Can Cognitive Science Inform Practical and Disability Theology Regarding the Religious Experience of High-Functioning Autistic People?

Tanja Horvat and Saša Horvat
Thursday 4 November 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Example one: “When the World Trade Center towers came down on September 11, 2001, I went to bed horrified, fearful, and angry. Then I remembered that Steven had not said his prayers. My son was only nine years old at the time. (…) He said all his ‘usuals’ about blessings and family, then he asked God to forgive Osama bin Laden for killing people! I was speechless. This little boy, who has struggled so much, saw the heart of God and how saddened God was at the destruction of so many lives. I came away renewed in my own faith, especially in the amazing mind of my little boy” (Stillman 2006, 11).

Example two: “My belief in the existence of a supreme intelligence (or, if you will, a God) is based on scientific factors. (…) I have not, as so many people do, gotten any solace or comfort from my religion, nor have I ever sought any. I have been told, from many quarters, that even with intellectual conviction, a religion is useless without a ‘gift of the Spirit’, and that, if this gift is received, no such conviction is necessary. I just cannot relate to that; I have never felt such a ‘gift’. To me, as far as adherence to a religion (or any other type of ideology) is concerned, intellectual conviction is a condition that mathematicians call ‘both necessary and sufficient’. My religious faith, I guess I could say, is not a gift from God, as so many people say; it is a gift I gave to myself. In line with this, I have never felt the emotional exhilaration that people must feel when they have a ‘religious experience’. This is true even when I receive the sacraments. The only thing that has deeply moved me is the reasonableness of it all” (Schneider 1999, 54/73).

Example three: “He had spoken to me as a father. He was dying and his spirit was going to fly. I was glad for him. He would be free. I said goodbye to him and thanked God for the gift of a death that lets one say one’s goodbyes and make peace. Then I phoned the florist and had them send him flowers that he could see with living eyes before he went. I sent bright, bold colours like the person inside of him, and I asked the florist to send them with a note which read ‘Happy flying’” (Williams 2004, 58).

Each of these descriptions offers an insight into a personal life experience with a supernatural agent. But what is specific about them is that they belong to persons with autism: the first person is a high-functioning autistic (HFA) boy, the second one is HFA mathematician Edgar Schneider, while the third one is HFA writer Donna Williams. Often referred to as autistic disorder, or infantile autism, or autistic syndrome, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder, identified by deficits in social communication and interactions, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviours or interests (APA 2013). Some 35 years ago autism was considered a rare occurrence affecting four children out of 10,000, while today, according to recent American studies, one child out of 40 is considered autistic (Kogan et al. 2018; Xu et al. 2019). Scholars agree that this is not an epidemic, but rather that the increase is a consequence of better diagnoses, improved measurement methods, and parents’ awareness (Grinker 2007, 14; Kogan et al. 2018). Let us also emphasise the ways in which cultural environment plays a role in the identification and diagnoses of autism (Carruthers. et al. 2018; Grinker 2007).

A new understanding of the prevalence of autism poses challenges for various aspects of societies, including academic theology. Efforts have been made by scholars within practical and disability theology to understand disability itself and as a social phenomenon (Eiesland 1994; Brock and Swinton 2012; Swinton 2011a, 2011b). This need to develop a theological understanding of autism, while recognized, is still an under-researched area (Swinton and Trevett 2009; Trevett 2009; Dubin and Graetz 2009; Brock 2019; Macaskill 2019). Models of pastoral care developed specifically for children with ASD are almost non-existent.

Given the “autism tsunami”, disability theology and practical theology need a better understanding of the religious experience of autistic persons. In order to achieve this goal, it is necessary to take into account the insights of those empirical sciences that study the phenomenon of autism. Here we specifically focus on the insights of the cognitive science of religion (CSR). In the field of CSR, a common theory is that people with ASD, because of various cognitive challenges, are more likely to be agnostics or atheists. Nevertheless, there are scholars who are empirically testing an opposing theory, claiming that autistic persons are more inclined to adopt supernatural beliefs compared with neurotypical persons.

