Autism Spectrum Disorder occurs in 1 out of 67 people. As the word “spectrum” suggests, autism expresses itself across a range of severity.
We all know quirky, socially awkward people who otherwise function well at work and at home. They may have especially sharp intellects, play a mean jazz piano, or solve intricate puzzles in a snap.
They may offend others with their blunt observations, make seemingly irrelevant contributions to a conversation, or relate a story or give an explanation in excruciating detail without realizing that everyone else has stopped listening.
They differ in degree of severity from others who might fit our preconceptions about autism. There is no rocking. No obsessive ritual behavior. Far from non-verbal, many of them will talk your ear off and will even look you in the eye.
But everyone on the autism spectrum shares this. They struggle with making connections with other people. It’s not that they don’t want to form bonds of affection and mutual understanding. On the contrary, those with high functioning autism often yearn to be known and loved, to have companionship and understanding. But the way their brains are wired makes it very difficult for them to read other people.
It’s as if they lack the key to unlock the code of facial expressions, body language, vocal tone, and speech volume that most of us apply automatically in reading each other. The problem is not that they don’t see these communication clues. Instead, they lack the key to break the code and arrive at the meaning.
Here’s an analogy. Imagine approaching a stop sign as you travel along a road. Without thinking, your foot hovers over and then applies pressure to the brake. You may be thinking about something else entirely and, once you arrive at your destination, you may have no recollection of stopping at that sign. But that’s exactly what you did. You understood the sign’s meaning instinctively. You have long ago internalized the key to such a sign’s meaning.
Now imagine driving down the road of a foreign land where all the signs are unfamiliar. It’s not just that you can’t read the words on the sign. The transportation department of this country uses different shapes and colors from any you’ve ever seen. You know that there are traffic signs, but you haven’t a clue what those signs are actually telling you. Are you supposed to stop? Yield? Slow down? Watch for pedestrians or wildlife?
You would do well to go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, pick up a driver’s manual, and study the section about traffic signs (with a foreign language dictionary in one hand). You’ll probably need to spend some time driving while you’re still learning the key. Gaining a complete comprehension of the key involves learning the proper responses to the signs when you’re behind the wheel. But eventually, you’ll respond instinctively to those signs. Your responses will be second nature. You will have internalized the key.
Some people with high functioning autism can learn to read people in an analogous way. For instance, I know a bright young woman with autism. She is joyful and loves company, and she has for years been working very intentionally on social skills.
At one point she realized that jokes posed a challenge for her. People connect by telling each other jokes and laughing at each other’s jokes. She had trouble recognizing when people were telling a joke. And she became aware of her challenge. So, she looked for some keys.
She started by working on how to identify jokes. People laughed. So she laughed. That’s not to say that she got the joke. But the laughter—and the tone of the laughter—became for her a reliable sign that a joke had been told.
Next, she recognized certain kinds of storytelling signaled that someone was telling a joke. Then, she began seeing what makes for a punchline. These days, she tells jokes. I suspect that she and I experience jokes differently, but we’re able to share in jokes today.
She had found a key. And to be honest, I can understand her because I found a key.
Instead of expecting her to process information like I do or respond to situations like I do or even try foods that I willingly try, I’ve come to recognize her responses as coming from a brain wired differently from mine.
And given her extraordinary ability to communicate with animals and to read musical scores and to hear musical punchlines that go right over my head, I have come to appreciate that different is actually a very good thing. I just needed a key to connect with her in her difference.
Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The keys to connecting with everyone, especially those with whom we struggle most to feel compassion and empathy. The keys to loving our neighbor as ourself when our neighbor seems to have landed from a distant plant, a planet to which we might wish that they would soon return.
Sometimes we call that person the other, or the stranger, or a foreigner. Sometimes we call that person an enemy. Jesus relentlessly insists that we learn to call that person neighbor, and sibling, and friend.
We sometimes meet difference with condescension and contempt. There are plenty of disparaging terms for blacks, whites, Latinos, and Cajuns. And these slurs betray an ungenerous attitude of the heart. Jesus is clear. “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool’, you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:22)
In the kingdom of heaven, we are stretched and enriched by each other’s differences. The key to embracing the stranger as friend, the other as sibling, is to remember that Jesus is always found in that other.
Remember what Jesus said about the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the homeless. What we have done for the least of his brothers and sisters, we have done for Christ himself. (Matthew 25:34-40)
If our hearts are to be stretched enough to receive God in Christ, then we must let God stretch our hearts enough to receive the other in all their differences. Especially the differences that stretch us the most.
Jesus gave Peter, and he gives all his disciples, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In Christ, we are growing in our willingness to seek family resemblances in and among differences that we have sometimes used to separate us. The keys to the kingdom enable us to read all people as the beloved children of God.
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Lake Providence, Louisiana.