Autism and Neurodiversity

Autism is something that almost all of us will come across and some of us will have.  As a result of last weeks podcast   I received some very helpful comments from a scientist who is herself autistic – Elizabeth Guest.    With her permission I am going to share her comments with you.  Autism is important – but also trying to keep abreast, or ahead, of issues in our culture is very much part of what this blog is about. Elizabeth introduced me to the concept and ideology of neurodiversity.  But before we look at that lets just ask –

What is autism?

“a developmental disorder of variable severity that is characterized by difficulty in social interaction and communication and by restricted or repetitive patterns of thought and behaviour.”

“Autism is a lifelong, developmental disability that affects how a person communicates with and relates to other people, and how they experience the world around them.”

You can get lots of information (although not all of it is helpful!)  from The National Autistic Society.   

This article from the Gospel Coalition is also helpful.

And this video from Dr Grant MacAskill (incidentally a former elder from St Peters and now Professor of New Testament at the University of Aberdeen) is really helpful.

One interesting aspect is that whilst autism affects from 1 in 50 to 1 in 200 people in society – there is some research which suggests that there is a link for some people between autism and gender identity disorder.  Some have argued that as high as one third of transgender people are also autistic.

Elizabeth Guest’s Letter

Dear David,

have been following your blog for several months now and mostly enjoy it. Occasionally I buy one of the books you recommend so that I can read it for my self. I like the wide range of topics you cover. It is very refreshing to get a different point of view and I like the way you link to a range of different articles on Twitter.

I am writing to tell you about the neurodiversity movement. The guy in the video clip, who complained about the noise of people chatting and wanted them to be quiet (Quantum podcast on Friday 9th August) was probably autistic. A common problem with autism is sensory sensitivities where the senses are too sensitive. Noise is a very common hypersensitivity, which really nothing can be done about. Having it can be very difficult. It is perfectly possible that he was struggling to focus because of people talking.

I am autistic and I find the background music in shops very difficult to deal with, which affects everyday life quite significantly. I too find conference situations difficult because people do like to chat. When this happens, I struggle to focus on the conversation I am supposed to be having. It can be so bad that I get bits of sentences from different conversations, which (of course) does not make sense. The solution is to go and find somewhere quieter.

What was going on in the video clip was from the “neurodiversity movement”. ‘Neurodiversity’ essentially means autism although other conditions are included to make it more inclusive. This movement promotes the ideas that autism is an identity (I don’t like this: I feel I am so much more than my autism) you are disabled by society society should accommodate you completely (this is actually impossible because autism is a very heterogeneous condition) Personally, I think that this is a load of dangerous nonsense.

But many autistic people have been taken in by it. It gives them a community which kind of understands. However, in order to be part of this you have to agree with everything, including a strong stance in favour of LGBT+. For many people, it is the first time they have felt accepted as they are. It is comforting to blame society for your problems. (LGBT activism does this too) However a side effect is that they want everyone else to fully accommodate them, even if this makes other people uncomfortable.

I do workplace assessments for autistic employees and we are increasingly coming across those who provide me with a long list of unreasonable “reasonable adjustments” they think their employer should make. Under these circumstances, my recommendations generally include a list of “reasonable adjustments” the employee should make for their colleagues. The autistic employee is not happy because they think an autistic assessor should agree with them. The employers are very happy because I am impartial and listen to both sides.

I suspect by now, that certain aspects are starting to sound familiar. And yes, they are trying to use LGBT techniques to encourage/force society to change in their favour. As someone who disagrees with them, I am accused of “internalised ableism”. However, I struggle to get my head around the idea of “ableism”.

Just as in LGBT, they are very abusive to those who disagree. There are many autistic people, generally those with more severe autism and a scientific bent, who do not agree with them. They also abuse parents of autistic children who are struggling with their children. I think this is appalling. In the uk, neurodiversity activists are making a lot of noise. The labour party has treated their demands sympathetically. And guess what: they have also infiltrated research and the medical profession. Their cry is “nothing about us without us”, which sounds good but which actually excludes a lot of autistic people. It is already skewing research about autism.

The guy in the video has probably subscribed to the neurodiversity movement. His request was aimed at helping him to function. Personally I think it unreasonable to expect everyone around me not to chat to each other. People like to chat. Social chit chat is about building relationships, and that should not be denied to people. The solution is to find a quieter place – where you will find others who prefer quieter places. Autism does not have a monopoly on sensory issues. It is just not possible to accommodate everyone all of the time!

I much prefer the christian message. Guess what? When I have to be in conference situations, the Lord ensures I get to speak to those I need to speak to in a way that does not totally overload my senses. I often don’t know who I need to speak to, but the Lord does.

