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Feb 17 2014

Bright with excitement

Atheist Ireland is collecting accounts from parents about religious discrimination and indoctrination in schools.

The second story in that post is terrifying.

Both my boys have autism, one of them being an Aspie. They both attended Catholic schools, as state schools did not have places for them, and it has been interesting to see how religion affects their reasoning.

The worst case scenario was when our eldest boy was told the story of the Resurrection at Easter in his first year at school. He’s rather more compliant than his Asperger’s brother, which is always a worry on so many levels. This is the gist of the conversation that we were faced with that evening with an overly-trusting 5 year old.

Him: (Bright with excitement) I am going to kill myself.
Us: What! Why?
Him: So I can see my granddad again. (Reference to my father who died when our son was a week shy of his 3rd birthday.) But don’t worry, I will come back in three days.
Us: But where did you hear this?
Him: In school today. Jesus died and came back to life after three days.
Us: Well, yes, but according to that story, Jesus came back because he was God’s son.
Him: But the priest said we are all God’s children.

Jeeeeeeeeeezus. People with autism don’t tell lies because they don’t get the concept. That means they don’t get fiction or fantasy or myth. It means that child couldn’t grasp that what the priest said was not true. Not that he didn’t believe it when his parents told him but that he couldn’t understand it. They spent three horrible hours trying to get it across to him.

As I said: terrifying.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Al Dente

    The child was taking what he had been taught to its logical conclusion. Fortunately he told his parents about his plans before trying them out.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    He took it literally…which demonstrates the degree to which the whole con game relies on wink-wink understanding that we’re really not supposed to take it literally. If we were supposed to take it literally then everyone would commit suicide and then come back in three days. It would be like a three day weekend in Aspen.

  3. 3
    Orion Silvertree

    Ms. Benson, may I ask you to make a small emendation?

    I’ve been on the receiving end of far too many remarks akin to “Lighten up: you don’t understand that’s just a story. Nobody real actually got hurt” when I’ve been appalled by physical, emotional, or systemic violence in a piece of fiction and made my objections known.

    I’m also, sorry to say, fully capable of deliberately telling lies.

    A more accurate statement would be something like: “One of the common symptoms of autism is confusion about the boundaries among ‘facts’, ‘fictions’, ‘jests’, and ‘lies’. At its most severe, ‘fiction’ and ‘jest’ may not be coherent concepts at all.”

  4. 4
    Robert B.

    In my experience, simple, clear-cut facts about autism are always wrong. The spectrum is really diverse, and understanding the thinking of someone whose brain works differently than yours is tough, almost by definition. At this point, I’ve given up on having any kind of overarching model of “what autism means” and I just deal with people one at a time.

    But yeah, some of my favorite fiction writers are on the spectrum. “They don’t get fiction or fantasy or myth” strikes me as over-broad.

  5. 5
    Maureen Brian

    So, it’s not just about what assumptions you make about people on the spectrum but also about what you tell to five year olds, especially ones you don’t know!

    I recall being in the main corridor while I was a 5 year old newbie at school. Someone called out from behind me – another kid clearly – “It’s home time.” and off I set. It’s quite a distance and involves crossing a main road. I duly arrived home mid-morning.

    Sixty-seven years later I’m still here. I might not have been. So the basic premise still holds – do not mess with children’s brains as they learn to understand and cope with the world.

  6. 6
    Kongstad

    When my boy was 3, he got it into his head that when you died you could take a life potion and come back to life – no doubt it was inspired by video games.

    My dad died some years before he was born, and when talking about his grandparents, we also talked about my dad, and how he had died.

    This meant that he announced that he was moving in with granddad in his grave, and wanted to give him a life potion, because he loved granddad. (The dead granddad had been his goto frind fro some time, when we mad unpopular decisions, Nathan would cry out to be with granddad).

