Autism and Spirituality

Cute little boy sitting outdoors, wearing crown, looking up at the sky.
Adriana Varela Photography/Moment/Getty
What do we know of autism and spirituality? Bill Stillman's book, Autism and the God Connection, is largely a collection of anecdotes from parents who feel that their children with autism have a special connection with the spiritual world. The book has received very positive reviews -- and a great deal of parental interest. Bill kindly agreed to answer a series of questions, some posed by me and others sent to him directly by readers.
As a member of the autism community himself (he is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome), Bill brings an unusual perspective to the conversation.

Question: How do you decide whether a reported event is legitimate, a fraud, or the result of an hallucination or other health problem?

Answer: In discerning the truth of what’s being reported, I use a couple of criteria. First, is there a ring of truth to what someone is reporting? In other words, it doesn’t wash with me that someone reporting would completely sugar-coat and glorify the autistic experience as “God’s little angels” because that’s not real life; and I think it can be an extremely challenging lifestyle for the individual on the spectrum as well as her parents, caregivers, and educators. That doesn’t mean that spiritual giftedness can’t manifest, but when it does it’s amidst daily trials and travails of mutual learning and living.

And, second, does what someone’s reporting “fit” within the themes that have already emerged in my work, or that correspond with the research of other spiritual authors?

Being in the mental health-mental retardation field for nearly twenty years, I know enough about the inner workings of mental illness to spot “red flags” or symptoms of grandiosity in what someone is telling me; where my research is concerned, this has only occurred very rarely, a couple instances.

Most often, people just feel relieved to know that they’re not crazy, not alone in the experience, and have found someone who understands.

Question:Is there any research that supports the idea that people without verbal skills may be more attuned to other types of input?

Answer: Only my own research, but, to me, it makes total sense. This whole “God connection” concept is still very, very new, and, as your readers are well aware, persons with developmental disabilities including autism, have historically been marginalized, devalued, degraded, and abused. As a Western culture, we’re not “there” yet in terms of our perception that such individuals have value in their “beingness”, and may hold intimate insights, wisdom, and giftedness; though Native American culture does subscribe to this concept.

To me, existing in silence, as a number of autistics do, isn’t any different than the person of high religious standing who takes a deliberate vow of silence—why would it be? So there’s a double standard in who and what we value: people who meditate, pray, practice yoga want to reach the same spiritual plateau that some autistics attain naturally by living in silence, focusing on a repetitive movement or a perseverative vocalization (a mantra), and perceiving all things seen and unseen.

And there is scientific research to support this, as I write in Autism and the God Connection.

In addition, we know that the sensory sensitivities of many autistics can be acute and extremely painful to endure; but this may also lend itself to a multisensory perceptive ability in the way that the person who is blind has finely-sharpened, compensatory senses. Spiritual giftedness relates to how we receive information on a high-frequency, vibratory level corresponding with our sense; not all input is verbal and plain to us. Oftentimes symbolic communication requires some decoding, like the autistic man who played with a blue toy truck; some thought it was because of stereotypes—that he was autistic, retarded, and mute. But deciphering the hieroglyphics of the communication, and presuming the man’s intelligence, I discovered that he was very close to his deceased father and had spent many happy times riding with dad in his truck—a truck identical to the man’s toy. As the man was without any other tangible reminders of his father (like photographs or personal mementoes), clearly the toy truck was the catalyst for triggering visual mind-movies of those happy days.


Question: Do you think that there are any "actionable" ideas, whether for therapy or for better understanding, that might come from your research?

Answer:Absolutely, and first and foremost is the concept: “presume intellect.” I have befriended many autistic individuals over the years who, outwardly, present as severely incapacitated because they don’t speak, have limbs that are unreliable, and are labeled “mentally retarded.” However, again, there’s a double standard in that we usually and automatically presume the intellect of persons who present in similar ways, such as those with Cerebral Palsy, ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s, Hodgkin’s, and so on.

Some of my friends use speech alternatives to communicate, and have revealed a profound intelligence filled with compassion and vision beyond what may be considered typical because of suffering in silence (an existence with which some have reconciled). Our challenge as parents, caregivers, and educators is to shatter myths and stereotypes in order to bridge gaps in understanding. We have much to be learning from one another.

The second piece, which builds from the fundamental premise “presume intellect”, is the three steps (or “miracles as I refer to them in Autism and the God Connection) to enact that can create a ripple effect of change. The three steps set a tone for reverence and respect, and poise us to become agents of transformation in our interactions with the autistic individual as well as others around him.

Question:Do you think that some of the interest in your book and your ideas may come from parents' need to find special talents in a child who appears to have few special abilities?

Answer: Let’s acknowledge that parents of individuals with autism can have intensely complex lives. No one who has contacted me has asked for anything other than the opportunity to be heard, so there’s no personal gain involved. And I’m not exploring anything that’s not already very well known to countless families; I’m merely illuminating it, bringing an aspect of autism to light that was previously “closeted.” So I’ve not “created” this whole “autism and the God connection” movement, it was already there, unfolding silently but surely.

All children are precious and, as human beings, we are all blessed with gifts and talents regardless of who we are.

Question: Is there anything in the research you've done that suggests that autistic people are more likely to have spiritual or paranormal experiences than other people?

