“Faith is not a question of the existence or non-existence of God. It is believing that love without reward is valuable.” Emmanuel Levinas
“We must love in such a way that the one we love feels free.” Thich Nhat Hanh
One of the wonderful things about Jesus is how adaptable he is. He can be Black. He can be a warrior. He can be a gentle lover or a violent revolutionary. He is, as Jaroslav Pelikan argued, reimagined by each generation as the Jesus for that age.
At various times in my life, I have seen Jesus as Feminist Jesus, Radical Jesus, Liberationist Jesus, and Historically-Accurate-Middle-Eastern Jewish Jesus.
Recently, I’ve been getting to know Autistic Jesus.
A few months ago, my youngest son was diagnosed with level one autism spectrum disorder (ASD). “Level one” is the mildest form of the condition. It’s sometimes called “high-functioning” autism, but for many reasons, some people in the autistic community question the terminology of high- and low-functioning and instead emphasize that levels of need fluctuate throughout a lifetime for every autistic person. He would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome had he been diagnosed between 1994 and 2013, when Asperger’s was included in the DSM-IV and when it was removed from the DSM-V, respectively.
Asperger’s syndrome is named for the Austrian psychiatrist Hans Asperger, who first described the condition in 1944. The story of why Asperger’s has now been rolled into the larger ASD diagnosis is both complicated and fascinating, but in short, it’s because autism is now understood as a complex disorder that spans a broad spectrum–from kids who are just “odd” and unusually talented at coding and math, to severely disabled and non-verbal people who require round-the-clock care. (What I know about the history of autism is largely from Steve Silberman’s wonderful book Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. If you enjoy non-fiction, I highly recommend it.)
Many people find that their autism diagnosis makes sense, in retrospect, of a lot of confusing previous experiences, and that has been the case with my son’s diagnosis. As his parent, I am understanding his infancy and childhood with a fresh perspective and renewed insight.
And his diagnosis has also given me a fresh perspective on Jesus.
Consider Luke’s telling of the Finding in the Temple story. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have gone to Jerusalem for Passover, as they did every year. But when their group of friends and family leaves to return home, without telling anyone and completely of his own volition, 12-year-old Jesus remains behind. Three days later, his panicked parents find him in the temple “sitting in the midst of the teachers,” listening to them and asking questions (NKJV). Luke tells us that “all who heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers.”
His mother asks, “Why have you done this to us? Look, we have been so anxious!” But Jesus does not offer an empathetic reply or an apology of any sort. Instead, he seems mystified– “Why did you seek me?”–and offers a cryptic answer they could not understand: “Did you not know I needed to be about my Father’s business?”
I’ve heard many sermons on this passage, and in general the interpretation is that Jesus was wise beyond his years and that this episode shows him maturing into his divine role and distancing himself from his earthly family.
But as an autism mom now, this story lands differently. I hear Jesus’ words as my own 12-year-old son would say them–with genuine and non-judgmental curiosity that his mother is upset and with unexpected (and unassailable) logic.
Young Jesus is totally comfortable making his own decisions for himself (check), talking about complex topics with adults (check), not conforming to social expectations (double check), and saying weird things (infinity check). On the surface, Jesus’ response can also seem unempathetic. How can he not understand Mary’s feelings, her anxiety over his disappearance?
For decades, autistic people were accused of not having empathy for others. That dangerous myth has led to so much heartache and discrimination– “refrigerator mothers” being accused of “causing” their children’s autism, autistic people being ridiculed for not understanding social cues and being described as “no better than animals” by medical professionals, and abuses perpetrated against autistic people because they presumably didn’t have “normal” feelings.
Although the idea that autistic people don’t have empathy is dangerous and wrong, central to the traditional conceptualization of autism is the argument that autistic people have an impaired “theory of mind” –that is, they are impaired in their understanding of how neurotypical people see and understand the world (“Why did you seek me?”) And to a certain extent, this is true.
There’s a story from when my son was six years old that has now reached canonical status in the family lore. At a parent-teacher conference, the teachers told me a story about how they intervened when he started correcting a classmate’s false belief about the existence of Santa. They explained to him that she believed Santa was real, and it was okay for her to have a different belief than he did.
“Okaaaaay,” he responded, dubious. “But c’mon. THINK about it.”
He was completely baffled by their insistence that people could have competing beliefs about something that was so obviously not true.
You say the earth is flat? Okaaaaay, but c’mon! THINK about it.
All children have an incompletely developed theory of mind, of course, so in some ways there was nothing unusual about his inability to see his classmate’s perspective. But it’s something he still struggles with today–only, the range of things that he sees differently has expanded, and often there is no historical or scientific fact on which to comfortably rest his own belief.
If my son sometimes fails to see another person’s perspective, other people also fail to see his. Dr. Damian Milton, an autistic researcher and lecturer in intellectual and developmental disabilities at the University of Kent, has termed this the “double empathy problem.” Autistic people may have a difficult time reading the social cues and emotions of neurotypical people, but neurotypical people also fail to read the social cues and to understand the emotional experience of autistic people.