If you have any questions about this topic, do not hesitate to ask. I will finish with a book recommendation: “In the valley of the shadow” by Hanns Lilje. It is the account of a pastor who was arrested by the Gestapo towards the end of the second world war. He was at a strong risk of execution, but was liberated by the allies. He describes how God helped him. I have been going through a very difficult time for several reasons. The world has gone completely mad. This book has helped. The world went completely mad in Germany. God supports and helps me through the difficult times. He uses difficulties and suffering to draw us closer to himself. Y

Yours in Christ, Elizabeth Guest

This is such a helpful contribution!  I am very grateful to Elizabeth for sharing it. She is a scientist ( background is Maths, Artificial Intelligence, and Linguistics), which she points out is “actually a good background for doing research into autism.”    She has this paper published in the Disability and Society journal…however – as has become the pattern in some areas of academia , neurodiversity activists have tried to get it removed.

Elizabeth also provides this helpful table contrasting aspects of the different ideologies.

Screenshot 2019-08-16 at 08.29.08

Elizabeth concludes:

When working with autistic adults, and their parents, I take the Christian view, which is at odds with what others do. I believe in growth and development. I have found that people respond favourably to this. It is remarkable what happens when you believe in someone who has been failed by the UK education system. This has made me unpopular as well because many autistic adults tend to prefer my approach to everything else that is available.

God knows. God is changing me. God is leading. I am drawing closer to God and the future is becoming a lot less scary because God is squarely in it.
My love and compassion for other autistic people is growing. I long for them to know Jesus, but they are a particularly difficult group to reach.

May the Lord bless Elizabeth, and all who suffer from autism and may he grant all of us wisdom as we seek to help and value our autistic brothers and sisters.

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Grant Macaskill’s book – Autism and the Church – Bible, Theology, and Community is out later this year.  I have not read it yet – but knowing Grant I am sure it will be through, well written and helpful.

 

 

 

 

Quantum 54 – The one with Branson, Happiness, Floating Farms, Abortion, Soap Dodgers, Sensitive Socialists, Americans and Guns, and Abbey Road

21 thoughts on “Autism and Neurodiversity

  1. On occasion you post things on your blog which perfectly illustrate just how your Christian faith sometimes completely compromises your clear thinking – that can be the only explanation for you deciding to post this muddled nonsense.

    Why on earth else would you suddenly have felt it necessary to address the issue of autism on your blog except for the fact that Guest – apparently a “scientist” in the field of autism – references her Christian faith in her confusing screed about autism to you – as well as doubling down by working in a critical reference to LGBT and LGBT activism, a pet subject of yours.

    As you grandly declare about Guest – “She is a scientist ( background is Maths, Artificial Intelligence, and Linguistics”….is that how she is qualified to draw up that table with it’s completely infantile statements about homosexuality? I’m astonished that you could look at that table and see it fit to publish but perhaps I just don’t understand how having a background in mathematics allows someone to make statements about the sexual orientation of people. Can you explain it to me David?

    1. Wonderful response John – which perfectly demonstrates the irrationality and hatred of the fundamentalist atheists.

      Why would I address the issue of autism? The clue is in the post – because I got a great letter from a woman who suffers from autism, commenting on my podcast. Because as Christians we care about all people – including the 75 million worldwide who suffer from autism. Because I don’t live in a bubble and have throughout my life ministered to people who have autism. Because a significant number of readers of this blog suffer from autism.

      The table is demonstrably true (although not, of course, true of every homosexual person – she is talking about the ideology).

      It’s sad that you struggle with so much irrationality and hatred….

    2. As an Aspie myself, I am fairly sympathetic with the “Neurodiversity Movement” (self-styled), but with Dr. Guest I see a great deal of parallelling between the “neurodiversity” claims and the claims of GLT activism (so-called “sexual minorities”), and frankly, as ASD is inherited genetically, rather than based on traumas or chosen activities, and is basically incurable, I believe that the “Neurodiversity” folks have a greater claim to the arguments for acceptance/accommodation than the GLT crowd do. As a Christian, though, the insistence of many “Neurodiverse” activists on making common cause with the GLT movement’s sexual supremacism both worries and annoys me. What attracted and attracts me to “Neurodiversity” is the insistence on full-range communication to autists, especially non-verbal (perhaps “mute” is a better term) autists, who are too often dismissed as imbeciles because they cannot speak clearly and are often not taught to write or type, either. Faith comes through hearing, but when the hearer is assumed to have no capacity for language (because they don’t have a means of language output), nobody’s willing to tell them. (Their insistence on individual communication is laudable, but does not often enough translate into promoting individual THINKING, as I’ve discovered by challenging certain dogmata about GLTs that were presented as a priori in a Neurodiversity essay online.)

