This is part 2 of a reflection in honor of Autism awareness month.
3. We live in an incredibly complex world and human communication is even more complex. Because of what I do, as a pastor, I am constantly interacting with other people in various formats. I, like most people, took the process of communicating for granted because I naturally picked up the ability to read eyes, body language, vocal tone and inflection, pay attention to the environment selectively in addition to paying attention to the words being said. I am actually a fairly gifted watcher and listener, and this comes in particularly when I am counseling people (so much so that some people have remarked I am almost clairvoyant in reading not only messages but people). The entire process of communication involves knowing what to pay attention to and what not to pay attention to, and as I tried to understand the process of communication from my son’s perspective I began to realize how many incredible functions my eyes, ears, other senses and ultimately my mind was taking in, sorting and analyzing and responding to. For example, Aren has difficult understanding many types of verbal humor because it involves the way something is said as much as what is said One example of how easy it is to misunderstand communication came up when he was in elementary school and we went to meet with Aren’s teachers because Aren felt he was being picked on by one student when this student had been wanting to play with Aren and Aren never responded (he is quite happy being on his own) and the student, who couldn’t understand this at this point, kept asking to play with him. This has made me more sensitive to the polyvalent character of communication, one group of words can have several sets of meaning based on context, environment, vocal inflection, body language and so much more. As an interpreter of texts, I have become increasingly aware of how important the reader’s predisposition is to what is actually being said, and we necessarily impose meaning on words to give them a broader picture. When I was growing up, one of the churches I attended tended to approach reading the Bible in a way that was flat and conveyed no emotion, so as not to impose meaning on the text (unfortunately they did impose meaning on the text, but it was a meaning that it was flat, dull and emotionless). People also have very different abilities to hear and to communicate, some have a natural talent for this and in general women are better at reading and responding to communication than men-yet everyone has something to contribute.
4. Spirituality is a function of imagination. This is a huge statement and something I am wrestling through and before people get up in arms about it let me explain what I am attempting to say. Spirituality (not religion, per se) involves the ability to wonder and to try to understand the world in a way that is not based entirely on empirical observations. A person in the modern world can understand the world, their existence and their values based entirely upon a scientific worldview and feel no need for anything more (this is not a new phenomenon). I find it interesting that both atheism and religious fundamentalism there is a huge need to convert others to their dogmatic view of the world and I believe that part of the common issue is a need to lock everything within a concrete system which often leaves little room for questioning and wonder. My son struggles with the concept of God (which is interesting and at time challenging as a pastor) but I also am aware of many autistic children and adults who are fundamentalist Christians who find great comfort in the dogmatic worldview. There is a desire for simplicity that is simply not there in the world (nor the Bible for that matter) and there tends to be less openness to a sense of spirituality which can doubt, question and wonder. I am by no means an expert at the relationship between imagination, wonder, doubt and the ability to ask questions that challenge preconceptions but my theory is that they are related. (Perhaps something to explore, another good question) We live in a world where imagination is viewed as a function of childhood, and therefore something which is not highly valued, but I believe that imagination is more vital part of our lives than we often understand. What I do know is that it is difficult for my son to understand and approach the world in the way I have learned to do, especially in the last couple years. This doesn’t make him any less valuable than me, but his view of spirituality will be different than mine (like the manners and ways in which he expresses emotions, love and communicates). My spirituality and the imaginative act of understanding God and the world doesn’t force me to be confined within my understanding. I have also learned to value those who feel more comfortable within a more rigid view of the world, much like the compression my son needed for emotional and cognitive stabilization when he was a child his worldview provides comfort for him in his life.
More to come…