Autistic individuals are often represented as “suprahumans” who, as angels, Christ figures, martyrs, and Saints, possess special abilities that differentiate them as “over,” “above,” or “higher than” other “normal” human beings. Or, autistic individuals are identified as “inhumans” who, as demons and sociopaths, do not possess “the qualities proper or natural to a human being” and are especially “destitute of natural kindness or pity” (Oxford English Dictionary). This paper identifies depictions of autistics as of, beyond, and without God to argue: first, symbolic representations of autistics as “suprahuman” and “inhuman” demonstrate how little the general public understands Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD); second, by identifying autistics as “other,” audiences can disassociate themselves from the mentally and developmentally challenged in order to reaffirm their own desires for “normalcy”; and, third, such depictions allow audiences to ignore or neglect their responsibilities to those with mental and developmental disabilities by placing the “burden” of care in “God’s hands.” Finally, I hope that by identifying and deconstructing representations of autistics as “suprahumans” and “inhumans,” my research offers an expanded definition of what it means to be “human” and will identify the need for new representations that engender respect and dignity for autistic individuals.
AUTISTICS AS SUPRAHUMAN: SAINTS, ANGELS, AND “CHILDREN OF GOD”
In his 2006 book, Autism and the God Connection, William Stiller proposes that as “exquisitely sensitive” individuals, autistics possess unique spiritual and “supernatural” qualities that enable them to “perceive things that most others cannot” (145) because autistics possess the capacity for “spiritual connectedness, heightened awareness, and exquisite sensitivity beyond what is considered typical” (Stillman 18). On his website, Stillman specifically describes those supranatural qualities or abilities that an autistic individual possesses, including “a deep appreciation for the beauty of nature, forests, lakes, streams and plant-life”; an “innate spiritual or religious sense that compels others in positive ways”; an “unspoken connection with dogs, cats, horses, butterflies and other creatures”; an ability to hold “conversations that appear to be ‘two-way’ with someone unseen, usually at the same place and time every day”; and, an ability to “forecast what's going to happen next or know what someone is thinking before it's said, especially with loved ones” (Stillman, “Demystifying Autism from the Inside Out”).
Autistic individuals are also endowed with “Gifts of the Spirit” or the ability to know “what someone is thinking before it is said; foretelling future events that come to fruition; and enjoying special, unspoken bonds with animals” (Stillman, Autism and the God Connection 6). Additionally, Stillman believes that autistic individuals often have “spiritual protectors”—typically a deceased grandparent—who often use autistics as conduits to make their spiritual presences known (Autism and the God Connection 113). Stillman notes that “people with the greatest perceived differences (including our loved ones with autism) are closely guarded through the divine grace of spiritual protectors—those souls already in Spirit. These protectors often appear to be readily accessible to many individuals with autism” (104). Autistic individuals have “perceived visions of grandparents and other loved ones in Spirit” and have even “communed with angels” (7). Stillman acknowledges the challenges that autistic individuals face but argues that “those individuals with the greatest life challenges are among the most advanced of souls” (8). For instance, Stillman believes that non-verbal autistics “speak” in silence with a “spirit” free from the “prison of the body” (64) because “Our Creator makes no mistakes, and not speaking is simply and naturally the beauty of their design” (63).
Stillman notes ways in which non-verbal autistics can communicate, such as facilitated communication and telepathy, which he states are “a mode of expression bonded in intimacy” (Autism and the God Connection 70), because “[w]hen we think of persons with autism who live in silence, it certainly makes good sense that telepathy is one such mode of communication” (71). Stillman believes that non-verbal autistic individuals use telepathy or “autistic hieroglyphics” and presents cases of non-verbal autistic children who are obsessed with seemingly insignificant objects that remind them of departed loved ones. For instance, Stillman describes a young man obsessed with smelling, touching, and tasting apples because they reminded him of his mother and another boy obsessed with the trains that reminded him of his grandfather (109).
These “autistic hieroglyphics” are also used by autistic individuals to convey messages to their caregivers, as in the case of the non-verbal autistic boy who was obsessed with Madonna’s 1984 song “Papa Don’t Preach.” Stillman argues that it was no coincidence that this child’s obsession with the song, in which Madonna sings “Daddy, I’m keeping my baby,” coincided with his mother’s conflicts about institutionalizing him (Autism and the God Connection 110). Stilllman notes that “autistic hieroglyphics” challenge the assumption that autistics can only communicate literally and concretely; instead, Stillman argues that autistics are able to communicate symbolically—caregivers and educators simply may not recognize it (111). Specifically, Stillman states, “Disbelievers will categorically dismiss such activity as senseless babble, the autistic equivalent of stereotypical ‘baby talk.’ My belief is that most often during these times the individual with autism is being privately counseled by a divine presence” (152).
