Friday 18 March 2016

Jesus and his friend Nicodemus: Autism in the Bible?

I'm sometimes asked if there are autistic people in the Bible.
We don't know for sure, of course.  Autism, as a diagnosis, has been with us less than 100 years.  But it has always been with us, from what we can see of genetics and accounts of behaviour.

Let us look at Nicodemus.  He appears three times in the Gospel of John, in Chapter 3, 7 & 19.

When we first encounter him, we learn that he approached Jesus in the quiet of night.  He needed to talk to Jesus alone about what Jesus was teaching.  Nicodemus was a well respected Jewish leader, who would have known every word of the rules and regulations of that faith.  He didn't understand Jesus's sayings about 'being born again', and took it really literally.  Born again?  That's impossible!  Baffled.  I'd be the same.  Not scorn or low intelligence.  Seemingly a brain that thinks literally, and often (for many of us) mostly in pictures.

So, Nicodemus needs to learn something new in a low-sensory, low-social environment.  Really keen on rules.  Can't understand strange expressions without a lot of explanation.  Hmm, where have we seen things like that before...

When we next encounter Nicodemus in Chapter 7, he's getting out the rule book to try to defend Jesus.   Solving things by reference to rules, not non-autistic social-skill persuasion.  Sounding familiar?  

In Chapter 19, Nicodemus is there after Jesus's death, at the tomb, staggering up the hill with around 75 lbs of herbs & spices for fragrancing the tomb and body.  Most people would have brought a small bag of the stuff.  One suspects he's committing a bit of a non-autistic social faux-pas here...and I'm imagining the astonishment/annoyance of the others, with their handful of herbs.  Ooops.  But what a gesture of love, in autistic culture.

For a long time, we've assumed that Nicodemus was an example of what Jesus disliked. An example of the ridiculousness of the 'old faith'.   I think we've had that very wrong.  Nicodemus was, as far as I can tell, an autistic friend to Jesus.  Not cured, not pitied.  Someone who stood by Jesus in ways that honoured autistic culture and autistic ways of expression, right to the end.   Loyalty - another 'hallmark' of autism.

So, next time anyone describes autistic people as too much trouble/cost for us to include, something to 'cure' with prayer...I would encourage them to think about how inclusive Jesus was with his autistic friend, a friend who spent quite a bit of time helping Jesus, not being helped.  A friend he trusted to still lead, still be there, as himself. 

I see a lot of places praying for a 'cure' for autism. But most autistic people do not want one.  A typical huge poll result, below. Same spread of answers for autistic people who are non-verbal, or who have a learning disability.  For most of us, autism is who we are, in the same way as we are (say) 5ft 6 or have size 7 feet.

Perhaps we need to think again about our understanding of why autistic people are created by God.  Very much part of the world, bringing honesty, dedication, clarity, focus, creativity and shared journeying alongside others.  And very much part of that One Body of Christ.