Some Remarks on Autism and Catholicism

Michael L. Ortiz

When I was in college, I conceived a great devotion to Saint Francis of Assisi. Though raised in the Catholic faith, I became interested in Francis—oddly enough—only after being drawn away from the Church by a small Christian sect. This seeming paradox is made explicable by the fact that, like many in my generation of Catholics, I was only nominally catechized. I never fully understood that the beliefs and practices of the sect represented a significant departure from the faith handed down from Christ and the Apostles. Its members had approached me on campus with the promise that I would be transformed by their supernatural love; I was lonely, so I had joined with scarcely a second thought. Nevertheless, I remained a persistently hovering outsider. This discouraged me deeply, since I believed that the community’s intimacy was of divine origin. My isolation meant that I was shut out from both God and man. I knew that I needed God, though I could not believe in him, and I wanted not to be alone any longer. It was then that I discovered Francis. Here, I saw, was an honest man who truly loved God and mirrored Christ. His heart was open to all men, not merely to a select coterie or personality type.

It was a hot Texas summer. Summers were hard because the dorms, where everything was taken care of for me, were closed. Though I was intelligent, I had difficulty performing quotidian tasks that are a matter of course for most people, and I had gone two years without a job, despite numerous interviews. To make matters worse, I was alone almost all the time. I seemed unable to function in society. I was a miscellaneous person, unable to understand how I fit into the general scheme of things, never knowing how to act, just guessing and making the best of the situations I found myself in. Perhaps that is why I found Francis so appealing: his life cut across the established categories. He gathered around himself a band of misfits, not to “drop out” or to nurse societal grudges, but to knit humanity together one person at a time. Francis became an outsider that he might bring all men together in God.

I wanted to emulate Francis, to draw near to God as he had. I studied his life carefully, dwelling on the Gospel texts that had moved him to take up his way of life. It all seemed clear enough to me, so I resolved to follow his example literally, like a recipe. I sold all my belongings except my clothes, my bedding, and my Bible, and gave the money away. I began to practice bodily mortifications. When this failed to answer, I bought a quantity of brown cloth, sewed myself a habit with needle and thread, and went preaching barefoot on campus. Unable to think of anything else to say, I simply shouted, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” There were no converts. One girl tried to convert me to Calvinism, and I had a short conversation with an admirer of Albert Schweitzer, but otherwise there was no interaction.

This failure to break out of my invisible prison soon became too discouraging. I resolved next to give up even my means and to become homeless, supposing that my failure to attain to God was due to an insufficient adherence to the example of Francis. On the eve of my renunciation, however, I told the pastor about my plans, and his utter bewilderment snapped me back into reality. What did I do then? I crawled back into my corner to be sick at heart in peace.

People laugh when I tell this story. I laugh, too, but inwardly I sigh. In a way, the episode is typical of my entire life. I am always alone, locked inside of myself, trying to reach other people but unable to understand them or make myself intelligible to them. I seem always to miss the end by taking the means to a literal and ridiculous extreme, unwittingly saying and doing things that are eccentric or inappropriate. It did not occur to me until I was in my mid-twenties that my struggles might stem from something other than a personality defect. Several years passed before I succeeded in finding out their real source.

I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder called Asperger Syndrome.

Asperger Syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder. The disorder may in fact be distinct from high-functioning autism—researchers are divided on this—but it is closely related, and is characterized by deficits in cognition and communication that are characteristic of autism properly so called. A person with Asperger Syndrome may be highly intelligent and may show marked proficiency in specific areas of functioning while possessing severe deficits in others. It is difficult for some people to understand how the same person could earn a doctorate in mathematics and be almost unable to buy stamps. The characteristics of Asperger Syndrome are still not very widely known. Their concrete manifestation varies from person to person, but perhaps the best way for me to elaborate on them is to describe some of my own traits.

The first thing that some people notice upon meeting me is that I do not make eye contact. This is not because I am shy or devious; eye contact simply overloads my senses and makes me unable to think. To me, eyes are like the sun, which blinds by its excess of light. Furthermore, faces refuse to resolve themselves into recognizable composites for me: they remain mere assortments of features. Given two persons of roughly the same build, hair style, and complexion, I have as hard a time distinguishing them as another person might have in telling apart two sheep. Sometimes I fail to recognize acquaintances, and sometimes I mistake strangers for friends. I once recognized my wife’s nose from a distance in a crowded public place, well before I realized that my wife was attached to it.

This prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, is related to other impairments. Everyone knows that unspoken signals can carry as much content as words. People convey their thoughts by a complex combination of spoken language, vocal inflection, facial expression, and bodily gesture. It is thought that certain portions of the human brain are specially adapted to processing nonverbal data. In me, these faculties seem not to be fully functional, and unspoken content is lost on me. I can become extremely confused even in casual intercourse. On the other hand, I convey my meaning in words alone, as though I were writing an e-mail. My speech tends to be formal and pedantic, and my inexpressiveness is often interpreted as apathy or coldness.

While I am able to give monologues on my interests, I can hardly hold a conversation in general. I have a high reasoning capacity attached to a slow processing speed, and “small talk” requires a mental agility that I do not have. I maintain a quiver of memorized formulas, slang expressions, and amusing anecdotes, but when these fail me, as they often do, I lapse into silence. If my interlocutor changes the subject rapidly or gives multiple directions, it sounds like gibberish to me, especially in the presence of background noise or movement. In stressful situations, I speak haltingly and with my eyes closed; sometimes I simply shut down. While I possess acuity of mind in areas requiring complex reasoning, I usually need minutely explicit instructions for seemingly simple or mundane tasks, and frequently I have to ask for directions to be repeated.

I have always been known for my zeal in acquiring detailed knowledge about specialized topics. For instance, when I was in elementary school, I became quite an expert in entomology. I memorized taxonomic tables and scientific names, collected specimens, and read field guides cover to cover. I even received a personal tour of the entomology department at a major research university. I later became interested in Greek mythology, cataloging the deities and monsters and decorating my bedroom with genealogical charts. These intense and narrowly-focused interests have carried over into my adult life, and I find that I cannot exist without studying some specialized topic and distilling it into a system. I have, at one time or another, delved into herpetology, Greek history, hagiography, the Bible, astronomy, and Icelandic sagas. I cannot describe the sense of fulfillment that my pursuits give me. My inability to communicate does not apply to my interests, but as I have been given to understand that most people find my monologues amusing, boorish, or eccentric, I usually refrain from bestowing them.

Broadly speaking, the social instincts that develop organically in most people are in me replaced with artificially constructed rules, applied with rigorous logic. I seem unable to operate according to the variable norms that are obvious to others. This makes it difficult for me to maintain normal relationships or to function in society, to say the least.

For these reasons and others, I am alone in myself. I live in a soundproof glass box, watching others through the wrong end of a telescope, communicating through speakers that garble messages. I operate my body like a skill crane, and when I speak, it is like hearing another person. It often seems to me that I am a non-person, a changeable mask with nothing behind it. It can be difficult for the people in my life to understand this. They fail to realize to what extent I posture and camouflage. They also may not know how much I have studied their mannerisms and speech. For me, each new person is a new science, a new object of research. Some people are easy for me to “learn,” but with most I can make no progress, and to these I am a silent automaton. My mind seems to lack a precise boundary between the world of objects and the world of persons: I don’t interact with others, I act on them. The relationships I do form are not infrequently stunted by a seeming indifference, or withered by a logical mind possessing integrity but lacking natural empathy.

My diagnosis came as a great relief. We all desire to see our lives as narratives, even if this means accepting failure. One of the great consolations of religion is that it gives meaning to what might otherwise be a disconnected succession of events. The life that is devoid of direction is devoid of hope. This is why my diagnosis means so much to me: it helps me to make sense of my experiences, at least in a material sense. I am beginning to understand why things have never worked out quite as I had hoped.

People are often surprised that I received my diagnosis at such a late date. Aside from the fact that Asperger Syndrome was not included in the diagnostic criteria of the American Psychiatric Association until I was in high school—although it was first studied in the 1930s—I think that the main reason my disorder went unnoticed when I was young is that I was intelligent enough to compensate for my deficits until I reached a stage of life requiring developed social skills. My difficulties only became debilitating once I passed the point beyond which taking and passing classes is not enough.

