idolatry? Are you going to tell me that even the most high-functioning adult with a disability where the brain naturally hyper-focuses is going to “understand” when a well-meaning but misguided pastor or church member says, “You need to forgive that person and quit using your disability as an excuse?”

I hear what you’re saying: “I don’t know anybody who does that.” Well, if that’s true, then you’re blessed, as am I. But I wrote this post for two reasons. One, anybody can twist a religious worldview and its teachings around to say whatever suits that person, and it’s happened to Christianity over and over. That’s the reason why some people still believe that disability is a curse or punishment–so it’s not far-fetched to say that people might also believe PWDs are predisposed to certain sins and thus irredeemable in those areas. You and I know that’s a lie, but those people don’t. Two, faiths of all kinds are filled with judgmental people, whether they’re vocal about it or not. Now of course, we all, yours truly included, have days when we’re judgmental jerks. I myself get so mad at people who are judgmental that I have to repent for being judgmental of the judgmental! How whacked out is that? But see, some people are like that 24-7, and people with disabilities can be among their favorite targets.

So, now you know the problem. The question is, what can we do about it? Well, this one’s tricky, especially when you’re dealing with a Christian worldview. The world has become so tolerant of actual sin that it’s easy to say, “Don’t give those folks an out because they have disabilities. If you want them treated like everybody else, call their sin, sin, and expect them to deal with it.” I understand, but I don’t agree. I say two things to that:

1. Make Sure the Sin You’re Calling Out is a Real Sin. That is, I don’t believe people with disabilities, who have highly specialized interests, are always out to commit idolatry. Now, yes, that can happen. I myself have a highly specialized interest in books, so I have to watch myself to be sure it doesn’t turn into an obsession or something that could hurt me financially, emotionally, or spiritually. And a lot of people with high-functioning disabilities are in the same situation. That is, they can understand when you say, “This is unhealthy and even sinful,” and they can get to the point, with compassionate counsel, where they can deal with those issues. But some PWDs either don’t fully understand that concept, or they’re not sinning in the first place. That is, they’re not looking at a specialized interest or a tendency to over-think things and going, “I’m gonna do this and who cares what God thinks.” They may just be doing what is natural for them to do. (And no, I am NOT FOR ONE SECOND saying this argument would work for an ax-murderer or a rapist, so don’t even start). I’m just saying, be careful what you call a sin.

2. Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment. If you do have to tell a PWD that he or she is engaging in sinful behavior, remember what James said. Also, don’t assume, “Yes, of course he or she is going to sin in X way because they have this disability.” We’ve talked about this before and we know what it leads to. Just don’t do it.

3. Handle with Grace. Okay, so let’s do a “road test” on this. Say you have an individual with a disability wherein the brain naturally hyper-focuses on stuff. This could be autism, Asperger’s, or any number of other conditions. The object of the hyper-focus could be anything from why your tie isn’t straight to why we allowed vanilla Coke. But right now, the individual is focused on the fact that they’ve been hurt. They know they should forgive the person who did it, and they want to, because it’s what they’re taught they should do as a Christian, or a Jew, or whatever. But they can’t. Now, can this be blamed on the disability? Not entirely–that’s where overcoming comes in, at least in most cases. (There are some cases where a mental or psychological disability is so severe or entrenched that the answer may be different). But should that person be told, “You are openly rebelling against God?” No, I don’t think so. It would be better to ask questions like, “What can I do to help you get through this pain?” It would also be helpful to say that you recognize forgiveness is a process, and that you will support that person as they go through it, however long that takes.

I think that at its core, the Christian church and other faiths have good intentions when it comes to persons with disabilities. But too often, we look with the eyes in our heads and see the pictures we’re most comfortable with, like sacrificial lambs, or people that are predisposed to sin and will rebel openly and unrepentantly no matter what you do. I think the eyes of our hearts could tell a better story, even when dealing with characteristics of disabilities that are “unhealthy” or sinful. So let’s refocus, shall we?



  1. Oh man… you’ve hit on something meaningful here, but I think that there’s still a HUGE problem with calling “obsessing over something” or “not forgiving” a sin, whether it is a PWD or a non-PWD doing it. Sure, obsessing over things an be an unhealthy behavior, but calling it a sin is putting it into a different category altogether. I realize that I’m not the best person to discuss this since I do not really believe in the concept of “sin” anymore (defining sin as something that causes condemnation on you from God.) But there are certain things that I can at least understand using that word for. For example, saying nasty things about someone in earshot in order to hurt their feelings is surely something that a good God would consider wrong. In the Christian tradition, then, you ought to repent for that and make it right with the person wronged in order to prevent this “sin” from separating you from God. God is supposedly quick to forgive people who repent for their sins.

