Thursday, October 30, 2014

Telling a religious leader about being autistic

Ever since I was denied serving an LDS mission over having Asperger syndrome, I've felt some level of paralysis in knowing how to talk to people about my condition.  My symptoms aren't obvious.  I don't roll around on the floor screaming.  I have a job.  I can talk to people mostly normally- if you want to see it that way.  Since my medical condition can be essentially invisible, it would be all too easy for people to assume that I wasn't allowed to go on a mission for other reasons.  Mormons, at least in the areas I've lived, seem to have this fascination for guessing what sins someone must have committed and can sometimes become intuitively confident that they can know which sins someone has committed based on circumstantial evidence unrelated to the sins in question.  Therefore, I was terrified that if people realized I hadn't gone on a mission they would assume I had been having premarital sex.  Even worse, I got married before the age when Mormon missionaries normally return home.  In other words, the Mormon equivalent of getting married before you are 18.  I felt at the time that I had a spiritual duty to get married as soon as possible, but marrying before the culturally eligible age invited absurd assumptions about my private life.  To make matters worse my wife and I attended "married student wards" where almost every conversation between men started with something like "how long have you been married?" and "where did you go on your mission?" and where young husbands still fresh off their missions could barely give lessons in church without talking about or soliciting comments regarding missionary service.  I didn't know how to cope with all of this missionary work focus and nostalgia- so I frequently withdrew within myself and spaced out- unable to engage with my environment.  I had been raised to expect that a full time mission would be the climax of all of my spiritual devotion.  Being told that my social skills were too poor and that God didn't really want me as a missionary was something of a spiritual shock to my system despite having full faith that God could call me to not serve a mission as readily as he could call me to serve a mission.  Whereas before I was passionate about sharing the gospel I suddenly felt depressed and paralyzed on the subject, feeling that part of me wasn't really good enough for God.

What it came down to was that I rarely talked to anyone at church about being on the autistic spectrum.  I could jeopardize my reputation by getting merely close to talking about it.  I could hardly avoid telling the first Bishop I had after being denied missionary service.  Our main conversation on the subject happened because he found me and talked me down when I was stressed out in a fright nearly to tears because I was afraid rumors were spreading around the ward about me.  After that, I don't think I ever explained it to a church leader even once.  Having always been bad at making friends or sustaining real personal relationships, maintaining a good reputation was always very important to me as if somehow that would make up for my lack of social abilities.

With our son now being diagnosed on the spectrum, I've felt a need to be more open so I can advocate for my son.  For the first time in years, I haven't tried to hide who I am to a church leader.  I was able to be open about it.  Somehow, this feels like it has healed a gap in my soul.  For the first time in the decade since I was denied serving a mission, I don't have to worry about whether some unexpectedly bigoted self righteous person will make assumptions about me because of who I am.

1 comment:

  1. Justin, I can't tell you how happy I am for you. I teared up reading this because it hurts to read the pain you felt and because I know how devastating the whole situation was and I was so upset by it myself because I felt like if *anyone* woudl have been a perfect missionary, it was you. And because I just didn't feel like you were unworthy in any way. And I teared up because I feel so overwhelmingly happy that you were able to find healing because I know that was a horribly traumatizing and viscerally upsetting time and experience and I want you to feel at least somewhat healed from it. (I love you)