I have autism … and I’m a Mormon

In some ways, being Mormon is an advantage when coping with autism, and in other ways, Mormonism makes it harder, writes guest columnist Mette Harrison.

Mette Harrison in 2017. Courtesy photo

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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