By contributor Tom Irvine
LDS members with Asperger’s, or high functioning autism, may face difficult challenges particularly with respect to neurotypical, authoritarian priesthood leaders. In some cases, these challenges may be deeply traumatic for the Aspie.
People with Down syndrome are easy to recognize from their neck and facial characteristics. Their behavior then confirms this. Autistic people are less recognizable by their appearance, but their condition is manifested by their behavior. Almost all church leaders will make allowances for Down syndrome people. Some leaders may misunderstand autistic people, but most make allowances for them, as well.
On the other hand, Aspies may appear and act normally most of the time, but also have subtle differences which are perplexing for leaders expecting uniformity, conformity to policies, and respect for priesthood authority.
Aspies tend to regard truth as an independent, immutable entity, and they steadfastly calibrate their own moral compasses accordingly. Truth and logic go hand-in-hand in the Aspie world. Aspies can be very conscientious about following rational rules but disdain man-made policies which appear arbitrary or to compromise eternal principles. Aspies thus tend to have some mistrust of leaders, until those leaders have earned respect in the meritocracy sense.
Aspies are known for being direct, speaking their mind, and being honest and determined. They have little ability or interest in chit-chat. And they easily miss social cues and are oblivious to unwritten social rules and expectations.
Aspies, particularly children, tend to take things very literally. A child may run outside and look up to the sky for falling kittens and puppies if someone says, “It is raining cats and dogs.” As Aspies mature, they began to recognize nuances and figures of speech, but they still have an instinct to take statements as literal, including those in the scriptures.
Teachers, bosses, and police officers often scan people for non-verbal cues that indicate that someone is lying or hiding something, mainly because they deal with sneaky students, employees, and possible criminals. Church leaders may do likewise as they interview or interact with members. But Aspies have their own set of non-verbal characteristics which may include lack of eye contact and repetitive motions. Some Aspies may be straight-faced, showing almost no emotion until their feelings reach a critical mass resulting in a sensory overload meltdown. These traits can be very disconcerting to a neurotypical church leader.
Each of these characteristics may result in deep misunderstandings between the Aspie and his or her priesthood leaders. In some cases, the leader will sternly counsel the Aspie to behave in a more neurotypical manner.
The Author’s experiences
I have never been formally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but I have so many Aspie traits that I identify as one. I have been blessed with many wonderful leaders over the years in church, but I have had some very traumatic experiences with others. The following are some short descriptions of a few of these.
I grew up making good grades in school but was very naïve as to the ways of the world. I was compliant and rarely got into any kind of trouble. My parents never gave me the “Birds and Bees” talk. I did not learn the plumbing of human reproduction until I read about it in my high school biology textbook when I was 16.
But as I turned twelve years old, well-meaning but misguided bishops began grilling me on whether I practiced something that I will euphemistically call “self-pleasuring.” I had no idea what this act was. When I asked the leaders for clarification, they begrudgingly gave me technical answers which I still could not understand. All I could discern was that this was some dark, evil practice. Warnings against this act were also frequent topics in priesthood lessons, conferences, etc.
In parallel, I was undergoing an early puberty. I began to erroneously feel deep guilt that any sexual urge or bodily reaction was related to this evil practice. I even began confessing to this “self-pleasuring” sin even though I still did not understand what it really was, nor had ever actually done it. I was able to serve a two-year mission, but even then I felt somewhat unworthy because of all the body-shaming warnings I had internalized from priesthood leaders. This was my first experience with church-related trauma. It is an example of the scrupulosity trap which can ensnare Aspies.
Jesus Christ, names and titles
I was in a ward once were members had developed a habit of referring to Jesus as our “Elder Brother” which he is. But they were doing so almost exclusively. I felt that the ward was neglecting the other attributes and titles of Jesus. So on Fathers’ Day I arose from the Sunday School pew and explained our Jesus is also a Father unto us and that we should wish him a Happy Father’s Day. I read aloud Ether 3:14:
“Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life, and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters.”
This triggered the Sunday School President, Brother W, who said “You can’t say that! We worship the Father not the Son. Next thing you will be saying that we should be praying to Jesus, and that is not right!”