While he presents his theory on the “God connection” from a position of compassion for autistic individuals, Stillman identifies an autistic individual as a sort of suprahuman child of God enables audiences to reaffirm their own desires for normalcy and, in turn, stigmatizes autistic individuals as “other than human.” Nick Pentzell sarcastically reiterates this claim in his 2004 article “Fool of God” when he writes, “I am an emanation of Christ, an angel, a miracle, a holy innocent, and a Fool of God” (36). For centuries, the mentally and developmentally challenged have been thought of as “God’s special children, that whatsoever one did unto us, one did unto God, that we could embody or reveal holy truths” (37). In fact, Pentzell believes that people’s reaction to his disability depends on “their religious attitudes toward disability” (36). As an autistic man, Penzell has 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.” And, as a child, Pentzell was often mistaken for a “simpleton,” and his misbehaviors were often dismissed or overlooked because he could not possibly understand or “know the difference between good and evil” (36). Still, Pentzell argues that positive misconceptions were not any more favorable: well-meaning strangers often [spoke] to him as if he were “a feeble-minded child forever in a natural or Edenic state of innocence” (36).
Such representations of autistics as suprahumans reinforce the public’s fears of those with ASD and justify prejudicial practices and policies that perpetuate inadequate treatment and care. Pentzell, likewise, argues that the mentally and developmentally challenged need “a more meaningful, realistic, and constructive faith perspective” that does not mythologize the experiences or lives of the mentally and developmentally challenged: “We are no more or less metaphysically connected than the rest of humanity. The presence of disability is no more spiritually revelatory or meaningful than countless other basic human experiences and struggles” (37). Pentzell argues that by perceiving the mentally and developmentally challenged as “God’s special children” society is able to repudiate its ethical responsibilities to those most in need of support and care since those with disabilities will never be equals if they are viewed as “God’s charges, and not society’s.” Pentzell explains this point further when he notes:
Romanticized faith places the active role on God: A religious person gets to feel good because she or he is thinking nice things about us. If there is a “miracle” to be had, it will occur when people are able to see what was there all along, that which had been hidden: our able selves. We do not need miraculous healing—we need basic human and societal help. (38)
Additionally, by identifying autistic individuals as suprahumans, we may be more inclined to read something “deeper” into them to fulfill our own curiosities about God, spirituality, and the afterlife. Identifying autistic individuals as suprahumans confirms audiences’ desires to believe that these “superior beings” prove, for instance, as one parent notes, the existence of a higher power and that autistics’ experiences with their spiritual guardians are “manifestations of God’s work” (qtd in Stillman, Autism and the God Connection 145). By identifying autistics as possessing special “connections” with God, Stillman’s readers are able to confirm their faith and relieve their fears about death and mortality. The autistic parents and caretakers that Stillman discusses, perhaps, want to believe that moments of extra sensory perception occurred because such instances of suprahuman abilities reaffirm parents’ and caretakers’ own desires and need for purpose and meaning. This point is supported in Stillman’s book when one parent states, “I have witnessed on several occasions his conversations with someone that I could not see, and on occasion I could sense a presence during these conversations. I have also gotten comments from my son that are very profound and have strengthened my faith in God” (emphasis mine, qtd in Stillman 152). Readers “see” particular behaviors or statements as meaningful because these behaviors and statements may tell Stillman’s readers what they want to believe: God exists, life exists after death, and God has a purpose or for each of us, autistic or not. As Stillman notes, autistic individuals reflect the “purposeful plan to refocus us on the importance of reverence for all of humanity” (18). Stillman even challenges skeptics, like myself, who do not believe that autistics possess the ability to communicate with the dead, communicate with family members via extra sensory perception, or communicate with animals: “Skeptics may need unequivocally direct and blatant proof. But that would detract and undermine the communication’s purpose, allaying the true focus: loving affirmation that life (and consciousness) continues beyond our physical selves” (107).
AUTISTICS AS INHUMAN: THOSE BEYOND AND WITHOUT GOD
When Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-hui opened fire on his classmates and professors on April 16, 2006, many wondered what could have enabled anyone to kill thirty-two people in cold blood. Especially gruesome was that Cho seemed to lack any sort of empathy or compassion for the students he killed and the others he terrorized. In a rush to explain Cho’s inhumane behavior, The Associated Press reported on April 20, 2006 that Cho was diagnosed as autistic after emigrating to the United States from South Korea as a child; the AP quoted Cho’s great aunt as the source of this revelation:
“From the beginning, he wouldn't answer me,” Kim Yang-soon, Cho's great aunt, said in an interview with Associated Press Television News. He “didn’t talk. Normally sons and mothers talk. There was none of that for them. He was very cold.” “When they went to the United States, they told them it was autism,” said Kim, 85, adding that the family had constant worries about Cho. (qtd in “Virginia Tech Shooter ‘Was Autistic'”)
However, in the days that followed The Associated Press’s statements regarding Cho’s supposed autism diagnosis, parents, educational specialists, and autism activists rallied against the connections between autism and Cho’s behavior, and CNN was one of the first news organizations to stop reporting on the autism diagnosis, even if they never rescinded their original reports. Because of the lack of awareness or understanding of autism by audiences, it seemed possible, if not plausible, that Cho’s behavior was caused by his supposed autism diagnosis. The description of Cho as quiet, withdrawn, and socially awkward matched with descriptions often associated with autistic individuals; psychosis, homicide, and autism were closely linked by the media and their audiences.
