Autism, Psychic Abilities, the
Paranormal and Paganism
April is Autism Awareness Month in some countries, including the UK and the USA, and April 2, 2009 was the very first World Autism Awareness Day. Here in Australia May 1-31 has been chosen to be Autism Awareness Month each year. Autism touches the lives of all sorts of people, including witches and pagans, so I thought it would be appropriate timing to post some information about it in this edition of the Axis Mundi.
What is Autism?
In brief, Autism is a lifelong developmental disability. It is part of the autism spectrum and is sometimes referred to as an autism spectrum disorder, or an ASD. The word 'spectrum' is used because, while all people with autism share three main areas of difficulty, their condition will affect them in very different ways. Some are able to live relatively 'everyday' lives; others will require a lifetime of specialist support.
The three main areas of difficulty which all people with autism share are sometimes known as the 'triad of impairments'. They are:
It can be hard to create awareness of autism as people with the condition do not 'look' disabled: parents of children with autism often say that other people simply think their child is naughty; while adults find that they are misunderstood.
What is Asperger's Syndrome?
There is a form of autism called Asperger's Syndrome (AS) which is often used to describe people who are usually at the higher functioning end of the autistic spectrum, and it is in this form that autism has touched my life. I have four wonderful sons, two of whom have been diagnosed with mild Asperger's Syndrome, while the other two have a lot of Aspie traits, one more so than the other, but have not been assessed. I now realise I that I too most likely have Asperger's Syndrome - it explains so much about my life experiences.
Asperger's syndrome is named after Hans Asperger, a Viennese psychiatrist who first described the syndrome in 1944. Although his writings were published around the same time as Leo Kanner described autism, the term Asperger's syndrome was not widely used until the late 1980s, and internationally standardized diagnostic criteria were not published until 1994.
Autism, in all of its forms, is what is called a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). In essence, it is a slight difference in the construction of the brain, probably present since birth, which affects the way the child develops. It is not a mental condition or a behavioural issue... it is a neurological difference. Asperger's Syndrome is also sometimes referred to as a neurobiological disorder - which means the nervous system has developed slightly differently to 'normal' due to genetic, metabolic, or other biological factors.
A number of traits of autism are common to Asperger syndrome including difficulty in social relationships, difficulty in communicating, limitations in imagination and creative play, and heightened sensitivity to certain textures, sights, sounds, tastes, or smells.
However, people with Asperger syndrome usually have fewer problems with language than those with autism, often speaking fluently, though their words can sometimes sound formal or stilted. People with Asperger syndrome do not usually have the accompanying learning disabilities associated with autism; in fact, people with Asperger syndrome are often of average or above average intelligence. Because of this many children with Asperger syndrome enter mainstream school and, with the right support and encouragement, can make good progress and go on to further education and employment.
Because their disability is often less obvious than that of someone with autism, a person with Asperger syndrome is, in a sense, more vulnerable. They can, sadly, be an easy target for teasing or bullying at school. As they get older, they may realise that they are different from other people and feel isolated and depressed. People with Asperger syndrome often want to be sociable and are upset by the fact that they find it hard to make friends.
Many people are of the opinion that the terms that describe AS (syndrome, disorder, etc) have onerous connotations and that it's more accurate to simply say that so affected individuals are different. This has led to use of the term 'Aspie', first used in self-reference by Liane Holliday Wiley in her book Pretending to be Normal (1999), to describe such individuals in a more positive way.
Asperger's Syndrome is NOT all about dysfunction and disability etc. There are many good points and advantages to being an Aspie. Here's a refreshingly different perspective from the medical profession, by Dr Tony Attwood, a clinical psychologist and world renowned expert on AS...
"From my clinical experience I consider that children and adults with Aspergers Syndrome have a different, not defective, way of thinking."
Research demonstrates that autistic traits are distributed into the non-autistic population; some people have more of them, some have fewer. History suggests that many individuals whom we would today diagnose as autistic -- some severely so -- contributed profoundly to our art, our math, our science, and our literature.
Although the diagnostic criteria are relatively recent, autism itself is obviously not, and it is only now, due to advances in science and technology, that we have the opportunity to understand why some people are different. Hopefully this will eventually lead to a greater acceptance of diversity and the idea that 'different' does not equal or imply 'defective'.
Yes, there are Strengths & Advantages of being an Aspie ...just click on the link to see what they are.
Asperger's Syndrome & Paganism ...is
there a connection?