This is where our theological puzzle emerges: despite their cognitive challenges, can we consider certain experiences of autistic people to be religious, and if so, how should theologians approach such experiences? In order to answer this puzzle, we need an interdisciplinary approach and mutual exchange of knowledge between theological disciplines and CSR. In addressing this puzzle, we will be mostly referring to people with high-functioning autism (HFA), since this scarcely available literature mainly concerns their experiences. The concept of “high-functioning autism” is a qualifier that refers to “a subset of individuals on the autism spectrum who have cognitive and/or linguistic abilities that are in the average to above-average range for their age” (Diehl, Tang, and Thomas 2021, 2334). Even though they have social deficits, the individuals in the “high-functioning” subgroup have average to above-average intellectual capabilities. The term is not currently an established diagnostic category and the criteria for group membership are not clearly set. Nevertheless, the term HFA is increasingly used, especially in clinical evaluations of individuals on the autism spectrum in order to, for instance, differentiate this subgroup from a group with intellectual disability or from a group with an Asperger syndrome diagnosis (Diehl, Tang, and Thomas 2021, 2335-2336). Although HFA is only one piece of the autistic spectrum, it can offer an entry point for the theoretical work of our puzzle.

We recognize William James’ idea regarding the importance of exploring the varieties of individual religious experience and cognition (James 1982). In this way, we will try to avoid possible misunderstandings of autistic people and their experience, given that the theology of disability “still takes too many common assumptions for granted” (Brock 2019, XII). In a book about his Down syndrome/autistic sixteen-year-old son Adam, Brian Brock likewise puts emphasis on experience. Brock writes, “Adam at all demands letting him tell me what his life is, and aligning myself with what he reveals. Devoid of any power of projection, he nevertheless articulates profound things with wide-ranging implications” (Brock 2019, XII). We also need to acknowledge here that an attempt to understand experience of persons with autism is burdened with complexity, which we will also see from a scientific point of view in the second part of the puzzle. Our goal in this puzzle is to provide brief insights into experiences that autistic people live through and that they themselves interpret as encounters with the supernatural. Our aim is not to judge whether such events are truly encounters with the supernatural, but to investigate in what way theology could consider such experiences more openly.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Practical and Disability Theology

Disability comes in many different forms, and as an umbrella term it covers an enormous number of different human states (illnesses, bodily characteristics, diseases, etc.). Disability is always much more than the disabled person is able to communicate. Disability can be “painful, comfortable, familiar, alienating, bonding, isolating, disturbing, endearing, challenging, infuriating, or ordinary. Embedded in the complexity of actual human relations, it is always more than the disabled figure can signify” (Thomson 2017, 14). Having representative images of disability in our minds (wheelchairs, blind and deaf people, obvious developmental disabilities, etc.), we believe that we recognize and understand rather well what it means to be disabled. Therefore, we will not probe further into the diversity of disabilities and personal experiences in these conditions (Creamer 2012, 339), including religious experience. Disabled people are “unusual”, opposite to “normal”, some kind of “life gone wrong”, an opportunity to do a good deed and something we pay more attention to when it concerns  someone close to us (Creamer 2012, 340).

Following the example of Jesus Christ, Christian theology has always been in a relation to the disabled ones, and recently theologians have made an extra effort to develop disability-friendly or disability-inclusive congregations (Brock and Swinton 2012; Eiesland 1994). Disability theology is an “attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experiences of people with disabilities. It has come to refer to a variety of perspectives and methods designed to give voice to the rich and diverse theological meanings of the human experience of disability” (Swinton 2011a, 140). Their aim, among others, is to give more focus to the human experience described as disability (Swinton 2011a; 2011b).

