Since this is a blog about both those things, but more specifically about the second, I suppose I should start with one of those generic posts called “What is Autism?”
But, honest to goodness, I can’t be bothered. That stuff is all over the Internet, and any blog written by somebody who is actually Autistic will probably have a good outline. And, truth be told, all this stuff is a bit new to me. Not Autism – I’ve always been autistic, and I’ve been living with me all my life – but what it actually means and looks like and what the right words are to describe it.
So let me put it this way: I’m Tardistic – bigger on the inside.
What you see if you look at me is a fairly normal person. I walk and talk and usually manage to dress myself in vaguely acceptable clothing. I have qualifications from a prestigious university, and I hold down a full time job – and sometimes I’m even quite good at it. If you passed me on the street, you might not even notice me at all (unless I was wearing a cassock, which is a thing I sometimes do).
But if you looked harder, you might begin to think that I am a bit quirky, slightly out of place, like a 1950s police box in 21st Century England. I tend to flap my hands about when I’m stressed out or happy; I jump about like a Labrador puppy when excited. I get a bit hung-up on routine, I like certain objects to be arranged in certain ways, I can’t be doing with different foods touching each other on my plate. In conversation, you might be impressed by my vast knowledge of apparently random facts, or you might wonder exactly why I am regaling you with more information that you ever wanted to know about one particular thing or the other. I might repeat your words back to you, answer in quotations from films or song lyrics, and sometimes say things which appear non-sequitous, blunt or just plain rude. You might even notice that I don’t always look you in the eye (newsflash: I hardly ever look you in the eye; I’m just really good at making you think that I do).
And then, if by some miracle (or possibly disaster), you got the key and stepped inside the Tardis, you really would find out that I’m much bigger on the inside. On the inside, where nobody else really gets to go, is where pretty much all electrical lighting is too bright, and the sound of sweeping makes me feel physically sick. On the inside is where the processor is working overtime, trying to guess what you are thinking or feeling, because it’s really not obvious to me at all. On the inside is the translation matrix, working at full speed to analyse each word you say, each gesture you make, and compare it to a databank to see if I can make sense of your behaviour in the light of everything I have ever learnt about human behaviour. It’s mostly on the inside that all this high-energy processing starts to take its toll and melt down (wonky navigational system, and all that).
For every sermon I preach, every Mass I say, every person I meet and every strategy I devise so that they don’t realise I can’t actually recognise their faces until I’ve met them 10 times, there is a price to pay. Meltdown is not pretty. It’s a crying, shouting, skin-scratching, head-hitting ball of … actually, I don’t know what of, because I’m not even good at recognising and labelling my own emotions, but rage, despair and frustration would probably be a good start. It’s not something I’d ever want my Parishioners to see; and I’m fairly sure that it’s not something most people would dream that their Vicar did.
And yet, let me cycle back to the start of this post. I am a Parish Priest, and I am autistic. I don’t actually know of any others, but Church of England clergy are so well known for things like introversion, attention to detail, love of routine, aversion to change and wearing socks with their sandals that I am going to go out on a limb here and say that I am not the only one. Not by a long shot.
Think about what this means, just for a second. If you know a Vicar, or a pastor or minister or rabbi or whatever, there is every chance that he or she might be autistic too. Yes, that lovely Chaplain that visited your granny in hospital. Yes, that jolly young curate who takes assemblies at your daughter’s infant school. Yes, that caring Priest who found just the right words to say at your father’s funeral and spent hours with you counselling you in your grief.
Autistic people are not Daleks. We are not just empty tin shells with all the emotion ripped out, gliding through this world collecting train numbers and looking for normal, well-adjusted people to exterminate. Oftentimes, we actually do have a clue what you might be thinking and feeling, simply because we work so bloody hard at figuring it out. OK, we might not be archetypal ‘people persons,’ but that doesn’t stop us being great teachers, scientists, social workers, psychologists, librarians, parents, actors, shop assistants – and yes, even clergy.
As I write this, at the end of a marathon three days of extreme crapness which included two major meltdowns, I am only too aware of how being autistic sometimes limits my ability to be the Priest I want to be. But I also know that my autistic attention to detail, unswervability and keen sense of truth and justice all make me a better Priest than I would be otherwise, and I really do believe that those autistic gifts are God-given.
Whatever our personalities, neurologies, abilities or disabilities, every single one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image, to God’s glory. And so I can truthfully say that I am more than the sum of my symptoms, more than just the deficits or the abilities, the challenges or the joys. I am proud to be Tardistic – bigger on the inside.