Intersectionality: Autism & Religion

Autism and religion are rarely associated with one another.  In a study done at Boston University, individuals with ASD were about 20% less likely than neurotypical people to identify as Christian, approximately 10% more likely to identify as atheist, and nearly 10% more likely to create their own religious belief system.  However, the reasons behind these findings remain unclear. Many assumeImage result for religion characteristics commonly associated with autism, such as impaired theory of mind abilities or inability to mentalize, cause the observed difference.  However, external factors could prevent a meaningful connection with religious ideas during development and explain the variance.  It is important to take the social aspects of religion and difficulties in attending religion services due to lower executive function or increased sensory sensitivity into account.

Researchers look to mentalizing deficits to explain why fewer people with autism believe in God. A strong social cognitive ability, including theory of mind, has been found to allow for an intuitive understanding of God.  One study used the Empathy Quotient to measure aptitude for mentalizing,Image result for empathy quotient taking into account an individual’s interest in others’ thoughts and understanding emotions. A lower aptitude for mentalizing was found to have an indirect effect on not believing in God, providing strong evidence that mentalizing capability can indicate the likelihood of an individual believing in God.  The implications of this study are that individuals with autism who generally struggle with theory of mind abilities and found to not believe in God or to come up with their own spiritual beliefs are unable to conceptualize God.  However, taking into account other struggles developing adolescents with autism may come up against can offer a more complete explanation.

Parents often struggle to find a religious environment that accommodates the sensory or learning Image result for holding hands in churchneeds of their autistic children, another potential reason behind the discrepancy between the proportion of religious individuals with autism and in the general population.  For example, a father who identifies as Jewish found he could not send his autistic son to receive a Jewish education because no school in the area had appropriate accommodations.  In fact, no Jewish school implemented behavioral therapies for autism until as recently as 1988.

Churches and synagogues may be overwhelming and even intimidating for individuals with autism unfamiliar with the nature of these spaces due to heightened sensory processing.  For example, bright lights or loud noises before, during, and after the service could prove intolerable.  An article in the Autism Parenting Magazine offers advice about preparing a child with Image result for church congregationautism to attend a religious service or educating members of the religious community about Neurodiversity and their child’s needs.  They suggest preparing a “safe zone” in case of a meltdown and utilizing visuals.  The reality is that discrepancies found between those with and without autism believing in God is due to a variety of factors, ranging from potential deficits in mentalizing to a lack of resources allowing for participation. Everyone should be able to decide their own beliefs free of prejudice or pre-conceived notions based on what makes them unique.

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