One of the fields of disability is autism. The historical relation between autistic persons and religion is yet to be more profoundly researched (Trevett 2009). Similarly, the role of spirituality in the lives of people with disabilities has not yet been sufficiently researched, and this also relates to high-functioning autists (Dubin and Graetz 2009). Nevertheless, the need to develop this understanding of relationship between religion and autism is recognized and scholars have begun to address the subject from different perspectives, but it remains an under-researched area (Swinton and Trevett 2009). An ‘advocate’ of autistic people, Nick Pentzell (2004), explains how people react differently in his presence and how this reveals their religious stance toward disability: “On the negative end, I have been seen as a punishment from God, a conduit for something demonic or supernatural by people who haven’t understood my method of communication, a burden to test the faith of my caregivers, and a soul who incurred bad karma in past lives and now suffers autism. The positive views are just as preposterous; I am an emanation of Christ, an angel, a miracle, a holy innocent, and a Fool of God.” (Pentzell 2004, 36)

The theological disciplines mentioned above have yet to develop a recognizable theoretical and practical framework for assessing the religious experiences of HFA. However, they put in the foreground the intention to “give a voice” to the experience of disabled people; in this case the autistic. In this regard, and as a part of developing a theological approach to autistic experiences, we consider it worthwhile to highlight three issues we observed when studying the records of religious experiences of HFA (either in first- or third-person perspective), which will contribute to a deeper understanding.

The first issue we consider important is a firm belief of autistic people that other people primarily view them as beings with a certain intellectual difficulty, unable to perform as well as neurotypical persons (e.g. individuals of typical cognitive and developmental abilities) in all fields of life, including relations with a supernatural agent. This stereotype was identified by William Stillman who has Asperger’s Syndrome – or, as he calls it, a mild “cousin” of autism, and who has consulted on autism cases for more than 30 years. Stillman argues that “we must shatter the stereotype that those with autism necessarily experience intellectual impairment (i.e., mental retardation) as a direct result of the autism” (2006, 8). He notices that parents and society usually focus on “how to best manage and control those with autism for the sake of conformity and ‘normalcy’” (2006, 8). Because of this, autistic people are often only considered in the light of their medical diagnosis, instead of being seen as equally as unique as other people, both in terms of their place in society and their experience of religion.

Autistic people have difficulties in everyday communication and cannot express their thoughts or emotions in the same manner as neurotypical persons. This significantly affects their social life and they are often maligned and disregarded by others (Stillmann 2006, 2-3). Also, communication of their religious experiences is reduced and sometimes misinterpreted. Stillmann testified that he was removed from church at the age of six because he could not stop crying, yet no one around him understood that the reason for his weeping was the enchantment of the stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion, which aroused in him compassion for the suffering of Christ (Stillmann 2006, 4).

Through his work he encountered many different autistic religious experiences, described them as special spiritual connections, which include “heightened awareness, innate gentleness, and exquisite sensitivity in a number of those with autism; that is, a capacity to perceive all things seen and unseen” (2006, 6). The experiences varied from “knowing what someone is thinking before it is said; foretelling future events that come to fruition; and enjoying special, unspoken bonds with animals. Still others are said to have perceived visions of grandparents and other loved ones in Spirit, or even communed with angels” (2006, 6-7). Stillman wrote that he himself always felt that someone was watching over him and taking care of his safety. Importantly, it is not uncommon for young autistic persons and Aspergians to have suicidal thoughts, and according to Stillmann, a strong spiritual support can be a source for combating these dark moments (Stillmann 2006, 6-7).

In her study on “autistic spirituality”, Bogdashina writes that commonly reported features are experiences of “true self”, “simply being”; out of body experiences; heightened awareness, including what is beyond ‘normal’ perception; visions; acute appreciation of nature; connectedness, resonance and merging; empathy towards people; “psychic abilities” (Bogdashina 2013, 191). Let us also note that autistic children and teenagers often have imaginary friends, compensating and complementing real-life interaction. It is presumed by scholars that this imaginative play helps them organize certain insights about different agents, including God (Clark and Visuri 2020, 145).