Brother W, as a young missionary, had been in a room where a General Authority had scolded the missionaries for saying similar things to what I was sharing with the class. I replied that Elder Bruce R. McConkie had given a talk where he anticipated passing on and meeting the Savior and kneeling in reverence at his feet. I said “That sure sounds like worshiping Jesus to me.”
Brother W snapped back that this form of worship only applies to cases where people met Jesus in person.
I retorted, “Who is to say He is not with us now?”
This exchange took place in front of the whole class. There was vast anger, mostly from Brother W toward me. Both Brother W and I then ended our debate. The class continued but with a dark cloud over it.
Afterward, I went to an Aaronic priesthood class with one of my sons. One of the YM gave the lesson and quoted a scripture by Alma the Younger…
“Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death” (Alma 36:18).
I thought, Wow! We can pray to Jesus! And I made some brief comment to the class.
The next Fast Sunday, I did something that I have rarely done before or since. I got up to bear my testimony. I spoke with much boldness in a very Aspie way. I recited Alma 36:18 and plead with the members to “talk with Jesus, he is your father.” I also acknowledged that our formal prayers should be addressed to our Heavenly Father. But we could pray or talk with Jesus privately.
The Stake President heard this and called me in to his office and rebuked me for making a “gospel hobby” out of my relationship with Jesus Christ. I actually had to defend my testimony of Jesus Christ before my stake president!
The entire theology of both the ward and stake leadership was based on a 1982 BYU talk by Elder McConkie in which he had downplayed worshiping the Son. He later changed his position in his hymn “I Believe in Christ.”
For this and many other reasons, my family and I moved out of this stake. Brother W. apologized to me as we departed.
A Widow Gasping for air
I had a strong premonition that one of our widows would have a medical emergency at a ward Halloween party and dinner. Well, the activity went off without a hitch, and I dismissed my hypervigilance. But the next Sunday, one of our widows, Sister R, was playing the organ. She was having some health problems and had to stop playing before the sacrament hymn. She motioned to my wife to take over as organist. Then she sat back in a choir seat.
A few minutes later, Sister R began waving her arms and gasping for air. I may have been the only one in the congregation who saw this. Aspies can observe details that others miss. Immediately, I had a flashback of my premonition two days earlier. I raced up to the stand and asked Sister R if she was okay.
She exclaimed that she needed her daughter to bring the oxygen bottle from her car. I stood up, quickly scanned the congregation, but could not see the daughter. A flood of thoughts filled my head. One was that I might need to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation or CPR to Sister R. I felt that her life depended on me. So I did not want to leave her to go in search of her daughter.
I rapidly resolved to ask the ward members to help find the daughter so that the oxygen bottle could be brought to Sister R. I believed that every second counted and that there was no time to discuss the situation with the Bishop. So I went directly to the pulpit and effectively commandeered the meeting without any authority to do so. As I approached the pulpit, I had another premonition that was as strong as the first. – i.e. I would face a terrible consequence for interrupting a sacred meeting regardless of how justified my actions were.
The oxygen bottle was soon retrieved. A brother with medical emergency training came forward to help. We then called for an ambulance to take Sister R to the hospital where she recovered.
Sadly, the Bishop was upset by these events. The Bishop had known that Sister R was “shaky” before the meeting began. But Sister R had insisted that she was well enough to play the organ. As we were taking Sister R out of the foyer on the gurney to the ambulance, I apologetically told the Bishop that I knew I had just broke half the rules in the “Church Handbook of Instructions.” But he seemed to have calmed down somewhat and accepted what I did.
But a few days later, he called me into his office and harshly rebuked me over the incident causing me a complete meltdown. He used a scripture against me: “Mine house is a house of order.” (D&C 132:8).
I later countered in an email where I asked him to prayerfully study the scriptures about whether it was lawful for a man to heal on the Sabbath (Matthew 12). There were several months of lingering tension between us, but he eventually admitted that I had done the right thing and apologized.
Yes, Aspies have struggles with authority figures over what is “right.”