Answer: I believe that we all hold the capacity to tap our spiritual giftedness with which every human being has been blessed; and the neat thing about being human is that’s going to look differently in every person, because we’re all unique individuals.

The trouble is many neurotypical persons are “blocked” from perceiving this aspect of themselves because they are immersed in the stresses of every day life; or, worse, they’re self-absorbed, greedy, power-hungry, and concerned only with gratifying their own desires. Persons who spend time in solitude observing and revering nature; expressing gratitude; praying or meditating; committing altruistic, selfless acts consciously and on a daily basis are, in my opinion, better attuned to perceive their own spirituality—and this concept is supported by other spiritual authors and theologians.

I also believe that individuals who are born into extremely challenging lives, such as those with autism, are pre-destined to do so, and are not simply thrust into this world to fend for themselves without any protection or compensation. I’ve had dozens of parents contact me to express that they are better people than they would’ve been—that they are now spiritual where they hadn’t been previously—because of parenting a child with autism.

Many other parents have reported that their children told them they were chosen before birth.

My friend Michael sums it up best in Autism and the God Connection when he discusses being a “whole soul in a broken body” which he contends is the reverse from what’s typical; the compensation he experiences is direct access to God and immediate answers to his silent questions in order to make sense of a chaotic world and his place in it.

Michael states that, ordinarily, for those “broken souls in whole bodies" such responses are made known to others only once they pass on.

Question: How did you come to define “autism and the God connection?”

Answer: I’ve always had an interest in circumstances and events that defied rational explanation or scientific logic—I was always intrigued with the concept that human beings don’t have all the answers. And I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family in which such things could be discussed openly and with wonder, not dismissed as impossibilities.

I began to notice the “God connection” in my work as an autism consultant about six or seven years ago. At the time, I was working in a couple counties in rural Pennsylvania counseling several multidisciplinary teams unknown to one another. However, I began to observe—and learn about—a strong spiritual way of being for the persons with autism for whom I was consulting. A number of themes began to emerge such as precognition (knowing what was going to occur before it actually did), telepathy (exchanging, or tapping into, thoughts and images with another), animal communication (silently intuiting and interpreting “animalspeak” from domesticated or feral animals), communion with a loved one in Spirit, usually a grandparent (a strong focus on the deceased’s photograph and intimate, previously-unknown knowledge about their lives), apparitions of wayward souls (“ghosts”), and communion with benign, ethereal entities, defined as angels by some.

I came to understand that, for those predisposed, these experiences were very common—natural, not supernatural.

As I learned more and more about these areas, I thought, “My gosh, if I’m seeing this happen in just a couple counties in rural Pennsylvania, what’s happening in the rest of the country?!” So I put out some cautious “feelers” by way of Internet postings and message boards, and was pleasantly pleased to have my suspicions validated by dozens and dozens of parents and professionals who began telling me of their experiences. People hundreds of miles apart—who had never before met—were all telling me variations of the same themes. This material formed the basis of my research in composing Autism and the God Connection, but I can also tell you that it’s only just the tip of a very large iceberg.

As a result of all that I was learning, I was also obliged to undergo a spiritual transformation myself. My original, working title for the book was Autism and the Clairvoyant Connection, but I soon realized that it was far more reverential than that; that the loving families I encountered often felt a deeply spiritual or religious sense of responsibility, and I knew there could be no title other than Autism and the God Connection.

Question: What do you recommend people “do” with this information once you’ve affirmed it for them?

Answer: First, understand that this doesn’t apply to all persons with autism anymore than it applies to all neurotypical individuals. Second, let’s acknowledge that it’s very real for many people, and that there is a community of folks who are sharing these experiences—you’re not alone. Third, allow it to affirm your own purpose—whether you’re an autistic individual, parent, or professional—as a co-collaborator in a relationship, raising the consciousness of others to demonstrate respect, regard, and reverence for others free from limits such as prejudice and rigid, authoritarian control.

And finally, support the individual to recognize that her life is not without purpose; that she is loved, and that her giftedness originates in a Higher Power—not something to dread; and that we all have a mission to employ our gifts and talents in order to be of good and great service to others.

Question: What are your upcoming projects, and how may people contact you about them?

Answer: I’m in the process of mobilizing the first-ever statewide autism self-advocacy coalition, here in Pennsylvania. We’re already established since March 2006 with representatives on the spectrum located regionally; now we’ll be partnering to co-present an autism training curriculum to mental health workers supporting children and teens with autism. It has the potential to be replicated nationally. We’re also planning the first-ever autism conference presented exclusively by—or co-presented with—persons with autism in an effort to educate others from the “inside-out.”

A documentary based upon Autism and the God Connection is in development as well. I was contacted several months before the book was published by a brilliant young filmmaker, Teo Zagar, who rendered a gorgeous film called Mind Games, a love story about a doctor experiencing a debilitating and terminal disease who spiritually willed himself to live longer than he was intended.

That will take a couple of years of planning, preparation, and on-site production.

And I’m composing a follow-up book to Autism and the God Connection that reveals more of the iceberg’s tip; I plan to revisit the concepts in the original book, but delve deeper. For example, if some autistics can communicate with animals, exactly what are the animals saying and how might that impact the rest of us.

Your readers are always welcome to contact me through my website. Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my work and research!

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