The second issue important for our puzzle is that people with autism often hesitate to speak about their religious experiences and think it is better for them to be quiet about it. There are different reasons for this. The first reason is that they do not want to “risk antagonizing others’ perceptions by fuelling stereotypes of ‘autistic behavior,’ only to be explained away as delusions or psychotic episodes and medicated accordingly” (Stillmann 2006, 11). Stillmann reports how some autistic persons have “arbitrarily acknowledged the existence of their spiritual gifts but are, understandably, blasé or not terribly interested in giving the subject much airtime. It’s there, but not overly significant in lieu of paramount issues such as self-advocacy, civil rights, and the tireless endeavour of general acceptance” (2006, 12).

In her research, Visuri came across similar stereotypes and writes about the challenge of embracing supernatural ideas and experiences in secularized Sweden where such ideas/experiences are often considered irrational. The autistic participants in her studies describe “how negative reactions from peers and family members make them wary of talking openly about their views of life. One of them importantly comments that if you are already labelled as autistic, you do not want people to find out that you are also religious, because then people may think that you really are crazy” (2019b, 23).

The third issue is that descriptions of religious experiences by autistic persons may not come as we would “normally” expect them. Often these experiences are somehow not “quite right”, like in ‘example three’ described in the introduction regarding the literal understanding of the soul flying to God. Their experience can also be “right up our theological alley”, for instance, when talking about angels, adult autistic persons will claim that “angels do not come in white robes and wings but in the guise of people we have loved. The angels know we will welcome them if they look like people we can love” (Stillmann 2006, 142). Another example is when Izzy writes to her mother about her deceased father: “Dad came to me last night. He wanted me to see my angels at my side. He wanted me to not be afraid. He told me they watch over me. I now understand. I am seeing things different now. I no i am put on earth for all time just to learn about life. (…) God is nice. He will always prevail in doing good for humanity mom” (Stillmann 2006, 174).

In some other cases, autistic religious experience can be completely based on logic, without any emotions. This goes along with certain claims that autism can be considered an extreme example of the normal male sex profile, since in males systemising is significantly more common than empathising (Baron-Cohen 2002), and autistic people are much better in systemising. So, autistic people often appear more “normal” and even excellent in mathematics or STEM subjects. Our ‘example two’ in the introduction testifies of one such experience, and an additional example is provided by the well-known HFA person, Temple Grandin, who wrote about her struggle with religious beliefs:

It is beyond my comprehension to accept anything on faith alone, because of the fact that my thinking is governed by logic instead of emotion. (…) In high school I came to the conclusion that God was an ordering force that was in everything. (…) In nature, particles are entangled with millions of other particles, all interacting with each other. One could speculate that entanglement of these particles could cause a kind of consciousness for the universe. This is my current concept of God.” (Grandin 1995, 189/191/200)

In this part of the puzzle, we have approached the theological stance towards disability, and outlined relevant obstacles to a more profound theological understanding of autistic experiences. We have also provided examples of different types of religious experiences without an attempt to provide strict classification.

2.2 CSR and the Religious Experience of HFA

Can we regard the abovementioned religious experiences merely as fruits of a malfunctioned cognitive structure and thus downplay them in comparison with religious experiences of neurotypicals? In order to address this issue more effectively, practical and disability theology should engage the insights from the cognitive science of religion. CSR has yielded useful data in an attempt to provide a unique scientific theory of religion and evolution of religion (Oviedo 2019a; 2017). After an initial introduction to the discipline, we will show that there are two current theories within CSR: one that considers autistic religious experience to be problematic, and the other which not only concedes the possibility of such experiences, but that they are even more common in autistic persons than neurotypicals.

CSR is a scientific discipline that aims to explore religious beliefs and practices, viewing them usually as by-products of regular processes of human cognition, rather than as a separate dimension of human cognition, and not significantly dependent on culture (Smedt and Cruz 2020). CSR uses knowledge from various fields, such as cognitive psychology, religious studies, philosophy of mind, neuroscience, social, cultural and cognitive anthropology, etc. (Turner 2014, 2). Justin Barrett (2007) posits that CSR aims to discover the basis for the fact that religious cognitive acts are both interculturally and historically regular. Nevertheless, as a young discipline, scholars of CSR have identified certain difficulties and ambiguities concerning issues of basic goals, methodologies and hypotheses (Jong 2014).

