Category Archives: Thoughts for Psychologists

I’m not a psychologist, but I have taken courses in basic psychology and pastoral care. I am a trained science researcher, and these posts contain thoughts which may be useful for academics exploring how the experience of Aspies can differ from that of typical humans.

Good Vibrations

Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic writer on spirituality. In one of her works she had referred to living plants ‘pulsing with silent, invisible energy’ and sensing God’s presence which caused an atmosphere to become charged with ‘vibrations of love’.

This sort of language generally unsettles me. Vibrations are the language of Eastern and New Age spirituality, not the Catholic tradition. And yet… I have learned in my journey as an Aspie that when I come across language that makes no intuitive sense to me, it is often a sign of how my lived experience of the world differs from that of the more typical majority. So rather than write her off as a clear case of someone straying outside the Catholic fold, I asked if she could describe these ‘vibrations’ in a way that could make sense to a person who had never personally experienced them. Even if what she has experienced might not be a ‘majority’ experience, it could still be valid.

She struggled to find the right words, and we went round in circles for a time. Then I asked if it was something like what happens when you put your hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming because the motor is running. She was happy with this analogy.

This got me thinking. Not only have I never experienced ‘vibrations’ in a spiritual context, but also, I seldom sense an ‘atmosphere’ when I walk into a room. Celtic writers might talk of praying in a ‘thin place’ but I wouldn’t know one if I fell through it. Yet many people use this language often enough that it seems to be meaningful to most listeners. Could it be that something akin to synaesthesia is taking place?

The human brain is capable of ceaseless wonders. There are many documented cases where the parts of the brain which deal with two different senses seem to be cross-wired, resulting in written words having characteristic colours or particular sounds translating as tactile experiences. Could it also be the case that the part of the brain which interprets emotions could be cross-wired with the part responsible for hearing or touch? Could a brain which, unlike mine, can take in and process a thousand micro-expressions to analyse a room of human beings, synthesise its findings in the form of an audible or tactile hum, which would then be perceived as a vibration? Might a similar mechanism account for those people who claim to be able detect the ‘aura’ or ‘bioenergy’ of another person? Indeed, I note that the Wikipedia article on Synaesthesia tantalisingly lists a rare form of synaesthesia as: personality-color (occasionally referred to as “auras”) – but without further expansion or reference.

I cannot rule out, of course, that the reason Eastern religions speak of a spiritual energy variously called chi, qi, ki or prana, is because such an energy genuinely exists but is such a subtle phenomenon that science has not yet been able to detect it – no scientist can ever definitively proclaim proof of non-existence except in tightly defined conditions. It is of course possible for an objective phenomenon to exist, but for some humans to be incapable of sensing it – such as color-blindness or ineed Aspie ‘mindblindness’ to emotional signals. I lean towards the idea that this energy is a cultural construct with no underlying phenomenon. But the ‘synaesthesia’ hypothesis raises an intriguing third possibility.

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Learning from Experience

When was the last time you made a big mistake?

Typical human beings have an important safety mechanism: that little voice in the back of the head which is constantly saying : “What would other people think of me if I did such-and-such?”

My Aspie brain doesn’t do that automatically, so I have to use my reasoning to anticipate when my actions could prove awkward to others. What do I draw on to make such decisions? Principles about right and wrong, and lessons from the school of hard knocks!

I’d like to share two examples of mistakes typical human beings might not have made. They are both mistakes I have never repeated, because I learned quickly from those experiences – but they were deeply embarrassing at the time.

The first story comes from the days when I was a university student living in a shared house with male and female residents. One day a group of us were enjoying a conversation in the kitchen, and I was standing alongside another resident. In the flow of conversation, I made a comment about something that “would set your heart racing” and to emphasise the point, reached across to tap the resident on the chest.

But the resident was a woman.

Now, I know very well that a gentleman does not touch a lady’s breasts, and I have never groped a woman in my life. But my inner “program” which says “don’t touch a woman’s breasts” didn’t have that extra line of code which says “trying to tap a woman’s chest from alongside her will be interpreted as trying to grope her, don’t do it”.

Fortunately, no harm came of the incident, apart from some teasing among the residents about “the day I tried to grope so-and-so”. But that day I learned a new rule: “Don’t go anywhere near a woman’s chest even if it’s not the breast you are trying to touch.” Could I have worked out that rule in advance if I had thought through the scenario slowly? Probably yes, but it was never a scenario I had anticipated.

The other story comes from my time as a seminarian, when I was on a weekly placement in a high school. Now, what are the principles of school chaplaincy? You are there to “get alongside” the students, winning trust and building relationships. You are not there as a disciplinarian – leave that to the teaching staff. One break time I found a group of teenagers playing some game throwing balls (or were they apples?) at tin cans set up to be knocked over, so I joined in and started “larking around with them”. One of the staff members observed this, and I was called into the Head’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was “unprofessional” – and so on that day I learned a clear limit and I have never made the same kind of mistake again.

I’m sharing these stories because they may be useful for professionals who have to manage Aspies. Has your Aspie made a serious social error like this? I would encourage you to ask them about their track record. Have they made similar errors in the past? Have they been able to learn from each error and not make the same kind of mistake again? If your Aspie is teachable, and willing to learn from their latest error, you can expect diligence in ensuring it does not happen again.

There’s an adage in business that you should recruit for “character, not competence” – because you can train a recruit of good character, but you can’t correct the flaws of a bad but competent character. Please remember that an Aspie’s character is to be ignorant of the social norms which typical human beings intuit, and that for an Aspie, good social skills are an acquired competence.  If your Aspie is a character willing to learn from their experience, you have no need to be concerned.