      Contra John’s accusation above (for which no examples are given), Dr. Guest’s note is neither “muddled nonsense” nor a “confusing screed.” It is concise, rational, and straightforward. What it does, though, is elevate “the Christian view” to equal or greater standing than the Identity-Boxes and nanodiversities of Leftism’s victimolatry, to which both the ND and GLT movements adhere. But this paragraph itself has more neologisms and “muddle” than Dr. Guest’s entire letter, as quoted. There is nothing in her scientific background of maths and linguistics that DIS-qualifies her position in her table, with parallels often made by ND activists themselves to the GLT ideology. On the other hand, a key point of “Neurodiversity” argument, usually used to burn ABA in effigy, is that the “accepted position” and “settled science” on the subject is and has for generations been flatly wrong, (and they might have a point). But if one applies the same countercultural attitude to, and suggests a more critical examination of, other Settled-Science (like the mutability of “gender” or gays et al being “Born That Way,” or Darwinian evolution) the claws come out. How John’s reading of the article leads him to suppose Guest’s mathematics background was her basis for what she says about “the sexual orientation of people” (although she’s not talking about orientation but GLT identity-ism) is as crystal-clear as a brick wall.

    1. A very interesting read from Elizabeth. I’m not sure if she is aware, but my local Lidl has one night a week where they are autism friendly (if one can be autism friendly, I don’t know as I’m not autistic). I think it is Thursday evenings and they dim lights (including freezer display lights), have no piped music and ask customers to maintain a low key presence. This might, if there is a Lidl near you, be helpful for making your shopping experience helpful.

  2. Is it possible to have a larger or downloadable version of Elizabeth’s chart. I’m finding it hard to read in it’s current format. Thank you

  3. One of my granddaughters is autistic and non-verbal. She is very bright and understands everything that you tell her, but she does have seizures and meltdowns when she gets too much stimuli at one time.

  4. What a shockingly unhelpful table of straw man fallacies which fails to understand the diversity of opinion within “homosexuality” and “neurodiversity” and idealizes “Christianity” in comparison.

    She generalises about “homosexuality” and “neurodiversity” which are not religions with books, dogmas, creeds and leaders and compares that with an ideal of Christianity, which is. It’s like comparing in a schoolyard, children randomly playing around on a slide to children playing football (neither is better, but one is a group of individuals and the other is organized). Certainly, being depressed within Christianity was greeted with “you need to pray more” or “you’re too far from God”. Additionally, in the evangelical Christianity I have seen (and I have lived in multiple different countries), there was very little appreciation of difference and other views were very frequently shut down. My own experience has been that talking about Christianity in gay bars, people are always open to having a discussion or asking more if I tell people I’m going to church the next day. The church, I have found, is not so accommodating. But, the church is made up of diverse individuals so it would be wrong to generalize as much as she does about homosexuality and neurodiversity.

    As for neurodiversity, she says that she removes herself from situations where she begins to feel uncomfortable. But why should we create an environment where she feels uncomfortable in the first place? Take clapping vs jazz hands which is the BSL sign for applause. Am I as a Christian so wedded to clapping that I would rather someone leave the room so I can engage in it freely?

  5. A very helpful and relevant topic for me , David . Although not in full grasp of some of Elizabeth’ s phrases , I would dearly like to communicate with one autistic boy that I am in recent contact with . Although about ten years of age he makes no recognised verbal utterances , yet there is what I can only describe , an obvious ” locked in ” intelligence .

    Everything , particularly in contact and interaction must be on his terms and I had never given thought that he views his world totally different to the way I view mine. Thank you Elizabeth for your very helpful letter and to the “Wee Flea” for blogging it up .

    1. Hi Glynn,

      You need to find a way of communicating with him. If he is able to point then teach him to write using a (large) letter board (qwerty so there is the possibility of transferring to a keyboard later).

      If no coordination then try devising a tone language with him. Take inspiration, if you can, from Piraha, which is an amazonian language which has few consonants but which is very tonal. They can communicate over long distances with tone alone: they don’t even need the few consonants that they do have.

      There is a chance that he sees the world very similar in the way other children do in many ways. There appears to be a form of autism where the person is mute because of very severe sensory motor and other difficulties, but where the intellect is normal. However, he may have other issues that cause him to think about the world in different ways.

      I found a genetics paper a couple of years ago that examined autism from a genetic point of view. It concluded that autistic people (at least the ones they studied) tend to have a high level of “intelligence genes”.