For CSR, religious beliefs are in some ways a reflection of our cognitive abilities, which we have naturally acquired, and which we can, therefore, to some extent, investigate empirically. Yet, when CSR claims that religion is “natural”, what does it mean by that? The naturalness hypothesis (Boyer 1994; McCauley 2000) points out “the fact that religious ideas and behaviours thrive on (or are parasitic to) normal human cognitive and psychological processes” (Geertz and Markússon 2010, 155). Religion is a fruit of our maturationally natural capacities that are part of our cognitive equipment that “address problems that are elemental in human survival” (McCauley 2011, 37). For Markússon, the strength of CSR and the naturalness hypothesis lies in the fact that it can provide good explanations as to why religion is a human universal (because brain and mind are similar everywhere); why supernatural agents are central to most religious systems; why rituals have the forms they have (because of action representation and effects on memory).

CSR is dealing with mechanism such as HADD – a human excessive inclination to interpret phenomena as the consequences of the actions of an agent (Barrett 2004). Scholars hold that HADD enabled the development of the “idea of God”, according to which certain natural forces or inexplicable events are the result of some divine agent. A second mechanism in CSR is theory of mind (ToM), which is often seen as generating various religious attitudes. ToM seeks to explain our capacity to grasp other people’s states of mind – beliefs, emotions and intentions. This mechanism is considered fundamental for attributing agency and intentionality to spirits, gods and other invisible entities. The third mechanism in CSR is the disposition of human minds to hold to and transmit to others minimally counterintuitive supernatural beliefs (Oviedo 2019b, 3). In the case of religious content, for example, ghosts are usually described in human form, but can pass through walls. It is precisely the passage through the walls that is the minimally counterintuitive moment that allows information to be more easily remembered, adopted and transmitted to others.

Now, how is all this work connected to autism and our puzzle? We could say that autism was a litmus paper for the naturalness hypothesis. Namely, it was considered that the absence of ToM in autistic persons could underlie their social, communicative, and imaginative abnormalities (Baron-Cohen et al. 1997; Baron-Cohen 1995). Therefore, autistic persons should also have problems in developing relations to supernatural agents.

For example, Jesse Bering (2002) states that since people with autism suffer from impaired communication, they would likely also struggle to perceive agency and teleological meaning behind events. Bering states that people with autism understand God as a principle or a force, rather than as a person. Similarly, Jeffrey Boyd (2008), building on the broken mirror hypothesis of autism (“mirroring” others is a problem of neuronal nature), understand ToM as unavoidable and necessary for building human-to-human and human-to-God relations (even in Heaven). Further on, McCauley also claims that “though people with autistic spectrum disorders may have religion thrust upon them, they will be no clearer about its import and no more creative with its peculiarly religious contents than what they can commit to memory” (McCauley 2011, 262).

Nevertheless, the newer empirical testing of the CSR hypothesis (i.e. that a deficit in ToM limits human-to-God relations) did not produce results that would support the hypothesis (Visuri 2019b, 33-37). When compared with the older studies, the newer ones had a better understanding of mentalizing and a broader variety of measurements. Here are a few conclusions: individual differences in ToM ability among autistic individuals mean that many of them are able to pass false-belief tests (Coleman 2016); there is a positive relationship between moral concern and belief in God, while the impact of mentalizing was considerably weaker (Linderman and Lipsanen 2016; Jack et all 2016); one could not observe any significant difference in mentalizing between autistic and non-autistic samples in performance-based measurements, or evidence of differences in religious beliefs, prayers, attendance at religious services, anthropomorphism and felt closeness to God (Reddish, Tok and Kundt 2016); cultural learning and parenting are strong determinants of one’s personal religious beliefs (Maij and colleagues 2017).

