Autism, Psychic Abilities, the Paranormal and Paganism
...is there a connection?
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:
- difficulty with social communication
- difficulty with social interaction
- difficulty with social imagination.
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.
It is beyond the scope of this article to go into greater detail about autism so I have provided links below to some of the many excellent online resources about ASD and AS for anyone who wants to find out more:
My personal blog The Other Side has a collection of information about Autism and AS, including the traits to identify. I have also listed on my blog links to the major Australian Autism organizations, plus links to personal websites of people with ASD.
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"...
Around 1985 Bonewits began regularly discussing the need to provide social services for domestic and personal problems and drug dependencies. Neopagans, he points out, represent a cross section of the population, and such problems cut across religious lines. Bonewits estimates that as many as 80 percent of Neopagans come from "non['dys-']functional family" backgrounds. Neopagans, he observes, are brighter and more artistic than average, but also, therefore, "more neurotic." [He now thinks much of it may be related to "Aspergers Syndrome"] The community has been quick to address these social issues with programs [such as various "Pagan 12-Step Programs"].
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"...
"I suspect that most of us in our overlapping subcultures - Neopagans, science fiction fans, renn-faire roadies, medievalists, computer techies, Mensa members, etc - suffer from Asperger's Syndrome ("AS"). This is a multi-syndrome subtype of mild autism, characterized by:
- high intelligence and creativity,
- mild to severe Attention Deficit Disorder (which I prefer to think of as "Attention Dynamic Difference"),
- usually with "Hyperactivity,"
- often with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder ( "OCD"), and
- perhaps most importantly, "dysthemia," which is a difficulty in understanding the non-literal content of human communication, such as facial expressions, body language, voice tonalities and other social cues.
When you combine all those characteristics, AS seems to equal INS (or "Incipient Nerd Syndrome") and much of the bizarre personal behavior and miscommunication that plagues our communities suddenly becomes understandable - not to mention the oh-so-common "cluelessness" that characterizes many of our best known members!"
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...
"As an adult with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild 'cousin' of autism, Stillman's message of reverence and respect has touched thousands nationally through his acclaimed autism workshops and private consultations. In his work to support those who love and care for individuals with autism and Asperger's Syndrome, Stillman sets a tone for our collective understanding of the autistic experience in ways that are unprecedented. Autism should not be defined as an 'affliction endured by sufferers', but as a truly unique and individual experience to be respected and appreciated by all. In so doing, Stillman highlights the exquisite sensitivities of our most valuable, wise and loving 'teachers'."
"Autism and the God Connection is a formidable challenge to simplistic explanations of autism. The clinical stories in this book raise significant questions about the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the brain. This book is about more than neurological issues; it is about our nature, our origin and destiny -- in short, our connection with the Absolute, however named."
"An intensely rare and innovative book! William Stillman has opened the door to a most intriguing partnership between the treatment of autism and metaphysical studies. The personal stories of autistics as narrated in this book parallel the 'multisensory' experiences described by intuitives, mystics and psychics, and call to mind the abilities of shaman who are able to traverse between the world of spirit and this physical plane. What an amazing realization that those long considered mentally challenged may actually be far more advanced in terms of spiritual perception, and it is we who must strive to advance to their level of understanding."
"In Autism and the God Connection, William Stillman chartered new territory by documenting extraordinary accounts of spiritual giftedness in those with autism -- persons often deemed intellectually inferior. But more remains to be told. For those of us not privy to the ease with which many autistics tap their divine resources, we may ask, "How does it work?" Stillman's new book, The Soul of Autism, responds by exploring the following:
- Why the unaccountable and dramatic rise in autism -- with no single known cause -- is a necessary part of our spiritual evolution.
- What is the secret component that makes autistic telepathy possible for us all if we only avail ourselves of it?
- If certain autistics communicate with animals, what are the animals saying, and how might that hold relevance for the rest of us?
- Perceiving deceased grandparents in Spirit is not an uncommon experience for many autistics, but what implies reciprocation in these highly unusual relationships that, curiously enough, center upon grandfathers?
- How might we tap our multisensory giftedness like those with autism have? The author shares seven steps he developed to undergo a spiritual transformation (from which he escaped a brush with suicidal thoughts), and demonstrates how he applies it with glowing affirmations.
In pursuing answers, The Soul of Autism explores these aspects of spirituality through an autistic prism. We all hold the capacity for unlimited possibilities, but how we do it is what we may come to know from those who do it naturally. We have much to be learning from our autistic friends about transcendence rising, a new humanity accessible for all. The Soul of Autism illuminates the way."
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
Autism and Non Consensus Reality
"If some of you have read my earlier posts, you know I am on the autistic spectrum as having Asperger's Syndrome as well as having many lifelong strange psychic and paranormal phenomenon that I have accommodated as my shadow, while not relinquishing my own skepticism toward either the experiences themselves or their causation because as an autistic I digest the world by systematizing it. Lately, through correspondence with a autistic friend, Dr Coral Hull, with similar and yet distinct experiences, I have have begun to examine something that should have been apparent all along to someone who is not autistic... is there a link between my autism and these experiences? More importantly, is there a linkage between perception of alternate or non consensus realities and the characteristics of my state?" Read more...
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
"My work with individuals with severe autism has expanded my awareness and broadened my conception of reality. Their uncanny ability to repeat messages I have sent to them telepathically and/or sub-vocally in itself is amazing. I believe that is just the beginning of their consciousness raising abilities."
Autism, Entangled Energy - Sending, Joining, and Receiving Thoughts Through Paranormal Channels
"Joining at higher levels of consciousness with my friends with autism broadened my conception of the universe, as they led me on an internal journey to an ever-evolving belief system. Intuition, joined energy, direct knowing, and telepathy had now become part of my perceptual reality."
Enhanced ESP, Telepathy, and Mysticism in People with Autism
"These remarkable individuals have led me to believe that the brain is a diffusing device rather than an emanating one. They may have easier access to altered states because their filtering devices - brain and sensory systems - are impaired. This massive disruption in normal processing may have forced them back into a dream-like state in which the right brain suddenly forced to take over left-brain functions. This in turn may allow for greater access to altered states of consciousness."
Mary Ann Harrington's articles are definitely worth a good long look if you're interested in this topic too!
She also has another website at web.mac.com/maharrington from which more of her writings can be accessed.
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.
Autism Spectrum Australia - www.aspect.org.au
The National Autistic Society (UK) - www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=211 & www.nas.org.uk/nas/jsp/polopoly.jsp?d=212
Autism South Australia - www.autismsa.org.au/html/disorders/asperger.html
Dr Tony Attwood - www.tonyattwood.com.au
Dr Greene - http://www.drgreene.com/21_1813.html
Autistics Need Acceptance, Not Cure by Morton Gernsbacher, Wisconsin State Journal April 24, 2004
A Brief Biography of Isaac Bonewits - www.neopagan.net/IB_Bio.html
Pagans in Recovery - www.neopagan.net/PIR.html