OAARSN Book Review

Spirituality and the Autism Spectrum: Of Falling Sparrows, by Abe Isanon (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2001). ISBN 1 84310 026 6. 143 p.

Abe Isanon has been teaching for 22 years, the last 12 as a specialist with children and adults who have autism spectrum disorders. He now lives in the English Midlands, working as a residential care manager with autistic adults. He tells us in the preface that writing this book has been a labour of love, based on twelve years of “listening and learning” to people with special needs, who “have opened up my mind and heart to the beauty of the lost and the broken… They have afforded me the opportunity to shelve my cultural baggage and personal bias. I have been both touched and humbled by their courage, patience, integrity and humility” (p.9). 

In the first two chapters, the author discusses definitions of autism and suggests that it is more helpful to think in terms of autism-related problems. The impairments may be cognitive (problems of systems integration, left-right hemisphere integration, perception, attention, or thinking in pictures), emotional (sensitivity and anxiety), sensory hypersensitivities, and behavioural (including compulsions and obsessions and the resulting tensions and frustrations). 

The third and fourth chapters are concerned with how people with autism may cope with, or compensate for, their impairments. Isanon quotes Temple Grandin and especially Donna Williams, but he mainly draws upon on the narrative and poetry of “Adam” a man with high-functioning autism. Adam’s difficulties with cognitive and especially emotional conceptualization meant that he could not come to terms with his spirituality through traditional institutionalized religion. Instead he has developed a “liberation spirituality (that) places experience before the rationality of dogma and canon law.” Like many other autistic people, Adam is said to have an innate sense of justice, a strong inner certainty about his spiritual self, and a profound sense of compassion. He can give affection but cannot cope with receiving it. Adam values solitude and silence as aids to spirituality and regards St Francis of Assisi as the “most autistic of saints”--a man of warmth who seemed always to be present and attending to the needs of others, regardless of the consequences to his health or personal circumstances. 

In the final pair of chapters, Isanon explains his understanding of a liberatory spirituality that addresses the needs of both people with autistic-related cond/itions and their carers. He identifies most closely with the call by Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, for an approach that is both contemplative and active, and with the “preferential option for the poor” that is at the heart of the spirituality of L’Arche. He quotes Vanier on what this means:

People who are powerless and vulnerable attract what is most beautiful and luminous in those who are stronger: They call them to be compassionate, to love intelligently, and not only in a sentimental way. Those who are weak help those who are more capable to discover their own humanity and to leave the world of competition in order to put their energies at the service of love, justice and peace. The weak teach the strong to accept and integrate the weakness and brokenness of their own lives which they often hide behind masks. (Jean Vanier, Tears of Silence, 1997, p.2).
Based on his experience of caring for people with autism who seemed incapable of self-reflection and self-expression as well as his understanding of L’Arche communities, Isanon considers several elements he believes are central to liberation spirituality. Honesty means “grasping the truth of concrete reality.” Compassion is the primary response to concrete reality. Presence means listening deeply with love. Relatedness is intuitive rather than conceptual, experiential rather than abstract. Touch that is loving and respectful may be the primary means of communication when caring for those with severe and pervasive autism.

Isanon concludes by quoting Jean Vanier again: 

To love someone does not mean first of all to do things for that person; it means helping her to discover her own beauty, uniqueness, the light hidden in her heart and the meaning of her life. Through love a new hope is communicated to that person and thus a desire to live and to grow. This communication of love may require words, but love is essentially communicated through non-verbal means: our attitudes, our eyes, our gestures and our smiles. (Jean Vanier, Tears of Silence, 1997, p.5).