In her interdisciplinary research, Visuri (2018a, 2018b, 2019a, 2019b, 2020) draws insights from cognitive science of religion, cognitive autism research, humanities-oriented study of religion, critical autism studies (CAS), and psychological anthropology. Concerning social cognition in autism, Visuri points out that contemporary research shows that mentalizing is a complex construct of many processes and that autistic persons struggle primarily with decoding embodied information. Namely, in direct conversations, neurotypicals can gain a great deal of information from body gestures or facial expressions. Although autistic persons cannot “read” (or cannot synchronize) all that information, they are apt to sensing emotions. Supernatural beings do not have physical bodies, so interaction with them is “unrestricted by multisensory input such as body language, facial expressions and intonation” (Visuri 2019b, 93). Such realms for autistic persons are therefore optimal (Visuri 2019b, 95). Since communication with supernatural beings is not loaded with embodied complexities, autistic persons have time to figure out the meaning of the situation, unlike in face-to-face communication where information run fast and changes along the way.

Furthermore, according to several studies, a majority of autistic persons reported having ‘unexplainable, sensory experience’. In fact, they had them many more compared to neurotypical persons. Visuri claims that we should not dismiss these experiences as hallucinations or a mere product of imagination, since autistic persons interpret them in terms of supernatural agency. Their interpretation of why they occur is enriched by cultural concepts and ideas by which they are surrounded, so the enculturation of autist embodiment is also crucial for understanding religious experience (2019b, 93). Visuri stresses how her autistic participants provided clues that they are fantasy-prone and have a propensity for absorption (to be able to have experiences of altered sense of reality). This research also indicates that mental distress triggers autistic persons to seek out supernatural relations (2019b, 94).

Visuri concludes that her research provided results that challenge the popular CSR hypothesis that mentalizing on intuitive level is crucial for the formation of religious beliefs. Instead, she claims that “supernatural ideas gradually are shaped from reflections of unusual events, emotional prompts and existential issues, and cultural frameworks escort them towards various conclusions on supernatural agency. It is moreover argued that the experiential dimension, which is often overlooked in the CSR, is central for the formation of supernatural beliefs” (2019b, 94).

Ekblad and Oviedo (2017) also questioned the notion that deficiency in ToM causes reduced beliefs in God and that only mentalizing mediates a connection with the supernatural – which is why autistic persons are more likely to be agnostics or atheists. Their results showed how people on the autism spectrum had a greater sensitivity towards the broad spectrum of spiritual and supernatural experiences than neurotypicals. They hold that their study “reveals a more nuanced religious structure in the minds of subjects on the autism spectrum and does not allow simplifications serving some theoretical programs” (Ekblad and Oviedo 2017, 295).

Ekblad and Oviedo acknowledge “the general impression” that autistic children have difficulties in adapting to the standard religious socialization characteristic. But, studying autistic boys who were raised in religious families and/or educated in religious schools has shown how they overcome these difficulties “through specific ways, perhaps building some particular religious structure or code” (Ekblad and Oviedo 2017, 295). Ekblad and Oviedo suggest that the most important insight is that the social or cultural environment “becomes the decisive factor leading to more or less religious attitudes and ideas”. They conclude with the observation that “developmental and social-cultural variables become more important than just innate cognitive features when predicting religious outcomes in these cases” (Ekblad and Oviedo 2017, 295).

3. Discussion

Our puzzle posited the question of whether, despite their cognitive challenges, we can consider certain experiences of autistic people to be religious? And if this is so, how should theologians approach them?

With the help of documented cases, we saw that the religious experiences of HFA are as different as they can be. Nevertheless, they can serve as a starting point for further theological reflection. CSR provided theories and empirical evidence in two different directions: a) ToM deficit equals deficit in relations with supernatural, i.e. deficit in religious experience and b) ToM deficit is not crucial for religious experience and can be bypassed by other cognitive capabilities and environmental factors. Let us provide three possible models how we could further develop theological frameworks for approaching religious experiences of HFA, informed by CSR insights.