    But to say “you thought about this too long, or you enjoyed this too much, therefore you have committed a sin that can cause condemnation from God” is just horrifying, no matter what sort of person you are. I have a real problem with what I call “thought sins”. That is, things that occur only in our heads but are considered damnable separations from god. This includes things like being attracted to someone (lust!) or enjoying something more than someone thinks you should (idolatry!) or being angry at someone (unforgiveness!!!) These are feelings, and when we treat them like sins, we suppress the very human ability to feel and experience our own lives. We end up burying our private thoughts and feelings with shame and fear. We lose the ability to even understand ourselves because just THINKING the wrong thing is condemned by god. I don’t even have words for how toxic this has been to me, and to other people I have known. I can’t imagine how toxic it might also be to a person with a disability that predisposes them to some such thoughts and feelings.

    One of the greatest things for me, when I stopped being a Christian, was the freedom to finally feel my own feelings and experience my own thoughts without fear and shame. I could be attracted to someone and acknowledge what my aesthetic preferences are without feeling like god is angry with me (as opposed to before, when I was in a relationship with a man that I was REPULSED by, but figured that my lack of attraction was a GOOD thing because then at least I was not sinning by lusting). I was able to be angry with my family for abusing me without feeling that I was the sinner for not being forgiving enough. I could enthusiastically enjoy my work without feeling that there was a jealous god leaning over my shoulder and judging me for not paying enough attention to him constantly. I was finally able to acknowledge my own self.

    I think that the Christian focus on “thought sins” is dreadfully unhealthy for everyone. If thought sins ceased to exist, then a person with Aspberger’s could receive help if an obssession was becoming damaging to his/her life, but not be treated as sinful for just enjoying something that is important to them. Anyway, those are my two cents or three. 😛

  2. I always appreciate two or three cents from my readers, and you do raise some good points. In its most negative form, Christianity can come across as the Thought Police, and yes, that can be extremely toxic. As a matter of fact, there is a push within some Christian circles these days to reexamine how we define sinful behavior and why. Christians will tell you that their faith is not about things–it is about the Person of Jesus Christ. And ideally, they’re right, because that’s what it’s supposed to be. The truth is, though, that humans are so whacked out we can’t keep that straight for more than 1.5 minutes, and that’s on a good day. I’m hoping that as faith continues to grow and change, people can as well, so that love and honesty replace condemnation and judgment.

    1. I’m glad that there is a push for change in these things. I mean, the amount that Christians focus on “thought sins” varies a lot depending on the region, denomination, etc that you are in. But I do think it is rather common among a lot of evangelical or fundamentalist Christian denominations, and even among a lot of the very mainstream ones. For example, my wife was raised Methodist and she remembers the pressure there was in the community to always seem happy and cheerful about your situation because showing sadness or fear would be a “lack of faith in God” and was thus a sin. Oh, and unforgiveness. My goodness. Christians would latch onto people who spoke up about being injured or hurt or feeling wronged and say “you just need to let go of your bitterness and learn to forgive” otherwise they were committing a sin. Often, this leads to victims being attacked for being “unforgiving” while abusers are forgiven and welcomed back. I can’t tell how many times my own family, when I bring up hurtful things they’ve done and ask them to be addressed, have said “I see that you still have a lot of bitterness. I will pray that God frees you from your bitterness so you can learn to forgive as he commanded.” UGH. To be honest, it’s really really really nice to not HAVE to forgive people anymore, now that I’m not a Christian. Sure, I generally strive to forgive in my own time. I strive to make peace where it can be made. But if someone has hurt me without remorse and will continue to hurt me, I don’t need to forgive them. I don’t need to feel ashamed for being angry. I can protect myself and learn to deal with my feelings in my own time, because I do not owe them forgiveness. I will give it to them if I want to. And that is so, so, so freeing.

  3. I have Asperger Syndrome and middle-aged and never had a job in my whole life after being in special schools all my childhood I am fully able-bodied, mobile independant living with no need for carers etc. Mt brain does not allow me to operate in a usefully productive working way. I am always been deeply troubled by this “Cannot have faith without good works” thing, The idea that Christians should be productive in doing useful things to help others. I fail because I cannot function to doing things by what others expect, I cannot live by working doing what is given to me to do and what I am requested or ordered to do. I just lock up and cannot work by ‘order/request’. I can only do what i personally ‘feel-like’ doing and only when I have the natural ‘mood’ to do it. This is why I have never been to university and never worked. This to me does not sit well in Christianity because of all the constant “Do for others, help others, give to the needy” coming at at us every week form the scripture/sermons etc. I cannot be a servant, I am just not built that way.

    Before I return to God’s Altar, I need advice as to what statements I can give when I am challenged on this matter and so I can be a peace with God. I know God would not expect me to be everybody elses’ servant looking after people and doing all this thing which all able-bodied Christians are normally obligated and expected to do, But I have to live in a world among people who do expect it and are very quick to point it out and make me feel inadequate and a failure. Even if I may not be a failure in God’s eyes, But I am failure in the eyes of the rest of the human race around me.

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