Such portrayals of autistic individuals, as unemotional inhuman murderers, are based on misconceptions regarding autism which, in turn, reinforce those same misconceptions. Since television and movie industries have perpetuated or initiated stereotypes “so durable and pervasive that they have become mainstream society’s perception of disabled people (Longmore 3), it is no surprise then that forensic psychiatrist Dr. Arturo Silva and criminal profiler and psychologist Johanna Gallers would propose that many of the world’s most famous serial killers—who were capable of unspeakable cruelties—were, in fact, autistic (Kilzer). Silva argues that the common thread among such sociopathic murders as Henry Lee Lucas, Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, and Dennis Rader was their inability to empathize, their obsession with deconstructing women, and their lack of remorse for their crimes (Kilzer). Kilzer’s article suggests, then, that men like Lucas, Bundy, Gacy, and Rader killed because they, like other autistic individuals, supposedly lack compassion and empathy, ultimately suggesting that autism precedes homicide. The argument stands then that only a person with a biological inability to empathize with other human beings could be capable of committing crimes as heinous as those committed by these men, and autistic individuals are perceived as having this type of biological difference. However, as Nance Cason and Sandy Shaw note in their response to Kilzer’s article, Silva makes “a sweeping generalization taking advantage of the fact that autism has been in the news a lot lately. While the doctor credited with making the comparison seems to know what makes mass murderers tick, his knowledge of autism appears to be cursory, at best.” Cason and Shaw also argue that Silva’s claims make incredible leaps in logic by connecting autism, a developmental disorder, to the types of personality disorders that lead some to kill: “In fact, most individuals with autism lack the highly developed executive function abilities necessary to plan and execute a single ‘pre-meditated’ murder without being caught, let alone a series of such crimes.” Again, media reports on Cho’s supposed autism diagnosis and representations of autistic individuals as serial killers presents autistics as inhumans void of remorse or empathy, individuals beyond redemption or forgiveness.
Not quite as malicious as identification of autistics as beyond God, but just as demeaning, are identifications of autistics as without grace, mercy, or redemption. In such representations, through prayer and God’s intervention a “cure” for autism will be found. Similar to autism activist groups Defeat Autism Now (DAN) and Cure Autism Now (CAN), Gary J. Heffner’s “Pray for Autism Now” (PAN) web page is “founded on the belief that God, through His Son, Jesus Christ, intervenes in the lives of those affected by autism,” and encourages readers to “Pray for Autism Now” in order to “redeem” oneself or one’s child from autism. Heffner encourages readers to bring their “fear of autism to God.” Heffner writes that “[t]he thought of a normal child suddenly slipping away […] into a world of aloneness and unimaginable fears scared me.” In fact, Heffner created the PAN web page to share his granddaughter’s story of “healing” through divine intervention:
My wife and I prayed daily for our granddaughter and our Sunday School class prayed as well. […] Slowly, we began to see results. Our granddaughter began to develop language, respond to our voice, imitate things we did and said, and (most importantly) hug us back when we hugged her. Our granddaughter is now five years old. […] Praise the Lord!
Heffner attributes his granddaughter’s success to the power of prayer, as when he states, “I am not sure what happened but I believe God gave us wisdom and had mercy on our granddaughter by healing her. I continue to pray for her every day. We praise God for His healing!” As Heffner states, “God has been merciful and loving, as He always is.”