  1. The Deficit Model

It is based on a theory that considers how religious experiences of HFA are limited by cognitive challenges and therefore autistic people are primarily agnostics or atheists. Although there are experiences that fall into this category, this model does not take the numerous testimonies of autistic individuals into account, which clearly indicate religious experiences or aspiration toward the supernatural. Empirical findings provided arguments that HFA are not to be regarded primarily as agnostic or atheists, but that they have similar, if not more inclinations towards the supernatural than neurotypicals. Because of its exclusivity, this model is not appropriate for a theological assessment of autistic experiences.

  1. The All-Inclusive Model

This model seeks to include all autistic experiences within the religious domain, if they have any kind of mark or property that could be interpreted as religious. This way model overcomes all three issues described in section 2.1.

The positive side of this model is that it recognizes how religious experiences of HFA are enabled by a complex cognitive structure that is embodied, embedded, and encultured. For practical and disability theology, this means that religious experiences of HFA are not to be regarded or even dismissed as experiences caused exclusively by their cognitive difficulties. As we noted in section 2.2., this implies that religious experiences of HFA are not simply caused by implicit, non-reflective (bottom-up) input from cognitive structure, but that they are also reflected and top-down moulded.

Yet, this model is too broad. Empirical research has shown that HFA, as all people, are influenced by the culture in which they grow up, and that they may take over the content from that culture. Such content can be absorbed from the religious milieu, but also from any other domains available in a culture. For example, they can be drawn towards imaginary (movies, books, etc.) or occult content. Research showed that subjects can form beliefs about the supernatural on the basis of this content. For some subjects, their sensory and supernatural experiences reinforced these beliefs. If these beliefs and experiences are immediately marked as religious, then there is a risk that the possibility of developing existing intuitive tendency towards the supernatural will not be recognized.

  1. The Open-Individual Model

The third model emphasizes that each person is unique. Emphasizing the uniqueness and individuality of each human being is especially important in the case of autistic people, given their challenges in communicating with others. Because of this, their uniqueness is often not explicitly expressed, overlaid by their disability and medical diagnosis. This model implies that each individual HFA should be approached individually. This includes the insight that their religious experiences  are enabled by their own peculiar cognitive capacities, but also by their parents’ upbringing and cultural influence. We have also seen in section 2.2. that their religiosity can be motivated by distressful life events and a search for meaning, as is the case in neurotypicals as well. An additional argument for this model can be made based on numerous records of different experiences, interpreted as religious or supernatural by the subjects themselves. This model also takes into account the fact that theoretical frameworks and empirical research are still evolving, which means that this model can be further developed.

An openness to the individuality of autistic persons enables the fostering of an “autistic-friendly environment”, beneficial to their religious development. This includes having in mind the three issues mentioned in section 2.1. Prejudices about autism contribute to misunderstanding their experiences, and they also contribute to HFAs’ decision not to speak publicly about their religious experiences, because of the fear that others would not consider them even “crazier”, which is especially true if they live in secularized societies.

4. Conclusion

Our puzzle provided evidence of how theological considerations can be informed by scientific insights, enabling theologians to gain a broader insight into diverse religious experiences, in this case of HFA individuals. We are aware that HFA represent only one part of autistic spectrum and that their experiences are better documented, elaborated, and can provide first-person perspective to researchers. Nevertheless, these insights can pave the way for further considerations of autistic religious experiences and teach us to be careful in our theological approach and judgment.

The first two models we proposed, the Deficit Model and the All-Inclusive Model, proved to be too narrow and too wide, respectively. The third model – the Open-Individual Model – stresses the importance of approaching the spiritual experience of autistic person’s individually, thus remaining open to the spectral nature of the autism phenomenon whilst respecting new scientific knowledge.


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Cite this article

Horvat, Tanja, and Saša Horvat. 2021. “Can Cognitive Science Inform Practical and Disability Theology Regarding the Religious Experience of High-Functioning Autistic People?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 4).

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Tanja Horvat 
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Saša Horvat
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