Psychological Testing

In theory, every applicant for the Catholic Priesthood should undergo psychological screening before getting anywhere near a seminary. But my diocese, although hit directly by clerical sex abuse scandals, didn’t put me in for testing before I arrived. This bothered me, so I asked the Rector to arrange testing. My reason was that due process be seen to be done in my case. His reason for consenting was to get to the root of the mysterious ‘being’ issue that hadn’t yet been resolved.

So 18 months into seminary, I filled in a 500-question form (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Version 2) and spent a day with a clinical psychologist and his team. The psychologist seemed to want to make me angry: we reached the topic of sexual self-stimulation and he kept suggesting that it was OK in some circumstances. I kept insisting that the Church clearly taught that it wasn’t. After we had argued back and forth for several rounds, he said: “This is the point where you are expected to say: ‘You’re right and I’m wrong, Dr X.'”

‘But I know the teaching of the church and you are not right, Dr X,’ I replied, in sorrow, not in anger.

When the results came back, they were rather worrying. The computer analysis of the MMPI-2 judged that ‘the candidate has claimed to be so virtuous, he is clearly lying’. But we Aspies are intrinsically virtuous, we tend to follow our principles even when it takes effort to do so – and if there is a down side, we don’t see it as such. We are also pathologically honest in answering questions which others might self-censor. It seems to me there is a need for tests like the MMPI-2 to be normed against a known batch of autistic subjects – it might be detailed enough to identify Aspies as well as liars.

The Clinical Psychologist reported that I was ‘manifestly unfit for pastoral work’. This was a problem, as I was about to spend a month on a school-focussed parish placement. As a result, I was not permitted to go on the placement, but spent a year working with a counsellor external to the seminary who then passed me ‘fit for pastoral work’ but without getting to the root of my problems.

So in the first three years of seminary, none of the in-house counsellors, the MMPI-2, the expert assessors or the external counsellor identified me as autistic. Along the way I was accused several times of lying when I was telling the honest truth about deeply personal things, as well as being challenged to address this mysterious ‘problem with my being’.

Unsurprisingly, once I got my diagnosis, I went through a phase of feeling very angry that none of these psychological professionals had identified what was at the root of my situation. But thanks be to God who found a way for me to reach the right answer by other means!

Postscript: I am glad to see that there is now published research about the MMPI-2 test as it applies to Aspies.

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How I Found Out I was an Aspie

During my childhood, my parents often commented that I was ‘born awkward, and awkward ever since’. I was a firstborn, so they had no prior experience of raising a son. I wasn’t failing so badly in school that I ever had to see a psychologist, although my Mum despaired of ever persuading me to play with other children. They never thought I might have a condition with a clinical label, though Asperger’s wasn’t so well known in the 1980s.

Looking back, it explains a lot. School playtimes were a nightmare in primary school. Often I would just walk forlornly around the edges of the yard, kicking up the dirt; sometimes I would go and tell appalling puns to the teacher on yard duty. I simply didn’t know what to do during playtime, and didn’t particularly want to join in any schoolyard games that seemed remotely rough.

Secondary School was a little less taxing, since I could volunteer to work as a Library Monitor during break times. But in my pre-teens I was so sensitive to other pupils using foul language, that quite a few made a point of coming and using it just to wind me up. I had no inhibitions about reporting bad behaviour to staff members, and on those occasions when a class teacher let the pupils go in order of good behaviour, I would always be among the first cohort. And being bright, teachers quite often prefaced their questions to the class with “Does anyone apart from (my name) know the answer?” That didn’t bother me then, but in hindsight I see that being both a goody-goody and a swot doesn’t make you many friends!

When I entered seminary, I received some puzzling feedback. My end of-first-year appraisal went something like this: “You are a great student, you seem to be faithful to your prayers and you do your chores. There’s just one thing we, the formation staff, are worried about – your being.”

“My what?”

“Your being.”

“Oh. I’m not sure I understand. Can you explain that in other words?”

“Errm, no.”

“What would you like me to do about it?”

“We don’t know.”

“Is this a significant issue for my onward formation?”

“Yes.”

“So you are telling I have a significant issue, you can’t articulate what it is or what I should do about it, but I need to sort it out?”

“Yes.”

This was a puzzle. The only sensible action I could formulate for my Second Year Plan was: “To be.” I hesitate to call this an action plan, since being implies something other than doing. Nevertheless, I framed an action of spending time in reflective silence. But I knew this wasn’t touching the heart of the issue.

Half-way through my seminary formation, I went on a pilgrimage with a group of young adults. I got chatting to one of them and it quickly emerged that we had a great deal in common. At our respective schools, we had each been the most intelligent and best behaved child, the one who found playtimes a bore. (Why waste time playing when there were more things to study? And no other child invited us to play, still less explained the rules, anyway!)

At the end of the conversation, she said to me: “I’ve just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I think you may have it too – you should get it checked out.”

So when I got back to seminary, I went to see the chief counsellor and asked if she had considered the possibility that I was autistic. She hadn’t, but thought it was a good idea. I was sent off for the relevant tests, and the diagnosis was confirmed. Finally, it helped me and the staff put a clearer label on this mysterious “problem with being”. It concerned the subtle exchange of signals through body language which typical humans send and receive all the time without being fully aware of it. (Later, I came to appreciate that reading the emotions in other peoples’ eyes is a key part of this.)

Divine providence arranged that meeting on a pilgrimage in another continent. Because of it, I reached the root of something the seminary might otherwise have failed to diagnose. Thanks be to God!