      Beware of “exposure anxiety”, which can be very debilitating. It is a form of anxiety that prevents people showing what they can do. The only solution that I know of is to push the boundaries to make the ‘invisible cage’ bigger. That requires determination and courage.

      I have been trying to identify the underlying issues behind autistic symptoms. It is fascinating, and very useful.

      1. A grateful and sincere thanks for taking the time to reply. I am not in the arena of teaching , but have conveyed the boy to and from school over the last few years. I will however share your thoughts and findings with those who have a more direct input into his welfare . Thank you once again for your informative and beautiful sensitive letter, and reply !

  6. An interesting and helpful letter. I would agree with other commenters however that the table is less helpful. I also wonder what Elizabeth means when she says she takes ‘the Christian view’ of autism. Do other Christians with expertise in this area agree that there is a view that can be described as ‘The Christian’ view? Perhaps she simply means that her own view has a philosophical underpinning that comes from, or is compatible with, the Christian faith. Her description of the neurodiversity movement is similar to the diability rights movement, or perhaps it is a subset or offshoot of that. The disability rights movement generally subscribes to the social model of disability in contrast to the medical model. I think it is important to recognise that the medical model of disability has significant weaknesses and has been part of way of looking at people with disabilities that has been oppressive. Essentially/simplistically the medical model sees disabled people as sick and needing to be fixed whereas the social model sees society as being disabling and society needs to be fixed to stop excluding disabled people. Christians sometimes relate to disabled people unhelpfully in a kind of Christian version of the medical model that goes something like this “you are disabled and therefore you are suffering and the source of that suffering is your disability, I need to pray for your healing /for you to bear up under your burden of suffering (theology dependent), you are looking forward to heaven because it means your disability will be gone or if you’re not a Christian then heaven is good news for you because it means your disability will be gone”. None of these presuppositions are necessarily true.

      1. Well, I think that the physical constraints of the table mean that some of the points made are summarized to such a degree that the breadth of opinion within the categories is lost and you end up with a straw man situation. Also the table format gives the impression of comparing like with like which doesn’t always fit. If I go through the table row by row then the title ‘homosexuality’ doesn’t seem quite the right word, perhaps ‘prevailing view among LGBT activists’ or something would be closer? Regarding the second row – I’m not familiar with the evidence regarding whether someone is born gay or not but I can’t imagine there is a simple binary answer readily shown to be either completely supported or completely unsupported by the available evidence. In the 3rd and 4th rows about change, depending on how the columns are meant to relate to each other it could be read as suggesting that Christians believe that everyone ‘s sexuality is amenable to change, if desired, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit and working at it. I think that Christians are promised the help of God’s Holy Spirit in becoming more like Jesus though not that this process will be completed before the new creation. Jesus didn’t marry and he taught that there would not be marriage as we currently know it in heaven. I think all Christians are called to obey God and that includes in the area of sexual behaviour but I don’t think there is a guarantee that Christians’ experience of sexual desire will change in the way that they might want. The fifth row seems over-simplified as does the sixth. I can’t imagine that neurodiversity/LGBT activists blame ALL depression on oppression, presumably any excess depression in people with autism/gay people compared to people who don’t fit those categories is what is meant. Similarly the last two rows seem overstated. With regard to the last row I can see that a kind of cultural Marxism approach (I hope I’m using the term appropriately!) will privilege the voices of oppressed groups over those with power/privilege which can result in some voices being silenced whereas Christians are called to behave to each other like Christ who set aside his power to serve us in humility. We Christians don’t always live up to our high calling, sadly.

    1. It was not possible when I wrote the letter to David, to go into all the ins and outs of the different disability models. I wholeheartedly agree that there are problems with the medical model of disability, but I would argue that there are also problems with the social model of disability. I have often felt patronised and held back because of the social model. I have watched this happen to others. I find the social model of disability oppressive.

      By taking a Christian view, I simply mean doing my best to adhere to the teachings of the bible. This is nothing like what you have said. Instead, it involves non judgemental compassion, helping autistic adults understand their own autism, offering suggestions but not insisting on anything. Much of it is mentoring. Most of all it involves caring and believing in people. It offers hope of a fulfilled life, whether or not this includes employment.

      The result? Autistic people have got jobs. Autistic people who have never been seen to smile, start smiling. People who never socialise start to socialise. People with mild to moderate mental health problems get better (even though we do not tackle mental health – this is a side effect). People with low self-esteem gain confidence.
      All this over just a few months with just a couple of hours contact every other week.