Since beginning my journey a few years ago into the world of (Neo)Paganism I've often wondered about the seemingly disproportionate number of Pagans I've met (both in the 'real' world and online) who either have a diagnosis of Asperger's Syndrome (AS), or are self diagnosed Aspies based on their own observations and knowledge of the condition; knowledge and understanding gained usually because their own children have been diagnosed with AS or related conditions on the Autism Spectrum. I include here as well those Pagans I've met who have 'quirky' behaviour and also have close family members diagnosed with AS; a strong indicator that they too may have AS or some other ASD. I've met Pagan individuals who have so many of the traits of AS that are obvious to those of us who recognise the typical traits of AS yet they themselves haven't got a clue and continue through life wondering why they don't quite fit in, sometimes expressing the view that they feel very alone, like they're on the wrong planet. Remember, the diagnostic criteria for AS have only been available since 1994 so many adults with AS would not even know what it is, nor would they have been clinically assessed and therefore they would not understand why they don't fit in with mainstream society. One could speculate that perhaps within Paganism, which is not mainstream, that people with a different 'way of being' such as Aspies, might find companionship and acceptance with more like-minded individuals than in mainstream religions and society.
But of course not all Pagans are Aspies and vice versa, and unfortunately, as in any 'community', there are always those ignorant individuals who will bully and harrass anybody they see as different or vulnerable, even when they are made aware of why that person might be different. Such behaviour within the Pagan community is a far cry from what you might expect from people who claim to be 'spiritual' or at least tolerant of differences. I've witnessed this both online and in the real world as friendships have been destroyed and people on both sides hurt, all because of ignorance, fear, misunderstandings and miscommunication that in one way or another centred around a person with AS who was being victimised.
While looking for info specifically on this topic I came across a quote from an article written in 1989 by Rosemary Guiley (and updated in 2008) called "A Brief Biography of Isaac Bonewits"...
Following a link re the "Pagan 12-Step Programs" led to an article written by Isaac Bonewits in 1996 and updated in 2006 called "Pagans in Recovery"...
Well, I'll be the first to admit that I'm a nerd, LOL. For a good definition and description of the evolution of the term 'nerd' go to Wikipedia.
Autism, Spirituality & the Paranormal
Another interesting connection with ASD, not directly to Paganism but with spirituality and sensitivity to the paranormal, has been made by William Stillman in his books Autism and the God Connection and The Soul of Autism. Below are some quotes about Stillman (who also has AS), his work and his books from his website www.williamstillman.com...
Other people have also written about a possible connection between autism and the paranormal. For example in his blog called Intangible Materiality Bruce Duensing wrote...
The Paranormal and The Autistic
The author of a blog called Dead Conversations wrote...
"Spirits LOVE autistic children, as they are the most open beings to spiritual energy, as they more than half live in the spiritual world. But I want to give autistic kids their own post, as every single one I have met has had such an amazing spiritual energy - it's palpable and warm, and a little overwhelming."
Autism & Psychic Ability
I found a link to a very interesting site here with a collection of articles by Mary Ann Harrington, a former teacher of children with autism...
Here's a sample of her articles...
Anomalies of Autism - Questions for Scientists and Researchers Interested in Consciousness
Ann Harrington's articles are definitely worth a good long look
if you're interested in this topic too!
My Personal Experience
When I was a child my family never showed any interest in the paranormal, occult or psychic phenomena, except to tell me that it was either total rubbish (my atheist father's point of view) or very dangerous and Satanic and not to be 'dabbled' in (my Christian mother's viewpoint). So, as you can imagine, they were both very concerned, but for different reasons, when I expressed an interest in such matters and as a result of their reactions I eventually learned to keep most of my ideas about anything I considered to be a psychic, telepathic or paranormal experience to myself.
Sometimes I just 'knew' something would happen before it actually did. More often I would 'see' an event in my mind either ahead of time (a premonition) or while it was taking place elsewhere (remote viewing) and I couldn't explain why. Other times I would feel a presence when there was no-one else in the room. These types of events have continued into my adulthood, although over the last couple of years they have declined a little - maybe due to stress and other health issues(?). I have never had any sense of control over when these things would happen.
Now I'm a parent and I've seen my own children experience similar things on and off. I've always given my boys the freedom to discuss these issues with me in a calm and rational manner, and I also encourage them to take notice of these events and not just dismiss them as 'stupid'. Having a background and training based in science I always tend to look for the mundane, logical explanation first, but sometimes there just isn't one. My youngest son, who is also the most 'Aspie' of the four, seems to have more of these experiences than his older brothers did at the same age, and he delights in telling me of his latest 'psychic moment'.
So it seems there could be some sort of correlation between AS and Paganism and others have noticed it too. Although the psychic or spiritual abilities discussed above do not refer specifically to Paganism, they are perhaps more acceptable within the context of the many Pagan traditions than with most mainstream religions. So, maybe I'm not imagining this connection afterall.
In the interests of promoting awareness about Autism, aside from the intriguing paranormal and psychic aspects, please take the time to read something from the references I provided in the very first section to familiarise yourself with some of the recognisable traits of ASD. So, next time somebody acts a bit 'weird', or you see a child apparently misbehaving or having a temper tantrum in public, please try not to pass unfair judgement on them, or on the child's parents. Stop and consider that the people you are watching just might be dealing with autism or Asperger's Syndrome. Acceptance, understanding and perhaps even a polite offer of assistance (where appropriate) is far preferable to harsh, unfounded and unsolicited criticism.
Re-published with permission of Author