So too, Jesus is constantly being misunderstood by others. “Why did you do this to us?” asks Mary. And others are often angry at him. Angry because they don’t understand him, angry because he is defying authority, angry because he flouts tradition and convention.
I’m not the first person to read Jesus through the lens of autism. If you Google “Autistic Jesus” you’ll find Medium essays pondering whether Jesus was neurodiverse, a tweet by theologian Andrew Draper recounting a moment when his autistic son told an unsympathetic teacher that “Jesus was probably autistic”, and internal conversations in autism forums with autistic people arguing both for and against the idea.
One of the best things I found is a Stations of the Cross for Autistic People posted on the website Autism Consecrated and written by an autistic priest, Fr. Mark Nolette. While Fr. Mark does not speculate that Jesus was himself autistic, he does argue that “the story of Jesus’ Passion and Death can speak powerfully to the specific challenges faced by neurodivergent people.”
Many of the stations reveal these challenges: “When Friends Betray Us: Jesus Betrayed by Judas and Arrested,” Misunderstanding from Our Faith Community: Jesus Condemned by the Sanhedrin,” and “When Silence Arouses Suspicion: Jesus is Judged by Pilate.”
All these stations make sense to me now in light of my son’s experience of a sometimes cruel and often unkind world.
In C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, he offers an apologetic trilemma–Jesus is either “lord, liar, or lunatic.” Setting aside the unsoundness of the argument’s logic and the question of whether Jesus actually claimed he was the Son of God in the gospels, the question of why Jesus would insist on following his unique spiritual path to the point of martyrdom is a challenging one.
As portrayed in the gospels, Jesus is simply too honest, too good to be a lying con man. And anyway, the con only earned him an excruciating death. Lewis also clearly means us to find the idea of Jesus being a “lunatic” to be obviously wrong. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when Susan and Edmund don’t believe Lucy about the wardrobe providing entrance into a magical world, the Professor scoffs and says, “‘Logic! […] Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious she is not mad.”
Unfortunately, for autistic people throughout history, it was not obvious to others that they were not lunatics. Before autism existed as an official diagnosis in 1980, autistic children were often misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, and psychiatrists interpreted their stimming behaviors and unusual verbal patterns as hallucinations or paranoia.
So, was Jesus a lunatic? Maybe it depends on our definition of lunacy.
Filtered through my autism-mom ears now, a lot of what Jesus says has a similar obsessive quality that can characterize the unique perspective of an autistic person. The word “autism” is derived from the Greek word autos, meaning “self.” And, like an artist, an autistic person can be devoted to their unique way of seeing and interacting with the world.
On the one hand, this kind of implacable focus can lead to dramatic insights and breakthroughs in mathematics, science, and the arts. The litany of gifted people with diagnosed or suspected autism is now well-rehearsed–Temple Grandin, Einstein, Henry Cavendish, even Jerry Seinfeld!
On the other hand, implacability is also an invitation to others to attempt to break you.
A vast and unknown number of autistics in history–misdiagnosed and misunderstood–were consigned to insane asylums where their natural gifts and abilities went unrecognized and undeveloped and where they deteriorated rapidly, never to rejoin their families and communities.
But even if we aren’t breaking children through institutionalizing them anymore, there are still many ways to break an autistic child’s spirit.
In my first meeting with teachers and administrators after my son’s diagnosis, a staff member turned to me and said with obvious frustration, “He won’t say hello to me in the hallway. He won’t even look at me or give me a fist bump. I’ve spent weeks and weeks trying to engage him, and nothing.” Then the tone shifted to one of accusation, “You were a professor, how would YOU feel if a student never said hello to you?”
I have to admit that I was so stunned I didn’t know how to respond. Autism is literally a social and communication neurological developmental disorder, and while it presents in individuals differently, the symptoms of not making eye contact and being unable to navigate casual social exchanges are classic and (I thought) well-known. Taking offense that he was not engaging through eye contact and social pleasantries would be like taking offense that a blind person doesn’t see you and wave in greeting.
For decades, autistic people have been required to change who they are and to ignore what feels comfortable to them to make other people feel better. Autistic children are put through speech therapy, occupational therapy, applied behavioral analysis (ABA) therapy, and regular old therapy. Their parents change their diets to gluten-free, dairy-free, all organic, and non-GMO food in an attempt to mitigate their symptoms. And autistic kids are coached and prodded and bribed and persuaded to respond in neurotypically expected ways so that the rest of us don’t have to feel uncomfortable.
My disbelief at her question must have registered on my face, because a senior administrator broke the awkward silence by saying, “We’re concerned that his affect is such that people won’t like him.”
At that point, I wanted to burn down the school.
