When I had just finished college, doctors confirmed that my cousin, a dreamy toddler who loved to have the same page of a book read to her again and again, was living on the autism spectrum. I worked at Barnes and Noble, the supersized mall of bookstores, and used my breaks to tote books about autism to the back room in an attempt to understand what was available for me to understand.
Years later, the Christian college at which I teach began a program for autistic students, one that provided everything from academic support to social mentorship. Yet for all my breakroom reading at Barnes and Noble, I realized I understood very little about the students attending my classes. I’d learned a medical diagnosis, not the vibrant possibilities and challenges of neurodiversity.
Change has come slowly for our world’s understanding of the autism spectrum. Were one to walk into a bookstore today, one would find titles touting the same diagnostic evidence I pored over decades ago and precious few written from an #ownvoices perspective of what it means to actually live with autism. Even more rare is a book that explores the intersectionality of autism, creativity, and faith.
Enter Daniel Bowman Jr.’s On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith & the Gifts of Neurodiversity, a collection of essays in which Bowman acts as a kind, wise, and vulnerable guide through his path as an autistic person. Bowman, who was diagnosed later in life, shares how naming that core aspect of his identity was transformational—a sort of coming home to his bones, a confirmation that his (and others’) ways of being in the world were true and noble and right.
Yet this is not only a memoir of an autistic life; it is also the memoir of a creative one, a familial one, a theological one. It is a memoir steeped in the joys of community as much as it is about celebrating solitude. It contains an essay that I want to assign to my fiction-writing students, and another that I want to send to my pastor. It is not just one single thing, any more than being an autistic person is just one single thing.
Bowman asks large existential questions about meaning and belonging, and simultaneously interrogates the simplicity of the day-to-day: swaying on the dance floor of a writers’ retreat with holy oil on his forehead, researching his ancestral lineage, and riding a motorcycle through midwestern corn fields on his daily commute. He suggests that the “scope of the everyday” is vital to understanding not the medical identifiers of an autistic life but the personhood of it.
The profound and mundane are most keenly felt in this collection in the intersection of autism and faith: “They are both fraught; filled with shame and anger and the occasional desire to walk away; filled with beauty, truth, and goodness, and the frequent desire to dig deeper; and understood through a glass darkly” (12). Bowman posits ways to defog the glass, so to speak, by helping us view common church practices—popcorn prayer, the pastor chiding everyone to move up to the first few pews in the sanctuary, the spur-of-the-moment small talk of coffee hour—through the lens of an autistic person. Such practices, he explains with patience and clarity, can be exhausting, if not impossible, for autistic people.
“If it’s already been a long week,” Bowman writes, “I may need a Sabbath that includes much more rest and time away from all people—including staying home from church” (80). He adds that a decision to stay home can often be misinterpreted—that neurotypicals are quick to judge the prioritization of the solitary over community as antisocial, rude, or lazy. This is perhaps most profoundly reflected in Bowman’s essay “Service and the Spectrum” where he asks what we do with Jesus’ charges to live out our faith in action. How does that work when social justice depletes one’s sparse storehouse of energy?
When someone from his church asks him to serve at the weekly lunch for people experiencing housing insecurity, Bowman explains that, as an autistic person, he needs to take inventory of what he calls his “equalizer sliders,” which he defines as
mental, emotional and physical energy (each depletes much more quickly and
erratically than for neurotypicals); alone/recharging time; sensory inputs and
comfort level (temperature, clothing options in a wide variety of situations,
sounds, lighting, smells, singular or multiple sources of each type of sensory input,
duration); time of day; whether or not we’re being valued for our strengths
and accommodated for our needs rather than excluded for perceived deficits (91).
Bowman’s objective is not to discourage church folks from inviting him to participate in his faith community. (In fact, he finds that sort of exclusion to be incredibly hurtful, begging neurotypicals to stop leaving autistic people out of conversations just because they don’t make eye contact.) Instead, he challenges us to widen our concept of service and community. Doing work behind the scenes: being present for one’s immediate family, grading papers, writing, “are no less worship than serving a hot meal to the homeless. They are simply better suited for me as an autistic with very specific boundaries and limitations…and gifts” (95).
This requires creative thinking, and if Bowman’s book is anything, it’s an ode to creative flourishing. “Let’s be curious; let’s be in awe of how complex we all are… For the first time in human history, a certain group of people have a better chance to be understood and affirmed and to get what they need in order to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of the culture. That’s a wonderful thing” (170). As a writer, Bowman consistently asks us to reimagine everything from our language to our sense of normalcy to our boundaries and needs.
As Bowman explains in his essay, “A True Name,” the word autism connotes “the isolated self,” but he challenges us to think of it in terms of its more literal translation: “the state of being one’s self” (139). Through Bowman’s rich and varied essays, he invites us to redefine autism, not as a death sentence or a stamp of medical ire, but rather as a deepening of one’s true sense of a self: a recognition, no longer through a glass darkly, but face to face.
Rebecca Lauren lives in Philadelphia and serves as managing editor of Saturnalia Books. Her writing has been published in Mid-American Review, Prairie Schooner, Southeast Review, Ruminate, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Her chapbook, The Schwenkfelders, won the Keystone Chapbook Prize and was published by Seven Kitchens Press. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award.
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