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I have autism … and I’m a Mormon

A guest post by Mette Harrison

(RNS) — I was diagnosed a year ago officially with “high-functioning autism” or what you might have previously heard called Asperger’s syndrome. Some of the common traits of Aspies include:

  1. Lack of eye contact
  2. Literalism
  3. Difficulty parsing body language and facial expression
  4. Language precision
  5. Rigid schedules and habits
  6. Inability to “let things go”
  7. Sensory sensitivity
  8. Misunderstanding social cues
  9. Obsessions/passions for a very specific interest
  10. Lack of social reciprocity
  11. Muted or exaggerated emotions

I’m a nationally best-selling writer. I hold a Ph.D. in literature from Princeton University. I’ve raised five intelligent, successful children. I’m an All-American triathlete. Why did I go in for a diagnosis when I’m clearly a functional adult?

Well, there are times when I’m not so functional. Being a writer means going to conferences and book signings, and having strangers ask me personal questions. It would be easier if it were all just about sitting in a quiet, private room and typing on a computer.

But it isn’t, and being a Mormon makes things even more complicated — for better and for worse.

I’ve written previously about problems with what seems to me to be an “extrovert” church as what I thought of then as an “introvert,” including noise and scent overload, forced friendships and the lack of quiet space in the church building.

There are other problems. I’m often seen as unemotional because I don’t show the normal facial expressions, including tears, when I feel sad. I’m also not typically feminine. I’ve found motherhood to be enormously satisfying, but I feel a lack of female friendships because I don’t talk about the same subjects other women seem to find interesting. Sometimes male friends are more comfortable for me because they seem more straightforward, but cross-gender friendships are discouraged in Mormonism for married people.

On the other hand, being autistic and being Mormon go together naturally in some ways. I love to follow rules. I love to have rigid schedules. I love sameness. These are things Mormonism is very good at. Give me a list of all the rules of a commandment like the Word of Wisdom and I will follow it exactly. I never understood, growing up, how other people could have problems drinking coffee or alcohol. I never felt tempted to do these things or caved to peer pressure. I never even felt peer pressure.

The Mormon church experience is very rigidly scheduled and is always the same. Correlation — the standardization of belief and practice — in the 1980s made this even more true than it had been before. The same lessons were being taught in every ward in every country in the world. The dress code imported from the United States (women in long skirts or dresses, men in white shirts and ties) was visible and made me feel calm and reassured that even when I was in a new place I was welcome: Here I knew the rules and I could follow them.

Friendships were, if not exactly assigned, certainly facilitated by church callings, girls’ camp and service projects that would lead to advancement in the Personal Progress Program. I checked off every box on every list. I got nearly perfect grades in high school and earned the highest scholarship that BYU could offer (called the Benson Scholarship at the time).

My first experience in the temple was not ideal; I felt disconcerted and unprepared for the “script” of what went on there. I wish someone had reassured me that I didn’t have to memorize everything the first time, because I was frozen with terror through much of the endowment ceremony, afraid that I would get something wrong at the end. I felt like I needed years to understand the meaning of the ceremony and was not given time before I was asked to make promises. On the other hand, it was comforting to feel like I was part of the special “in group” of people who knew the secrets of the temple. I believed for many years that I was chosen by God to be born a Mormon because I was so very, very good at following rules.

I didn’t see until years later how strange this made me socially and how it was connected to a series of other problems. My childhood view of the world as a series of checkboxes I could easily check off changed into the realization that a world existed that I had never noticed, one of subtext and innuendo, of facial expressions, hints and jokes, knowing smiles and small talk.

Those subtleties still don’t make sense to me. The farthest I have come is to be aware that this world exists and that no one makes checkboxes or lists for these rules, and that no one can explain to me how to excel at them. No matter how hard I try, I am never going to be a natural at these things, and it seems that this also means that the Mormonism I thought fit me so well has turned out to be a place I’m now an alien, a stranger.

This alienation comes out in uncomfortable ways at church. I correct other church members in classroom situations. I cannot let misrepresentations of facts go by in Gospel Doctrine. I can’t teach lessons that I don’t believe every word of. I can’t not say what I think, but when I say what I think, I know immediately I’ve said the wrong thing. I’m too honest, too loud, too brutal, too open, too personal.

The worst is when I tell people about the diagnosis and they dismiss it. “Oh, you’re not autistic. You’re too normal.” I’m tired of working so hard at being normal. I want to be myself and to be Mormon, but this requires some twisting of both terms. Being Mormon seems to mean being part of a community in a way that doesn’t always make sense to me. Like many autistic people, I want to be in a community for the sake of protection if for no other reason. I like seeing familiar faces and I’m aware of how important that is in my constant play of anxiety.

Some non-Mormons tell me simply when I write negatively about my church experience that I should just leave. But separating myself from this community would create massive upheaval in my life. I can imagine nothing more painful than having to re-create my community and myself. So why do I take risks and write? Why do I criticize? Maybe it’s for no other reason than that I have to put things in order, make sure that the right words are used. I do what I do because in a world where emojis and gifs are everywhere, words are my specialty. And finding just the right one gives me just a moment of relief, feeling I can check that one thing off my list.


