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Religion and Positive Teachings

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by Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| May/June 2002


Many parents share with me their desire to introduce or educate their child with autism or Asperger’s in the religion practiced by the rest of their family. Some wonder if their child is capable of understanding the concept of God (or a higher power), of being spiritual, or even understanding the basic messages of the Bible or other religious texts.

I have learned, over the years, that there is a whole upper layer of abstract thought mixed with emotion that I do not have. Thoughts and emotions are separated in my mind; they don’t intermingle and affect one another. Thinking is concrete, it happens in pictures in my mind. Therefore, for me, inspirational matters had no meaning, except for the very concrete aspects of them that were taught to me.

I had a proper religious upbringing, though. My family attended the Episcopalian church every Sunday. These weekly outings held little value to me, nor was I interested in what went on. Scratchy petticoats that I had to wear to church were awful; in fact, the worst thing about church was the Sunday best clothes. Sunday school was boring to me and I usually spent the entire class filling in the O’s and P’s in the church program.

Concrete teachings were what I understood. For instance, our Christmas service made a lasting impression on me that I carry to this day. Each Christmas, every child in the congregation had to take one of their good toys and give it to a poor child. One year, I offered my yo-yo, and mother told me that I had to give a better present. At the Christmas service, the minister stood next to the manger, full of donated toys, and said, “It is better to give than to receive.” This kind of concrete learning I understood.

The autistic/Asperger’s mind tends to dwell in negatives; this is something parents and professionals should be aware of and find ways to counteract. It is beneficial for a young child to be schooled with positive teachings. One way to do this is through religious training. Helping a child understand what to do in concrete ways, demonstrating to him or her actions that are giving and positive and helpful to others, can counterbalance this tendency toward negative thinking. If a child asks about something negative like stoning as it’s mentioned in the Bible, I would recommend parents tell the child that in modern times, people no longer do that. Keep it concrete and simple.

A nice, positive approach for a Christian upbringing would be to give a child one of the “WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?)” necklaces or key chains. Then teach the child concrete examples of what Jesus did, or would do, in various situations. For instance, Jesus would not cheat in games. He would not lie, or steal another child’s toys. When I was little, I stole a toy fire engine from another child and mother made me give it back. Moral upbringing must be concrete. A good person is considerate of others. One example I remember from my childhood was being told, by a very sleepy mother, that asking her to open a stuck glue bottle while she was sleeping was not being considerate. Fair play and good sportsmanship are important to teach. Jesus would play fairly and would not be a poor loser. He would not scream and rant if he lost a game. It is unfortunate that in our society today, so many sports heroes behave badly on TV and there are no consequences for their actions. It teaches a wrong moral lesson for a child with autism or Asperger’s (or any child) to see a famous basketball player not being punished for kicking a TV cameraman. If a child views things like this, it is important that a parent tell the child that Jesus would never do that.

Teach your child love and kindness in a concrete manner, with very specific examples. For instance, an example of kindness would be bringing flowers to an old lady in a nursing home. There are hundreds of ways parents can share the real essence of their faith with their child with autism or Asperger’s, through daily demonstrations of the goodness that is at the foundation of their religion. This is more important, and will help the child in his or her future more than will learning to recite passages of text, or trying to teach him or her higher level concepts that the child will have difficulty understanding.



Temple Grandin, PhD, is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today. Learn more about Temple at http://www.templegrandin.com/.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2002. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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