My early childhood was definitely a happy one. To be sure, I exhibited certain oddities. I spoke and acted like Mr. Spock. I ate my Froot Loops one color at a time in spectral order. I had a penchant for stacking objects. I was strangely hypersensitive to certain lights and colors, noises, music, and food textures; buttons on clothing made me frantic. Things that didn’t affect other people were torture (or euphoria) for me, whereas I sustained serious physical injuries with a composure that others found disturbing. All these peculiarities were seen merely as facets of a unique personality, however, and not as signs of a disorder.

We were Catholic. The Mass made a deep impression on me. After I received my First Communion, I became quite devout for a time, and kept a collection of religious articles in a little box with the Hail Mary handwritten on the lid. I wanted very much to be an altar boy, but when I discovered that it involved bowling, pizza parties, and talking to the coordinator on the telephone, I immediately withdrew my name.

My social life deteriorated as I grew older, as my peers matured socially in ways that were closed to me. I was eccentric, naïve, awkward, abnormally uncoordinated, and eager to talk about my interests but unable to relate to others in any other way. My attempts to fit in were laughable, and I was laughed at. I also daily lived in fear of the petty and exquisitely painful attacks commonly the lot of small boys who are socially isolated. This persecution I countered with mere silent endurance, though sometimes I secretly injured myself as a way of allaying my agitation. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I assumed that my problem was moral, not neurological.

Something finally broke down inside of me, and I became a hypersensitive social phobiac. I found myself unable to participate in the most casual of relationships with anyone beyond my household and a couple of close friends. I was shut out from the world. Little has changed since then, despite numerous abortive (and unnoticed) attempts to break out.

Now, in all areas of functioning, I focus on details to an extent that precludes comprehension of the whole. This inability to integrate experience is known as weak central coherence. I found as an adolescent that I was unable to believe in God, for the people around me spoke of God in complacent generalities, whereas I could comprehend only concrete particulars. My background was strongly scientific, and I came to see matter as the ultimate reality. It seemed to me that a man is a mere compaction of bones, flesh, viscera, humors, and nerves. I wanted to believe in God, but I could not and did not want to. I could only conceive of Heaven as a gray and endless serial existence, and I dreaded eternity more than annihilation. I had long been morbidly conscious of the moral abscesses in my own soul, but I suddenly became aware of them in those around me. The realization rather unhinged me, and I began strongly to consider suicide as a means of escape from existence.

Meanwhile, I completed my religious education and was confirmed. After seventeen years of felt banners, balloon-decorating, and “Gather Us In,” I knew about as much Catholic doctrine as Attila the Hun, and what I did know, I had learned in world history class. I do not wish to be too hard on our pastoral assistant for this, however: it is possible that my ignorance was compounded by my disorder.

For all these reasons, it is not surprising that I was immediately drawn into a sect when I went to college. They offered me what I most desired: a warm and accepting community of friends. They also worshiped with loud, effervescent rock music that quite overwhelmed my senses. However, once the dionysian ecstasy wore off, I found that my difficulties had not diminished and that I was at least as isolated as before. I was disillusioned, but I stayed on, not knowing what else to do. After my attempts at following Francis, I fell into despair.

I married and entered graduate school. In time, I returned to the Catholic Church, and my wife was received the following Easter. Of my conversion, I wish only to say that so sudden was the flash of insight I received, and so contrary to my usual piecemeal manner of understanding, and so strong was the certitude that it imparted, that it must surely have been the action of God’s grace. I do not intend here to describe what led me to this juncture and how my many difficulties were resolved. I rather suspect that my account would not be entirely convincing; there must come a moment when the iron simply leaps to the magnet. Rather, since this is a psychological account, I will limit myself to offering some material explanations of what might attract a person with Asperger Syndrome to Catholicism.

