Our eldest son was diagnosed with a form of autism called High-Function Asperger’s when he was 11. Without going into a thorough history of Aspergers and where the phrase comes from, people with Aspergers tend to be seen as odd and have difficulties understanding common communication. They don’t understand facial expressions and sometimes come across as excessive in their behaviour and clumsy in how they do things. Forgetful, perhaps – or, more accurately, lost in a world where things like ‘keys’ are not that important. 🙂 Certain social conventions are missing, and they either never have these, or ‘tack them on’ through training later in life.
Another example – non-Aspergers people (Aspergers call these people ‘neuro-typical’) develop the ability to understand facial expressions when they are around four or five years old. However – if you have Asperger’s, you don’t ever acquire this naturally, but you can get software in which Daniel Radcliffe shows you around 50 facial expressions, and you can – over time, and with an algorithm – learn to recognise what each facial expression means.
The High-Function form of Asperger’s means that as well as having your ‘brain wired differently’, you are also very bright. This intelligence means that you can hide some of the characteristics of how your brain is wired differently through training and always thinking twice before you do anything. It’s a bit like always speaking in a foreign language – you are doing a lot of things with your brain at the same time to appear ‘normal’, and this can tire you out.
I guess some people have always been like this – now we have a label to describe it.
When Joshua was diagnosed, we cried, but we have come to see that Joshua is quite a unique and a very, very gifted person.
He had difficult times at school because people did not understand him and how he was different, but the more he specialises in life, the less important the ‘differences from normal’ become, and the ‘brilliant extreme’ that he is becomes more valuable. Now he is a Grantham Scholar and currently working on a PhD in extreme climate change.
This article however, is not about Joshua. It’s more about me – his dad – and people who judge.
When Joshua was diagnosed, the people at the hospital pointed out that Joshua would go on to be very successful in a niche field in which he would probably become an expert. He would have some close friends, but they would be hard to make. In fact, said the Doctors, just like his dad, who also is High-Function Asperger’s.
Up until that time, I did not know that I was also a High-Function Asperger, but as we researched this for Joshua , I realised more and more the truth of this, and although I can do a lot of things like other ‘neuro-typical’ people, some things still defeat me. Not because I don’t try, but because I can’t ever do them – my brain is not wired that way. You might as well tell a man with a limp to walk straight. The problem with Aspergers is. the ‘limp’ is inside the brain – so many do not realise it is there at all, and never make any adjustments for it.
Let’s talk about language – which is actually very important. But to talk about language, I need to digress into history. Let’s go back 200 years to the time when a certain section of society was persecuted for being different. I am talking about people who were left-handed. These days we see left-handedness as just an attribute of a person, but a few hundred years ago, it was not seen as that. It was seen as a sign of evil. There are many stories of people, alive even now, who had left-handedness beaten out of them when they were children. They ‘suffered’ from left-handedness. We look back and think that is terrible, that the loving church of Jesus would never do that, but actually the church was no different from any other section of society, and many Christians at the time quoted ‘the right handed mess of God’
Now let’s turn back to Aspergers – and for this next bit I have to thank Joshua for explaining this to me.
People no more ‘suffer’ from Asperger’s than they ‘suffer’ from left-handedness or being white or black.
‘People are Aspergers’ is the phrase Joshua (and others who are Aspergers) ask us to use. It’s now the preferred way of describing people who are brain-wired like this.
Let’s talk about distractions.
People used to complain to me that Joshua would put them off by reading or walking around during worship and sermons. ‘How can he concentrate on the Lord whilst he is reading?’ they would say. ‘How can he be listening to the sermon?’
I would patiently explain that Joshua’s brain was wired differently from theirs, and what looks like normal behaviour in their children would be abnormal behaviour in Joshua. We should no more tell an Asperger off for distracting people by walking around in their own world than we should tell off a man with a damaged leg for limping.
By the way – if you are reading this and realise you’ve said this to me, let me just say we forgive you completely and love you completely. It doesn’t matter. Love covers all. I used to think the same as you until the hospital explained it to me, so I can’t judge.