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About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

24 Comments

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  • Why does simply being Who You Are Created put your into some man-made “spectrum”? Can’t you accpet who you are without being “diagnosed” into some category? Does being “labeled” make you feel better about yourself? Give you more confidence? We live at a time where it is benficial to be labed as “defective – genitcally predisposed – or categorized.! It takes away personal responsibility and even lessons us in our unique personhood.

  • It’s not really about self-acceptance. For children, diagnosis of certain syndromes is useful for guiding educators with alternate teaching methods that have a higher chance for success in keeping those children proficient at necessary skills. The diagnosis itself “throws the switch” to turn on the mechanism that allows this to occur.

    For adults, it is useful in understanding why one behaves a certain way, but may have little practical use beyond that, and can even be used–as you suggest–to make excuses. “Being labeled” doesn’t make you feel better about yourself, but does sometimes offer a rational explanation for the lifelong struggles. Most people are more comfortable when they understand rather than blindly accept, wouldn’t you agree?

    Functioning adults with autism spectrum disorders have probably already learned how to compensate for these behaviors (even without understanding the cause), but not always, and greater awareness among the general population can be useful for promoting tolerance rather than dismissing a person as simply “crazy”. OK, so maybe it is about acceptance, but acceptance by others.

  • I certainly believe in accepting people as they are. Most of the 10 symptoms described at the beginning of this article are simply “being human” or maybe, if we have some platonic notion of the perfect human, they are less than human activities or traits. The spectrum of what includes “autism” has been enlarged to provide more medicines as a solution to peoples difficulties and allow doctor’s diagnosis (ie as autism) to be compensated for through health insurances. I certainly believe there is the reality of “autism” and monies should be spent on correcting that, but not on the simple folibles described above as “autism” …like not tearing up “like everyone else”. So are we expected to react “with tears” simply because others do? Come on! Get a hold of yourself! The author of this article is a very well accomplished person who does not need to have the benefit of being labeled “autistic” to validate her success. (It makes it a MORE remarkable story, doesn’t it? It is asking people to recognize not only how good She at what She does, but all the more appealing for what she has overcome!Traditional rags to riches writing. In a way it is the art of learning to capture more praise then needed Now, is that an “austistic trait” or just plain egoism?)

  • The traits listed above have to be present at a certain degree and significance for the diagnosis to be made. They are not simply “human foibles” that everyone feels from time to time. Everyone feels sad sometimes, that’s not the same thing as clinical depression.

  • I am genuinely confused, although I appreciate your thoughts on autism spectrum disorder and being a Mormon. The last RNS guest post you wrote explained that you were leaving Mormonism. Now you’re saying that you’re still a Mormon. Were these articles posted out of order?

  • I think that she feels she has a better chance of being trusted and thereby gaining sympathy and influencing members to her way of thinking if she leaves it ambiguous.

    I’m a pretty strong introvert (not, to my knowledge, suffering from autism or Asperger’s syndrome) and have always felt that part of my challenge in life is to overcome that introversion, not to sit and bemoan my situation and wish that the church would change and that I wouldn’t have to actually learn to love others and serve them, which would require being involved with them when, usually, I would rather be left alone and not have to socialize at all (are run-on sentences a symptom?). I have faith that God has a better plan for me than I have for myself and that that plan will likely take me out of my comfort zone.

    Some people don’t believe that.

  • Mette, thanks for sharing this post wHich is very personal. That must have been difficult. i work with children who are on the autism spectrum, so I can relate to what you are saying. I also relate to the last part because soooo many members love to tell other members to leave when they don’t like what they are saying. I get that on here with some of my comments from so called “good members” of the church. They are more like ‘Church broke” than anything else. Haters will be haters. Thanks again for the post!

  • Thanks for sharing this Mette. There are some of ugly comments on here, so I thought I’d leave an affirming one.

    As you know, I too was raised LDS, as a girl and with undiagnosed autism. I related to most of what you said. I never quite fit in. I wasn’t into girly things. I didn’t make many LDS friends, not even when I became an adult. I piped up with correct, yet unwanted comments all through Sunday School class. I was singled out, not invited to things. I was the perfect kid, following every rule to the letter, memorizing Seminary scriptures before the other kids did, etc etc.

    Some in the comments are saying there’s no room for labels, but when I finally got my diagnosis at age 38, it was a huge relief to finally have an explanation for why everyone had treated me so strangely, and why I never fit in until I left LDS circles and found friends among sci-fi nerds and computer geeks. I suspect a disproportional number of nerds and geeks are on the spectrum, and are thus both more forgiving and more likely to speak my language. At any rate, having a diagnosis let me get the specific help I needed and helped me forgive myself for the simple failures that everyone else seemed to accomplish so easily.