Perhaps the weightiest reasons might be summed up by pointing to the Eucharist, considered under both its objective and its subjective aspects. To begin with, one thing that a modern sect could never give is objectivity in worship. The worship music of my sect was geared toward titillating the congregation, and “good worship” meant worship that gave one an interior experience of a certain quality. This sort of liturgy is unfitting because it turns the congregation in on itself instead of orienting it out toward Christ; its effects on me were particularly baneful. I rarely experience emotions, but when I do, they are sudden and overpowering, and I came to resent their manipulation, for I easily mistook them for the Holy Spirit. As Saint John of the Cross said, love consists not in feeling great things. In contrast to such a liturgy, then, how fitting is the Catholic Mass! Its celebration may be dry or even distasteful, but it is no less real because of that. It was instituted by Christ himself. In the Sacrifice of the Mass, his Body and Blood become present on the altar, despite one’s lack of emotion, despite even one’s lack of faith, and regardless of whether one communicates.

The subjective aspect of the Eucharist—Holy Communion—is tied to the Church’s understanding of Christian incorporation. One may be isolated in worldly society, but one’s full inclusion in the Church is not contingent on how many acquaintances one has or whether one belongs to a small group, nor is communion with God dependent on feelings and spiritual locutions. The wellspring of unity in Christ—baptism—and its summit in this life—Holy Communion—are open to all. There is more to being a Christian than the Sacraments, it is true, but here also the Church is truly catholic. The Christian life is not appropriated by preachers, proselytizers, and ministry groups, and the life of Mass-going, private prayer, and works of mercy performed in secret is not despised.

There is also much in Catholicism to attract someone with a proclivity for studying lists, patterns, and hierarchical structures: the Ten Commandments, the Seven Sacraments, the Five Precepts, and the Four Last Things, not to mention the liturgical calendar, the array of prayers, the constellation of saints, the Summa Theologica, and the beautiful Catechism. Catholicism has in this way affected more than my faith, for structures and patterns help me to make sense of a world that lacks cohesion.

Although I could say more on this subject, I will conclude with some remarks on high-functioning autism in our society.

I am pursued by a quasi-Chestertonian fancy that each great civilization or age may be aptly represented by its typical architectural monuments. Thus, the mud-brick ziggurat stands for the anthill that was Babylon, and the austere marble basilica stands for republican Rome. It is easy to pick out the building that would best represent our own contemporary American civilization: the skyscraper. A cluster of skyscrapers crowns every city of considerable size. They are conspicuous monuments of efficiency and prosperity: airy, glittering, climate-controlled towers of concrete, steel, and glass. Skyscrapers are sometimes beautiful or even fantastical, but theirs is a carefully-planned and repetitive beauty, with little room for local deviation.

What architecture best represents the high Middle Ages? The Gothic cathedral comes immediately to mind. Gothic buildings were carefully planned with an eye toward a hierarchical global structure; nevertheless, local eccentricity abounds. Here is a grinning, two-bodied bird, there a fantastical elephant. Peering through the carved foliage is a man with a toothache. I feel a strange empathy with these stone creatures. Powerfully structured as medieval society was, there was room for such things. It was an age of ceremony and hierarchy, but also of mystery plays, fools’ feasts, and begging friars.

Is there a place for drolleries and grotesques in our society?

There has been talk of whether there is an autism epidemic. I personally doubt it, but I do wonder if the world has become less habitable for people with autism disorders. Robotic assembly lines may be much more efficient than human craftsmen, but if an item on the belt has a slight irregularity, then the machine simply mangles it. Perhaps our modern social machines do the same thing to human souls. Perhaps also the mechanical regularity of our surroundings and the preponderance of data in our education systems aggravate autistic tendencies that lay dormant in other ages.

This is more than speculation for me. Difficulties that are minor when one is young can become insurmountable obstacles or create intolerable conditions when one is mature, if they do not diminish. My difficulties have not diminished. I am thirty, but only now am I coming to a hard-won majority: there are many things that most people take for granted, that I have had to learn by tortuous routes. Such has been my development and such are my strengths and weaknesses that I seem not to fit into the established categories. Possibly I will be able to carve myself a special niche in the world, but I don’t count on it. I live in a casual shelter, looking for the country that is to come.

Michael L. Ortiz received a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Texas at Austin in the spring of 2009. He currently resides in Uvalde, Texas, with his wife and son, and is a professor at the Rio Grande College of Sul Ross State University.