While not mentioned specifically in The Bible, Heffner states on another web page, “Autism and The Bible,” that Autism Spectrum Disorders serve as a metaphor of the relationship many parents and caretakers have with God, as when Heffner notes that “the most tragic part of autism is that I would love to comfort a child with autism, but he won't let me. The more I pull the child close to me, the more he pushes away. […] Isn't this like our relationship to God?” Heffner elaborates on this statement with a passage from Isaiah 6:9: “Go and tell this people, Hear, but understand not; and see, but do not apprehend with your mind.” In Heffner’s scenario, then, autistic individuals represent those who do not follow or believe in Christian doctrine, and autistic individuals, in this case, symbolically represent those who reject Biblical teachings. Heffner further explains how autism reflects this relationship when he states,
During this time the people of Israel would not listen to God or His prophets. He continually spoke to them but they would not hear. God sent many prophets who used many different methods to speak to them but try as they might, Israel would not listen. They had working ears but would not or could not hear. How like autism! Is this a taste of how God feels when dealing with us? Wouldn't you do anything to just get through to a person with autism? God will do anything to get you to listen to Him! (Italics in original)
These passages from Heffner’s web site are troublesome for several reasons: Heffner’s final statement that “God will do anything to get you to listen to Him” seems to imply that God will do anything to those without God—including “cursing” them with a plague of autism cases. More troublesome though are the parallels made between autistics’ disabilities with those who do not believe or follow Christian teachings. These sorts of rhetorical identifications show how, as Kenneth Burke argues in A Rhetoric of Motives, “ the ways in which individuals are at odds with one another, or become identified with groups more or less at odds with one another” (Burke 22). Specifically, Burke writes, “A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so” (20). As it relates to these passages from Heffner’s PAN web page, Heffner attempts to persuade readers to follow biblical teachings by identifying autistic individuals similarly to those who reject Christian doctrine: “A” in this case, autistic individuals, relates to “B,” nonbelievers who reject God’s teachings, and both of whom are unlike “C” in that they are not like the Christian followers who “hear” and “understand” God. Like those without God who have “working ears but would not or could not hear,” autistic individuals have working brains but would not or could not understand. As Heffner notes on his web site, “This example is not meant to equate autism with our spiritual condition but to help us all relate to the plight of autism and to lead those who desire to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.”
A final conclusion readers can draw from Heffner’s plea is that the “cure” for autism can only come through prayer. Heffner writes, “This journey in the world of autism has led me to believe that the cure for autism lies in the hands of our Almighty God! He has helped me to see that the increase in autism in these latter days may well lead to a cure. What I ask of each of you who love the Lord is to pray each day for a cure for autism.” Heffner encourages parents and caretakers to repeat this prayer daily:
Dear Father, forgive me and my nation for our sins. We have failed to look to You for help with this disorder called autism. Forgive us. I pray that You will lead us to find a cure for autism. […] Lord I pray for a miraculous cure for all children with autism. […] I pray also that You would lead researchers to find a cure for autism. Help the researchers to be humble, to seek You, to understand the connections between the physical, biological, chemical, and immunological findings in autism research.
Again, the purpose of Heffner’s prayers reveal a self-serving intention of ministering to readers the tenets of Christian faith; in this case, autism serves as a vehicle for teaching other’s about Christianity. This prayer seems to imply that the recent increase in autism diagnoses is a punishment from God and an autism diagnosis is a means of bringing parents and nonbelievers to God. All of this begs the question then—is the purpose of identifying autistic individuals and, in this case, parents and caregivers, as without God serve the best interests of autistic individuals or is it really to justify and reaffirm others’ own faith?
While this study focuses on several specific representations of autistics as suprahumans and inhumans, this research illustrates how autistic individuals are unfortunately identified as objects of wonder and awe or viewed with scorn and fear. However, neither representations are appropriate for dealing with the particular needs and challenges that face autistic individuals, nor do they engender the respect and dignity that all human beings are entitled to and deserve. While identifying autistic individuals as suprahuman might be a more positive representation than those that identify autistic individuals as inhuman soulless beings without morality and beyond mercy, such identifications still stigmatize and are inaccurate.
Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
Heffner, Gary J. “Autism and The Bible.” The Autism Home Page. 21 Oct 2007. <http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/autismandthebible.msnw>.
----. “Pray for Autism Now.” The Autism Home Page. 21 Oct 2007. <http://groups.msn.com/TheAutismHomePage/prayforautism.msnw>.
Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability. Eds. Anthony Enns and Christopher R. Smit. Lanham, MD, 2001.
Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. 21 Oct 2007. <http://ezproxy.twu.edu:2148/>.
Kilzer, Lou. “Piecing Together Serial Killer Puzzle.” Rocky Mountain News. 28 Jul 2006. 28 Nov 2006. <www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_ 4876226,00.html>.
Pentzell, Nick. “Fools for God.” The Other Side: Strength for the Journey. Mar/Apr 2004. 36-8.
Stillman, William. Autism and the God Connection: Redefining the Autistic Experience through Extraordinary Accounts of Spiritual Giftedness. Sourcebooks, Inc: Naperville, IL, 2006.
----. “Demystifying Autism from the Inside Out.” Autism and the God Connection. 21 Oct 2007. <http://www.williamstillman.com/connection.html>.
“Virginia Tech Shooter 'Was Autistic.’” The Sydney Morning Herald. 20 Apr 2006. 21 Oct 2007. <http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2007/04/20/1176697070692.html>.
I would like to thank Brandon Barnes and Donna Souder for their thoughtful suggestions and observations.