      Please do not judge the Bible and Christianity by what you see in Christians. Instead look at what the Bible actually teaches.

      1. Thank you for replying to my comment, Elizabeth, I have only just seen your reply so thought I would quickly acknowledge it. My further comment, above, is a reply to David’s specific question as to why I thought the table you shared was less helpful than your full letter. Having only just read your reply I haven’t had time to respond but will do as the area of disability is one in which I appreciate exchanging ideas.

      2. Hi Elizabeth, first of all it would probably help to explain where I’m coming from. I have a form of muscular dystrophy which is a progressive physical disability. That’s where my interest in disability issues stems from. I have some awareness of the disability rights movement and its philosophical underpinnings but my knowledge is limited. I think my original comment was confusing, flitting from interacting directly with what you’d shared to a further comment which was intended to be an observation of my own, tangential to the subject of the post, rather than to apply directly to you. I’m a Christian and have been attending church all my life. Due to the nature of my disability I have been able to observe differences between how people related to me before and after my disability became very obvious because of the equipment I now use. When I began using my wheelchair in church there were some people who suddenly started offering to pray for me or suddenly felt the need to tell me how inspiring they thought I was. I could only conclude these changes were due to how those people view disability. Ironically, getting a system in place allowing me to bring my powered chair and ventilator to church had rendered me far less functionally limited than I had been before! There have also been media reports of people with disabilities being approached by with offers of prayer in a way that they find offensive.
        I agree that there are problems with the social model of disability – the main one I see as being the failure to take account of the reality of evil which is seen both in the sinful nature of ALL human beings (not just those deemed to have power) and in the brokenness of creation – but to the extent that it has made people’s lives, including my own, better, I am grateful. By working from the premise that the exclusion experienced by people with disabilities can, and should, be mitigated by changes at wider society level, people have been given better opportunities to contribute at all levels of society – eg the expectation that public buildings should meet certain standards of accessibility etc.

        Perhaps I could summarize my thinking a bit like so:

        Medical model – disabled people are broken, other people aren’t – solution is to fix disabled people
        Social model – no one is inherently disabled, society disables people – solution is to stop society disabling people
        My idea of a Christian starting point – everyone is broken and bad, no one is as broken or as bad as they could be. The only completely effective solution is for Jesus to return and finally destroy all evil. In the meantime for everyone to flourish and to contribute to the degree they can, work is needed at both individual and wider society level.

  7. Hi Elizabeth Birkett, thanks for clarifying. There is a world of difference between muscular dystrophy and autism, which is classed as neurodevelopmental condition. The key is in the word ‘developmental’. Autistic children develop differently to non autistic children, but there is aways room for growth and development. The social model can prevent growth and development. It is this that I have seen, and I think this is oppressive.

    Your church accommodated for your disability in a way that enabled you. That is good – and this is actually what the social model was intended for. There is nothing you can do yourself to improve your disability.

    It is different with autism and I would argue that the social model is applied in such a way that it becomes oppressive in that is prevents people developing. I will give a couple of examples to illustrate this.

    The first example is with public transport. This is difficult for many autistic people (but not all) because of over-sensitive senses. The smells, proximity of people, emotions of people (many autistic people sense this directly), tinny noises from headphones, can be extremely difficult to cope with. Just imagine someone poking you repetitively throughout your journey and you might get some idea of what it feels like.

    Now, knowing that public transport is difficult for an individual can prompt a support worker to tell that individual that they should not travel by public transport, especially by themselves. Even though the individual might cope with the very occasional short journey at a quiet time. Doing this regularly is out of the question. The consequence is that the person is made more disabled not less. This has happened to me (I disobeyed my support worker) and others. Many people believe the support worker and assume they are not able to do it. So they never try or they stop trying.

    The second example concerns the transition from primary to secondary school. A year ago, I sat through a lecture on this subject and I was shocked. The person was advocating doing everything possible to smooth over this transition for everyone. Much of what was said was good, and in fact it would make the transition easier for all children.

    But then the anxiety, the fear of the unknown is common to all children. This transition is a growing up opportunity. Children have to face their anxiety and overcome it. While it is right that autistic children should get some support for this transition, I do not believe it is helpful in the long term to remove the opportunity to mature. Any support needs to be tailored to the individual to ensure that there is enough difficulty for the child to overcome to enable them to develop and mature.

    Regarding people insisting on praying for you, I am very aware of this because of physically disabled people in my own church. I agree it is wrong. I know people who refuse to go to any service where they know there will be testimony of healing and where they will be expected to go forward for prayer. It isn’t that they would not like healing, but God does not always heal and when He does, He determines when.

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