Excuse me…his AFFECT? You mean, the child who has never been cruel to others? The child who delights in wordplay and puns and who is consistently the funniest person in a family full of people who love jokes? The child whose tender heart is moved by the suffering of others? You’re telling me that his affect bothers you?
I get it that social skills are important. And we are in speech and occupational therapy to develop those skills. But if there is anything that I love and celebrate it is the weird, the unusual, the marginal, the strange, the seemingly unlovely.
I managed to make it through the rest of that meeting without aggressively reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur” at them or explicating the final image of the “battalion of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” up to heaven in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation” …but only barely.
Like, brah. Do you not even know who William Blake was?
You know what I want, Dr. McBro? I want a society FULL of difference. I want people to be accepted for who they are, without apology, without condition or exception. Am I going to teach my child to be a people-pleaser who distorts himself into a pretzel-person so that other, less intelligent and less interesting people–yourself included–LIKE him?
This is not the part of the essay where I make a self-deprecating comment about my mama-bear anger or make an internal promise to “stay patient” through this autism journey.
Because anger can be clarifying. Anger can help us cut through the confusing bullshit we are hearing and get at the heart of what is really going on. And what was really going on in that meeting was that a bunch of adults in authority were judging a disabled kid and finding him deficient.
So, here’s a radical thought.
What if we created a society in which autistic people did not have to bend over backwards to read the social cues of neurotypical people and respond in kind? What if non-autistic people learned to read the social cues of autistic people, instead? What if that staff member could greet my son every day with kindness and cheerfulness without expecting anything in return?
For years, my son gave me hugs and told me he loved me. But recently, that has faded. I don’t know if it’s a natural consequence of moving into puberty and establishing more independence or if this is an expression of autism that was exacerbated by the pandemic and lockdowns, but I don’t push him to respond in “normal” or socially acceptable ways. I tell him all the time that I love him, and I never expect an “I love you” in return. If I did, then I would be engaging him on the basis of an exchange, and my love for him would not be freely given.
No matter the level of severity, autism is a disability that requires birth-to-death social acceptance and support. When my son was diagnosed, we were also handed paperwork explaining disability benefits. This felt incredibly comforting. While we have excellent health insurance through my employer, I also don’t have to worry about the hundreds of dollars in co-pays every month for his therapies. My overwhelming feeling is that his being recognized as disabled is a good thing, because it allows for better support and access to resources.
I felt the same way after having my first son and experiencing what it was like trying to navigate a stroller through Chicago, where we then lived. Every time we encountered a curb cut for the sidewalk, I said a little prayer in gratitude for the Americans with Disabilities Act. God bless the ADA!
So, an autistic Jesus is also a disabled Jesus, not just a Jesus who cared about disabled people. Still, even with all my good feelings about the ADA and the vision of a disabled Jesus, I haven’t yet used the word “disabled” with my son. Instead, when I told him about his diagnosis, I used the language of neurodiversity.
“Hey, do you know why we’ve started going to see all these therapists recently? Because every brain is different. It’s called neurodiversity,” I explained. “And some people have autistic brains. Autism means that some things are easier for you–like memorizing hundreds, maybe thousands! of Pokémon characters. And it also means that other things are more challenging for you. Like explaining how you are feeling and what emotions you are experiencing. So that’s what the therapies are for…to teach some skills that will make the challenges easier to overcome.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” he said.
I also connected his diagnosis to other members of his family. “Dad might be on the spectrum too, but when he was a kid no one tested him. And your brother is also neurodiverse–he has ADHD. If you have any questions about what is happening, or what some words mean, you can always ask us.”
“Okay,” he said. And that was the end of the conversation.
At our former church, I used to teach Young Children in Worship. The curriculum is Montessori-based in its approach, and as we taught the children Bible stories, we used wooden figures to act out the story on the floor, being sure to not make eye contact with the children, but instead focusing on the wooden figures.
The not-making-eye-contact bit was important–not only because it allowed the children to use all their attentional resources to focus on the storytelling, but also because it gave them cognitive and emotional space. Not making eye contact gave them internal freedom. They could feel and think whatever they wanted, and those feelings and thoughts could register on their faces without any sense that they were being watched or that they needed to have a certain kind of response to the story.
At the end of the story, we would invite their participation and observations by making “I wonder” statements. “I wonder if Jesus felt sad when the disciples fell asleep. I wonder if Jesus felt angry when he saw the moneychangers in the temple.”
Notice that these are not direct questions of the children. A question would be, “Do you think Jesus felt sad?” Direct questions can put other people on the spot to share–like the staff member greeting my son in the hallway and expecting a response in return.
Sharing what I wonder holds a crucial boundary between my experience and the child’s experience, allowing us to cultivate a double empathy between us. I am sharing with them what I’m thinking and feeling, but there is no pressure, no expectation that they must share in return or that their perspective matches mine.
So, I invite you to participate, and observe…I wonder if Jesus was on the spectrum.