An Autistic Person’s Spiritual Journey
As a child, my family taught me to say grace and the “now I lay me down to sleep” prayer. Everything else regarding religion was left up to me to discover on my own. In my sheltered childhood, this complete freedom stood out as an anomaly. I was also diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a form of autism, when I was three. These two factors have been the greatest influences in my spiritual life.
To clear up some misconceptions, I work full-time and I live independently. I am not mentally challenged. I also can communicate with others and have many close friends. The primary difference between myself and others is that I have always taken everything literally all my life. This causes me to misunderstand others quite a lot. It has also gotten me in severe trouble in the religious arena.
When I was six, someone took me to a Baptist church. It was a typical fundamentalist church, with the usual emphasis on sin, salvation, and hellfire. I understood original sin and burning in Hell forever right away, but they kept telling me I had to “believe in” Jesus. I had no idea what that meant. To me, believing that Jesus died for my sins was like believing in gravity or that two plus two added up to four. It was a fact that required no faith. When I finally got the idea that “believing in” Jesus only meant knowing that he died for my sins and accepting Him as my Lord, I eagerly did so at age nine.
Of course, things were not that simple. I realized that I had a birth defect that required me to go to a special school and rendered me less capable of functioning than other kids (so I believed). I got that mixed up in my mind with original sin, coming to believe I received more original sin than others. If I were not so sinful, I would not require a special school. In short, I believed that I caused my own autism by sinning. All the hellfire-and-damnation preaching at church did nothing to help this, either.
My mother talked to the minister at this church about the constant guilt I was feeling. The minister replied “At least her soul will be saved.” My mother took me out of that church really fast. She is not particularly religious, and was far more liberal in her beliefs than I was then. I had chosen to go to that church. I have to point this out so nobody will think my parents forced me to be a fundamentalist. I chose this for myself before I was old enough to know any better.
Several years later, we had moved to a small town in the middle of nowhere. It was one of those places where there is nothing to do but go to church or get in trouble if one was a teenager. Since I was an excellent student with college and career in the future, I chose door number one. Yes, I found another fundamentalist church! This time actually went better, because I was sixteen instead of six. I got much-needed moral support and a good reason to avoid drinking, teenage sex, and other life-ruining stupidities. As a teenage girl, I was well aware of the consequences of messing up, and that those consequences would be far more damaging than they would be to a boy. A boy could always run away, but a girl with a baby was doomed to a lifetime of poverty and privation, and would perpetuate this in her offspring as well. [The church’s values nicely dovetailed with my family’s as well.] Except for worrying about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which would send me to Hell but was not clearly defined, I did fairly well in this church.
My freshman year in college, I was roomed with an older student. The woman and I got along well. She was bipolar and I was autistic, so we accepted each other where few others would. She was also as religious as I was. She was Pentacostal. One night, she took me to her church. At the end of the service, she pushed me forward and said, “She has not received the Holy Spirit.” Several older women circled me and pushed me back and forth gently with their hands. I began to sway and soon ended up on the floor speaking in tongues.
For the next year and a half, my roommate and I got along well. We would have quiet time (doing a reading from a devotional book, reading a passage from the Bible, meditating on some religious lesson, and then praying according to the day’s theme). I would wait in the hall while she did her quiet time, and she would do the same for me. We both thought this was perfectly normal. I got lots of stares from the others on the floor when I was asked, “Why are you in the hall?” and I would reply, “She’s having quiet time with God.”
During my college years, I was obsessed with the Apocalypse. I feared that the world would end at any time and I would be punished for all eternity. By then, I believed that salvation could be lost at any time as a result of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. I also feared that God would punish me with AIDS if I ever had sex before marriage. I believed that one-third of all humanity would die of AIDS as a result of God’s judgment for our sins. I began to pray for two hours each night to keep up with the ever-expanding prayer requests I got in church and at youth group. I thought that once someone was on a prayer list, they could never be taken off. Naturally, this led to sleep deprivation, which made my anxiety worse. I felt guilty for resenting having to pray so much every night.
In the middle of all this, I was studying miracle plays and Puritan literature as part of my major in English. While I got an excellent education, all this religious literature just fed my addiction. By the end of my senior year, I was set to graduate from college with no idea as to what I was going to do next. The religious preoccupation was at its worst.
Luckily, I had also gotten involved in the Society for Creative Anachronisms (SCA), which provided a welcome relief and gave me a social outlet outside of church. I loved to dance and was fascinated by the medieval period, so I was at home there. In the spring of my senior year, I went to an SCA party, where I met a nice Thelemite couple. I “witnessed to” them (translation: proselytize), so that left me fair game for them to introduce me to Thelema. I literally converted from Christianity to Thelema overnight. I quit going to church and got involved with the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO).
Once I exited church, I quit worrying about going to Hell and the Apocalypse, which helped me immensely. I was introduced to rational people who were more interested in magick and having a good time than in threatening young women with eternal torture. I was also now 21, and I discovered society did not give a darn as to what women in their twenties did, as long as it wasn’t in public. That was the best thing I had ever discovered! I took my first initiation a year later and became an officer in my local body several years later. During this time, I met and married my husband, whom I brought into the OTO.
When I was 24, I was on my way to an OTO party when I started to feel high. I was perfectly sober, and felt the energy coming from the house. I went in and found four people I had never seen before. All four had extremely strong energy. Three of them turned out to be Otherkin (experiencing oneself as not human in soul, body, or both), while the fourth was a chaos mage and Reiki master. The fourth one turned to one of the Kin and said, “I think we found another elf” and mentioned me. Something clicked into place immediately for me, and I knew I was Otherkin. After many years of trying to figure out my kin type, I discovered I was nekojin (housecat Otherkin) in 2009. This has been another facet in my identity and gave me another social circle I would not have experienced otherwise.
More importantly, the Otherkin community was where I first met LGBT people in large numbers. The OTO had always accepted LGBT people, but I had only met a few other bisexual women, and knew no lesbians, gay men, or any gender nonconforming people. In the OTO, being bisexual led to me getting preferential treatment of the men. Among the Otherkin, no one treated me any better or worse because I was bisexual. The community accepted it as just another orientation. I also met many, many, many gender nonconforming people there, and learned about the issues facing the trans community through meeting several trans women there. Of course, I saw them as much a woman as I was (I am a ciswoman) and could not figure out what the big deal was. I suspect being bisexual helped me out a lot here, since I was not invested in any particular gender for my romantic partners.
In 2007, I was burned out from being a local body officer (entirely my fault,) so I left the OTO and was introduced to the Radical Faeries by an Otherkin friend. Radical Faeries was the first queer space I had ever been in. I had already met a lot of LGBT people thanks to my involvement with the Otherkin community, but Radical Faeries was different. It was organized around sexuality and orientation rather than religion, unlike the OTO. There were Pagans and Christians and maybe an atheist or two. There was even one straight woman there. I felt at home there, even though it was mainly for gay men. A year and a half later, I drifted away.
In 2014, after not practicing anything spiritual for years, I met a friend at a movie. She brought me back to the OTO. My beliefs had not changed in any way since I left, so I was able to reintegrate myself with no problem. I am now a happy Thelemite and active in the OTO again.
From Christianity, I learned that all humans are imperfect and in need of humility. Among the Otherkin, I learned about gender variance and gender nonconformity. These people were not treated differently than cis-gendered folks, of course. I also learned that one can believe things that are quite different from mainstream consensual reality, but still be functional and integrated into society. From the OTO, I learned that it is my religious duty to use my freedom, not just obey authority. At the same time, what others believe is none of my business.