    Thanks for describing this very specific cross-section of humanity and helping to educate folks!

  • My name is Nathan. I’m Mormon and I have a high-functioning autistic son. I am also a science fiction writer, and I chose to put a Mormon autistic female side character in a book I am writing, because I find it difficult to describe Mormon miscommunication with the world otherwise. I would be interested in knowing more about what struggles you had when you where dating, both for the sake of my writing, and also because I have a son to raise.

  • People love to be “sick” or “diagoned with their special problem”. Also Doctors get reembursed more if they give a “clinical diaognosis” that a person suffers from this or that. For example, Dr. Anna Lembke MD, in her book Drug Dealer MD, writes: “In 2001, The Joint Commission made “pain” the fifth vital sign, alongside heart rate, temperature, respiratory rate, and blood pressure, indicating the state of a patient’s essential body functions. Pain, however, like the other vital signs, cannot be objectively measured. …numerical pain scales represent entirely arbitrary measurements. There is in fact no way to measure a person’s pain. … Furthermore, no scientific studies show that using thses pain scales correlates with improved patient outcomes.” That may also be true in a person who goes to a doctor and says, “Doctor, I’m depressed.” Having it “diagnosed as clinical depression” does not make it true depression, only a depression that is “officially recognized by a doctor.” That is how a doctor can bill for it . If the Doctor says it is not “clinical depression” he/she just wasted their time and lost money interviewing the patient. I want to point out that their is a lot of “fake illness” for the point of being noticed (narcassism) and colecting disabilty. I also know that there is real depression, too. (PS The Author never mentioned that she suffered depression — only that she didn’t seem to cry tears when other people cried tears.)

  • I’ve never had an issue that she identifies as a member of the LDS Church. The revelation that she is a high functioning austic explains some of my confusion about some of her past articles.

    I don’t think that she is scheming to get anyone to trust her, show her sympathy or sway folks to her way of thinking, at least no more so than anyone else posting here. To suggest it is insulting. Especially to then turn and do for yourself what you have accused her of doing!

  • She is speaking about a lack of affect, she isn’t cued to the most common human response to emotional situations.

    I’m curious where you got your PhD in knowing everything there is to know about everything so that you can dismiss everything about anyone else. That’s an awsome responsibilty!

  • Yes, drugs are getting overprescribed. PS: I just used depression as an example, I wasn’t talking about the author.

  • Seems like you were actually replying to my post rather than Charlie’s so I will respond to you. You seem to take offense that I “accused” someone of having a motive for doing something. You know, we all act on a motive of some kind. To suggest that someone has a motive is not necessarily “insulting”. Indeed, I also purposely phrased my answer to elicit a certain receptivity from readers – and I usually (always?) do. Don’t you? I did not say that it is bad thing, (that was your interpretation) I was simply pointing out what was done and what I believe to be the motivation for it. I see it frequently on this blog and feel it should be made explicit. You don’t feel it was intentional and I disagree. It’s that simple. No insult involved.

  • 5 of my 11 grand children are on the autism spectrurn the church community is very helpful to them, our ward is blessed with several autistic youth and it comes together to support there parients and them as individuals, I feel I have some of the symptoms of autism, fitting in the LDS church and community is a haven and a support to my well being . I am a convert, I missed the primary and young men’s experiences

  • Steve, your inability to empathize with regard to this topic clearly indicates that you are not on the autism spectrum. Be thankful for that. It’s great that you accept people as they are. That means you would not be the type to bully the “geeks and weirdos” who, in the vast majority of cases, are on the spectrum. Those on the spectrum should be thankful for that. Unfortunately, you would be in the minority. The bullying behavior seems to be a human trait that is just as difficult to overcome as being on the spectrum.

  • So are you saying that only people who are on the “autism spectrum” can have empathy for someone else on the autism septrum? Using that logic only people alike or on the same spectrum could empasize with people like themselves. What a limited world view this seems to be. It would mean that a person in the autism spectrum (the definition seems to change yearly) could not empathize with a person who does not have the “so called autism spectrum”. Thank you for classifying me as one who has an “inability to empathize”. I appreciate the compliment , or is it a clinical diaognosis on your part?

  • Its called “The I Know It All” spectrum. I hope you recognize it and empathize with it as much as you would any other “specrtum.”

  • Many of us trained in psychology recognize it, but we use actual diagnostic terms for it, not terms as excuses made up by the self-diagnosed.

  • “Being different is only a good thing if it is beneficial to the group.”

    I am –surely– misunderstanding your point. Can you please clarify?

  • This could be me: “I’m too honest, too loud, too brutal, too open, too personal.” I have no label and no diagnosis but I do have an autistic/Asperger child. Like you, I basically just want to be accepted for who I am and not have to accommodate the people around me so that I can feel that church is a place of refuge and protection where I can be loved and welcomed.

  • Being different seems to come with the territory — at least in our neck of the woods. If it’s hard, it’s hard, if it’s not, it’s not. Learning patience is continuing.

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