Religious belief and perceptions of autism

I just posted the following in the comments to my last post, in response to a comment from jypsy, but wasn’t sure how many people would see it there. So, here it is again.

I would be curious to see if there is any data concerning the effect of religious belief on how someone views autism (and vice versa). Are devoutly religious people more likely to consider autism a ‘bad thing’ that should be overcome (ie, curebies)? Are atheists more likely to accept autism as a part of global neurodiversity?

Or is the issue, like most everything else, more complex than those simple distinctions. (I’m sure the answer to that is yes.)

Has anyone seen any data on that?

The power of pop culture

I will be the first to admit that I am a huge consumer of pop culture. I like to watch good TV (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and film, I keep up with the latest in music (yes, some of it is awful), love video games, and read the occasional novel (though most of my reading these days is non-fiction). It comes through every now and then, like in my October post “Every soul is perfect” – Is there autism in heaven? (Redux), a reflection on how autism was treated on the CBS show Ghost Whisperer.

In response to that post, Ian Parker submitted the following:

Um, regarding heaven and ‘perfect souls’, I would hope that people do not determine their religious beliefs based on the pseudo-religious-philosophical musings of the writers of Ghost Whisperer. At least take the time to consider what Homer has to say before coming to any final decision on such weighty matters.

I share Ian’s hope that people are smarter than that, and am doing my part by helping my sons understand what they consume in a smart way, I am a bit of a pessimist when it comes to actually thinking this is the case (a rare instance of a glass-half-empty feeling on my part).

For good or ill, pop-culture is a driving force in many (most?) people’s perception of the world and their actions in the world. Because of that one episode of Ghost Whisperer, I would venture a guess that many people’s perceptions of autism now include one of “imperfection” here on Earth, the image of a “lost soul” trapped inside an uncooperative body.

Why am I re-hashing this, you may ask. These thoughts came to mind as I came toward the end of Roy Grinker’s new book, Unstrange Minds. In it, Grinker relates the story of how a popular film in Korea has helped reshape Korean attitudes about autism in a positive way. From the book (page 256-257, sorry for the long excerpt):

That month a low-budget Korean film entitled Malaton (spelled the way the main character pronounces the English work “marathon”) was released. The film was based loosely on the real-life story of a young runner name Bae Hyong-Jin. Bae worked part-time on an assembly line in a tool factory when, at the age of seventeen, he ran a marathon in Chuncheon, Korea, in 2 hours 57 minutes. While not anywhere near elite runner times, which are under 2 hours 8 minutes, Bae’s time was enough to earn him national recognition. Why? Because Bae Hyong-Jin has autism.

But the film is not about running. It’s about the complexity of autism as a disorder and the problems people with autism confront in their family and social lives. it is one of the most realistic and compelling cinematic representations of autism that I’ve ever seen. The film was made after the Korean media began to publish stories about people with autism. The media had begun to publish the stories because parents, informed by the Internet and the international media, started to talk about autism in public.

Within one month after its release, more that 10 percent of the Korean population had seen the movie, and it was the second-largest moneymaker in the Korean film industry in 2005. Largely as a consequence of the film, millions of Koreans have a least a basic understanding of autism. On web site chat boards, disability rights advocates, parents, and educators in Korea are claiming that more diagnoses are being made, that people are more willing to bring their children with autism out in public, and that educators are more willing to accommodate children with autism in their classrooms. No one knows whether these changes will last, but optimism is sweeping the country. Parents of children with developmental problems think that their children may have brighter future than they previously imagined.

While autism is much more public in the US than it is in Korea, there is still a lot of ignorance of what exactly autism is, what it means, how it should be handled, etc. Any news story, TV show, or film that deals with the topic is absorbed by a curious public. And, in the absence of any other information (that doesn’t require actually going out and finding it), what people see from these sources is what they will believe, what they will think is the truth.

What if the film the Koreans had seen were Autism Every Day? Their pre-existing stereotypes would have been confirmed. Here in the US, what if Autism Speaks had had the budget to put up a couple of spots during the Super Bowl, with the largest single TV audience in history? What if NBC had broadcast the Super Bowl?

As much as we may wish it were not so, we can’t ignore the power of pop-culture and the influence it has had, and will continue to have, on the public perception of autism.

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“Every soul is perfect” – Is there autism in heaven? (Redux)

Last December, I ended a post with the following question: If there is indeed a heaven, and our autistic children go there when they die, will they still be autistic? The answer, according to the writers of the CBS show Ghost Whisperer is an unambiguous “NO.”

In case you’re not familiar with the show, it is about a woman – Melinda – who helps the troubled spirits of those who die “cross over” into the light. Last Friday’s show (13 October) was about an autistic man who died but was not ready to leave. About half way through the episode, Melinda and her husband – Jim – realize that the man is autistic and that that is why they are having a hard time communicating with him and trying to figure out why he won’t cross over. Here’s the conversation they had (paraphrased to the best of my recollection) :

Jim: But if he’s dead, why is he still autistic? Shouldn’t he be cured?
Melinda: Yes, every soul is perfect. Maybe he has to cross over first.

Aack! Phbbt!

I’m sure many of you started sputtering at Jim’s question, I can only imagine the reaction to Melinda’s response. At the same time, I know that there are just as many people who agree with what these two characters said and believed, who can’t imagine that these ‘damaged’ people would remain damaged for eternity.

To be fair to the show, it was actually presented a decent portrayal of the issues and challenges around autism. A group home for autistics was shown, with the ‘director’ of the home explaining autism a bit to Melinda. Though she touched on some common characteristics, she did not stereotype autism. The (dead) autistic man was living with an autistic woman and died accidentally. He was trying to reunite his girlfriend with her mother – who had institutionalized her many years earlier when doctors blamed the autism on her (refrigerator mother) – before he could cross over.

But that one little statement, that I’m sure the writers didn’t even think about beyond “where’s a good place for him to ask this question,” pointed out a – THE – fundamental divide between people when they talk about autism: is it something bad to be feared and eradicated; or is it something to be understood and accepted?

— Note: In case you’re wondering, they didn’t explcitly show the man being ‘cured,’ but his mannerisms and demeanor changed as he was crossing over in a way that could only mean that he was, indeed, becoming a ‘perfect’ soul.

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No wheelchairs in heaven? What about autism?

Yesterday morning on NPR‘s Morning Edition, I heard Ben Mattlin’s commentary Valuing Life Whether Disabled or Not (available in either Windows Media or Real Player format).

Commentator Ben Mattlin has been quadriplegic since birth. At the memorial service for a disabled friend who passed away, he came to realize the world needs to expand its definition of what it means to live a successful life, disability or not.

What caught my attention, and inspired the first part of the title of this post, were the last few sentences of the commentary:

Are there no wheelchairs in heaven? I’m not buying it. For me, if there is a heaven, it’s not a place where I’ll be able to walk. It’s a place where it doesn’t matter if you can’t.

If there is indeed a heaven, and our autistic children go there when they die, will they still be autistic?

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