    Although it was kinda cute, I had to explain to him that dead is final, and granddads body was ashes in a bowl now. It might sound fun, but trying to convince a three year old, that he cannot call your dad – who you still mourn – back to life with a life potion – is neither an easy nor an enjoyable task.

    Nathan is 6 now, and I am struggling to think about how to talk to him about religion – death, sex and gender is actually not that difficult to explain to a kid – hes got more to learn, but he knows the basics about all of it – but what he has learned about christianity is something about god and heaven.

    I feel I am doing him a disservice by not being forthright about what christianity is, but I do not wish to bias him unduly. But I cannot talk about heaven without talking about hell. The symmetry is build into the system. God and Jesus are loving and want you to come heaven with them on one hand, and on the other they sentence you to eternal torture in the fire of hell. How do you explain this to a 6 year old in a non judgmental fashion? I’ve talked to christians about, who just tell me to say that god is love, but that is lying by omission. IF god does not “save” you from the fire of hell – then the concept of heaven is meaningless. He is the schoolyard bully, who will abstain from beating you up if only you give up your lunch money.

    Religion is in many ways a menace.

    In Denmark, we have no separation of church and state, in fact we have a constitutional mix of both, so in school he’ll have christianity as a subject all through grade school, besides field trips to churches, visits from the local priest luring with mini confirmations at age 8-9 and real confirmations at age 14, besides the annual tradition of the christmas church service – at which we just found out, it is assumed that all children will go, unless the parents themselves have asked for their child to be excused. I have no problem with him being exposed to it, but still I feel torn because I feel kids are being sold only half the story.

    On the topic of kids – Nathan once entertained my wife, my mom and me with how gay men have sex, and how gay women have sex. You see the men face the same way – so their noses point in the same direction – this is important! And then they lie down on top of each other with penetration, but their noses point in the same direction. With women on of them lie down in the bed with the head in the foot end, and the other with the head in the normal end, but their noses face each other, not the same way – and then he was a bit unclear as to what happened to the women, and was distracted by some thin or the other and dropped the subject.

    Now we have always tried to be inclusive in how we speak. “if you have children we will be grandparents, but a lot of people don’t want or cannot have children, so mostly it is up to you”. “When you get older you might find someone you love and want to live with, either a boy or a girl.”. “Some boys like girls, some like boys and some like both, in the end its all just love”.

  7. 7
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    I feel I am doing him a disservice by not being forthright about what christianity is, but I do not wish to bias him unduly.

    Do you feel the same about teaching him Greek or Norse mythology? Buddhism? Islam? Just go ahead and teach him about the whole mess–including the Christian myth about heaven and hell, and say “This is what some people believe, but we/I don’t believe it. When you’ve grown up some and learn more, you can decide for yourself what you think is true.”

  8. 8
    opposablethumbs

    What Ibis3 said. We (in the UK; like you, no legal separation of church and state; many religious schools) told our kids that humans have invented thousands of different gods and demons and creation myths and spirits etc. etc. etc. …. at different times in history and in different societies. We don’t believe in any of them; some people do.

  9. 9
    Shatterface

    I’m an Aspie and the idea we can’t tell fact from fiction is a myth. Children with Aspergers might have difficulty dealing with other people’s false beliefs but that’s something different (and frankly that wouldn’t be a problem if other people didn’t insist on being wrong!)

    There’s actually a strong correlation between Asperger’s and atheism.

    That’s partly because the same cognitive process is involved in interpreting someone else’s motivation and interpreting natural phenomena as ‘intentional’ (floods are god’s wrath at gay marriege) and this cognitive bias is something we are relatively free from.

    And partly it’s precisely because we do distinguishe between fact and fiction and don’t let faithists off on equivocating about whether the Bible is literally or metaphorically true: it either is true, which it demonstrably isn’t, or it’s bullshit.

    You’ll also find we are more likely to challenge people who say things that don’t make sense. There are positive advantages to ‘lacking social skills’ when you are deeling with pedlars of bullshit.

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