Hebrew Book of Mormon
The LDS Church briefly offered a Hebrew Book of Mormon in the early 1980s. But it was withdrawn so that the LDS Church could establish its BYU Jerusalem Center. Ultra-orthodox Jews at the time had protested that the BYU Center would be used for missionary work. So the LDS Church made an agreement that no proselyting would be conducted in Israel.
My interest in Hebrew developed over a period of many years. I have felt a melancholy emptiness in LDS Church meetings, where most of the membership is drawn from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh. I have concluded that Ephraim and Manasseh without Judah is as the sound of one hand clapping. I began attending a Torah study class a local Jewish temple. And I set a goal to read the Book of Mormon in Hebrew but soon discovered that the LDS Church does not offer one for the previously mentioned reasons.
The Book of Mormon teems with scriptures proclaiming that it must go forth unto the Jews, starting with its very title page.
“And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations” – (Excerpt from Book of Mormon Title Page).
“And as I spake concerning the convincing of the Jews, that Jesus is the very Christ . . .” (2 Nephi 26:12).
“O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people?” (2 Nephi 29:5).
“And it shall come to pass that the Jews shall have the words of the Nephites, and the Nephites shall have the words of the Jews; and the Nephites and the Jews shall have the words of the lost tribes of Israel; and the lost tribes of Israel shall have the words of the Nephites and the Jews” (2 Nephi 29:13).
“And it shall come to pass that the Jews which are scattered also shall begin to believe in Christ; and they shall begin to gather in upon the face of the land…” (2 Nephi 30:7).
So I determined that I would learn Hebrew, make a translation of the Book of Mormon, and publish my ongoing translation on one of my web pages. I put a disclaimer on each page that this was my own, amateur translation and was not endorsed by the LDS Church. I also prayed to the Lord for His approval of this effort, but I only received a faint answer that “It was up to me.”
I began the translation. In the coming years, I was twice harshly rebuked from Church Officials who called my stake president and bishop. After the first chastisement, I prayed and received a strong reply from the Holy Spirit to carry on the work.
But the second time was particularly traumatic. My stake president said that he was acting under authority from a member of the Seventy who was relaying a warning from the First Presidency. My stake president was enraged at me.
These church leaders stopped short of taking any legal or disciplinary action against me. But still I felt that I was being set up for excommunication. I even offered to resign my membership to save the LDS Church embarrassment, but my stake president did not respond to this offer.
Some years later, that stake president and the Seventy were released. That First Presidency was dissolved upon the President’s passing. But my translation remains available in pdf format online. No Jew or Israeli has ever complained to me about the translation, and BYU-Jerusalem is still operational.
As an Aspie, I took the Book Mormon’s Jewish scriptures literally, and was unwilling to defer to church policy and authority because I was hyper-focused on sharing this book’s truth with the Jews. But I paid a steep emotional toll. Somehow I am still an active member of the LDS Church, but am staying for altruistic reasons following the example of the courageous pioneer Levi Savage.
In the LDS Church, leaders are regarded as representatives of the Lord Jesus Christ. When a member experiences trauma, or “unrighteous dominion,” at the hands of a leader, then the member may feel rejected by the Lord Himself. The unrighteous actions of a leader can thus drive a wedge between the member and the Lord.
For a leader to show compassion toward Aspies and other neuro-diverse members, he needs one or more of the following:
1. Experience with an autistic or special needs child or relative;
2. A degree in psychology or some special training; and/or
3. Humility and the Spirit
In addition, Aspies need to develop coping skills to deal with authoritarian leaders.
“Some are lost because they are different. They feel as though they don’t belong. Perhaps because they are different, they find themselves slipping away from the flock. They may look, act, think, and speak differently than those around them and that sometimes causes them to assume they don’t fit in. They conclude that they are not needed.
“Tied to this misconception is the erroneous belief that all members of the Church should look, talk, and be alike. The Lord did not people the earth with a vibrant orchestra of personalities only to value the piccolos of the world. Every instrument is precious and adds to the complex beauty of the symphony. All of Heavenly Father’s children are different in some degree, yet each has his own beautiful sound that adds depth and richness to the whole.
“This variety of creation itself is a testament of how the Lord values all His children.”
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin, Concern for the One, April 2008 General Conference
Tom Irvine, Asπe
Hebrew Book of Mormon