Understanding Autism From the Inside

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By the time Naoki Higashida was 13, he had learned to communicate using a board with letters on it. He pointed to the letters as an assistant wrote them down to form words, then sentences, and finally an entire book, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism. Except for a few fictional short stories, most of the book is written in a question and answer format, explaining his autistic behaviors that neurotypical people (people without autism) find puzzling. Among other things, Higashida explains why he finds social interactions so challenging, engages in perseverative (repeated) behaviors, and struggles with communicating through the typical pattern of speaking and listening.

Autism received that name because the word comes from the Greek root which means “self.” To us neurotypical people, many people with autism seem to be wrapped up in their own little world. Yet, Higashida breaks that stereotype in his book. As a 13-year-old author, one must overlook his tendency to write as if he were speaking for everyone on earth who is on the autism spectrum. While that can’t be true, what becomes clear is that Higashida, and by implication many other people with autism, are keenly aware of their environment, other people, and their effect on others. Higashida feels deeply when his behavior hurts others, or when he behaves in ways that others misconstrue. But his explanations opened my mind to the depth of understanding he has about human interactions.

Like most people on the autism spectrum, Higashida does not look at people who are talking to him. He knows this leads others to believe that he is not listening, but in actuality he is listening intently. He explains that he can’t look at the other person while they are speaking because he needs to concentrate all of his attention on the words they are saying. To my great surprise, he said that he listens best by looking at the words the other person is saying. You read that right. He is looking at spoken words to help him understand.

Higashida explains his perseverative behaviors such as repeated jumping and saying a favorite phrase over and over. He knows others find this repetition annoying, but says that he can’t help it. Because he processes sensory information so much differently than most people, the world is a constant blast of unfamiliar sounds and sights. By coming back to favorite actions or words, he calms himself in this familiar territory.

Keeping track of time and chronological sequence presents a particular challenge for Higashida. Memories from an hour before or 6 years before all have the same force in his mind and emotions. As a result, when he recalls a particularly funny event, even if it happened years before, he may laugh out loud. Likewise, a sad memory might bring tears. Though internally the laughter and tears make sense, to someone with Higashida his laughter or tears may be confusing. Worse still, if he is with others who are sad about something that just happened, but he remembers a funny event, he may burst out laughing. Even though he knows that his laughter is socially inappropriate, he can’t keep it in, nor can he explain his laughter to others around him who are sad. They feel hurt by his laughter, and Higashida feels intensely frustrated and angry with himself and only wants to withdraw.

Reading The Reason I Jump reminded me of a brief essay by Dr.  Jeff McNair, “Rethinking the Church’s Social Practices” which we have republished on the Network. McNair suggests that we who can adjust the way we interact socially should do so to accommodate and welcome people who cannot make these adjustments in social interactions. McNair’s suggestion seems like an obvious action for people who want churches to be the loving communities that God calls them to be. But I have wondered how to adjust my social interactions when I do not understand the other person. Higashida’s little book goes a long ways toward better understanding people on the autism spectrum. If more people in churches read it, our churches could become much more hospitable communities.

What has your church done to welcome members who are on the autism spectrum?

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Community Builder

A now young man with autism has been a member of the church where I am also a member since he was a toddler.  The Children's Ministry Director immediately made sure that he was included in many of the children's programs. This was possible because a number of people volunteered to be a one-on-one companion.  Throughout the years volunteers have also spent time with this young man during part of the worship service.  He begins the service with his family and leaves during the message which is a beneficial to his family and to him as a change of pace for a long morning. 

Guide

Jeanne, I praise God for the loving community at your church. From your description, it sounds like your church, this family, and this young man made decisions about his involvement in church based on his needs and his spiritual growth rather than on what people are most comfortable with. An expression of what a healthy body of Christ looks like!

Guide

Here's a great article by someone on the autism spectrum about developing Cultural Competency in interacting with people with autism. More good advice for neurotypical people to help our churches to become the communities Christ intends us to be.