These days. I see lots of people whose behaviour I would have judged previously, but who I can now see are ‘brain-wired differently’ and mainly need love. Love that is not a ‘social worker project’ but genuine love from one sinner to another.
Let’s talk about judging and loving
If you can see all that, let me now move on to some other things for Christians to ‘see’.
- People who are Aspergers don’t want to be ‘healed’. To be ‘healed’ would be to remove the main essence of who they are. Would you pray to heal someone of being left-handed? Or black?
- People who are Aspergers don’t even need to be understood better – in church, they just need to be loved and not judged. If there was ever a place where people could be loved and not judged, it should be the church of Jesus. Sadly its more usually the other way round. Jesus loves us all unconditionally – we don’t follow his example.
I guess what I want is people I spend time with not to assume they know why I do things unless they ask me and get a clear answer. I think I can be approached. I simply don’t do things for the same reasons others would do them. Don’t see me doing something and think ‘If I did that it would be attention seeking behavoir therefore that must be why he or she does it’. Why not give it a go and ask ‘Why did you do that?’
To judge Aspergers for their behaviour before asking them why they do things the way they do is, I believe, the sin that Jesus was talking about when he said, ‘Do not judge.’
Matthew 7:1–2 (NIV) : “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you
John 7:24 (NIV) : Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.”
I honestly believe that the church will change the world when all Christians (inc leaders) stop judging people and show love instead.
1 Cor 13:5 (NIV) : Love … keeps no record of wrong-doings.
I’m really starting to get tired of people bringing up what I did 5 years ago as though it was yesterday and not believing people can change.
For Asbergers, the challenge of fitting in at school (where you are different and judged) , becomes the challenge of fitting in at church (where you are different and judged)
Let’s talk about crowds.
I know this is hard for people who know me to believe is true, but I really don’t like crowds. Crowds are not the same as a church where I am preaching. I know how churches behave – even ones where the Holy Spirit is moving 🙂
I know how they behave and I know how I am to behave. I’ve learnt those rules and can operate in them.
Crowds are really different. I don’t know if my behaviour is good or bad. Am I loud or too quiet? Am I popping up everywhere? Am I ‘in your face’? If you are not an Asperger, you learn how to see facial feedback on this by how people react and what their emotions are – which you can face-read. If you are an Asperger, you are lost – a lone person in the crowd; a stranger in a strange land. That’s why you will see me sometimes ‘stick’ to my wife Merle at parties – She is my only protection.
I love being invited to parties (I want to be popular), but I hate going to them!
Even the ‘mill-around’ after church when people are talking to each other is a challenge. If there was a church full of Aspergers, they wouldn’t have coffee afterwards – not unless it was arranged better.
I have a friend who has a T-shirt that simply says, ‘Sorry I’m late – I didn’t want to come.’
Did you know that Asbergers are sometimes accussed of being ‘stand offish’ and at the same time also as ‘too friendly- always hanging around when not wanted – always in your face – always popping up’ – perhaps now you can understand more of. why.
Let’s talk about changing the world.
Let’s go back to that date when Joshua was diagnosed. When I talked with Dr Harpin at the hospital, I asked her for feedback on how I planned to explain all this to my 11-year-old boy. I went through how I would put it:
- Your brain is wired differently – which is good news and bad news.
- The good news is that you will have superpowers that no one else has, but also weaknesses that others don’t have.
- The bad news is you will feel and behave differently from other – average – people.
- Never call them ‘normal’ and yourself ‘not normal’. They are average and you are exceptional.
- The bad news is that they will judge you and probably bully you for being different.
- The good news is you are very bright, so that will help.
- The good news is that the older you get, the more what you specialise in will matter and the less fitting in will matter.
- The good and bad news is you will always see the world differently.
‘How does that sound?’ I asked Dr Harpin. ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Just add….
“The good news is people like Joshua can change the world because Joshua can see the world from the outside.”’
It reminded me of Jesus – who also sees the world from the outside.