Them and Us

During my summer travels, I visited a science festival – that’s something I’ve always enjoyed since my teens. But now I have an added purpose: when I attend lectures on psychology or sociology, I am also looking out for tips about how typical human beings function. The lecturer explains the facet they are investigating – and now, when I think “I didn’t know some people’s brains worked like that,” I note that this is probably a clue about most human beings, present company excepted.

For instance, I recently heard about a research study dividing 5-year-old children into groups which were identified by wearing a yellow scarf or a green scarf. Immediately the children started identifying with ‘their’ colour, willing to express dislike for those wearing the opposite colour. In a German study, children would keep a secret entrusted to ‘their’ group but quickly betray a confidence about the ‘other’ group.

It’s always puzzled me why I should be loyal to ‘my’ group rather than even-handed to all comers. I would happily identify myself equally as a citizen of my nation, my state, my region and my continent, and regret that international borders mean that someone can’t simply choose to live in my country should they so wish. I see now that this goes beyond the Aspie trait of being extremely principled, but has an added dimension of not being wired to favour ingroups over outgroups.

Another study showed that identity was highly malleable: if you tell experimental subjects that the study is about ‘soccer fans’ then they will show altruism to someone in a rival team shirt over someone in a plain T-shirt because the rival fan is part of the ‘ingroup’. But tell a similar fan that you are studying supporters of their team, and the rival fan is now deemed part of the ‘outgroup’ and not extended the same altruism as you would show those wearing the colours of your own team.

Further, part of the art of being a demagogue is to get a group of people to identify as part of your ingroup, and amplify positive differences compared to ‘them’, whoever your outgroup might happen to be. This drives me to conflict as a pastor: is intentional creation of an ‘ingroup’ a necessary part of being an effective leader of a congregation, or unethical manipulation of souls? Certainly Jesus challenged the Jewish ‘ingroup’ identity by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One final thought, for the researchers: if you are writing a paper about some ‘Them and Us’ phenomenon, do you really want to be cited as ‘Principal Author et al.’? (Think about the Latin…)

During and After

When do you feel the emotions associated with key moments in your life? Are you conscious of them in the moment, or only once you have time afterwards to process what has gone on?

I find in my life, I tend to have stronger emotions reflecting on what previously happened, than in the moment (though there are exceptions).

When I was an undergraduate, my friend Kate gave me an unexpected kiss when I made her tea at a black tie dinner – she didn’t like coffee. In the course of the next 48 hours it dawned on me that a beautiful woman of my own age had given me a kiss (for the first time ever in my life) – and I woke up to the fact I was living among a community of touching, feeling, human beings and not really taking part (a bittersweet awakening).

Much more recently, celebrating a significant anniversary of my priesthood, a friend I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years (and who hadn’t RSVP’d to say she was coming) surprised me by turning up, and leaning in close when someone took a photo for us. This is all the more precious because that friend had left me a note, rather then saying goodbye in person, when our work situations took us in different directions. Although I didn’t feel powerful emotions at the party, my long-term memory of that event is marked by very positive feelings.

Throughout the two decades when I’ve woken up to interpersonal emotions, I’ve had more experiences of this kind (“I’m really glad that happened”) than times I have felt something positive in the moment (“I never want this moment to end”). Awkwardly, I think the latter sort have only ever happened when I’ve been touched by a person I have “fallen in love with” at some point in my life. 

Is it the interpersonal chemistry itself which is enabling the feelings in my otherwise unfeeling psyche? Is it the rare fulfilment of a desire to be close to that particular person? Or is it simply that in these cases the emotional volume is loud enough for me to hear what is always there but which I am otherwise deaf to?

To look at it another way, how might I feel when someone touches me or hugs me?

Warm and fuzzy – but this solely applies when it’s a person I not only trust but also experience some chemistry with.

Intellectually satisfied – when someone I trust but don’t have chemistry with, because I recognise the sign of affection

Annoyed – when it’s someone I have given verbal or body-language signals to, that I do not wish to be touched.

I wonder how much of this is peculiar to my Aspergers’ way of experiencing the world, and to what extent it is true for typical human beings?

Mere Anthropology

Today I’m beginning a new series of blog posts, in pursuit of the aim of writing “Typical Humans 101“. Various friends have pointed me towards C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity(a book adapted from scripts for broadcast on BBC Radio) and the more recent series of books by the Jesuit Robert Spitzer beginning with Finding True HappinessLewis’s purpose was to document those things common to Christians from different denominations; Spitzer’s is to treat of humanity’s quest for transcendent happiness. But both authors say enough about the human condition that, with an eye to knowing something of the quirks of the autistic mind, I can pick out those facts which would seem unremarkable to typical humans but deeply insightful to many Aspies.

Lewis’s opening chapters take me to a subject I’ve already considered on this blog – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis is not a psychologist, but as a respected author will have been chosen for broadcast and publication because he captures an understanding which will resonate with many members of his audience; a writer like Lewis rises to prominence because of his good grasp of what’s generally true about human nature.

Lewis’s way in to this subject (MC15-19) is that humans often quarrel about whether a course of action is fair. Even persons or nations who don’t keep their promises are likely to appeal to “fair play” on a regular basis. Such a dispute implies that there is a common standard of morality accessible to all parties. “This Law or Rule about Right and Wrong used to be called the Law of Nature… they really meant the Law of Human Nature… because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it.” At least, most humans know it, but some may not, in the same way in which some are tone-deaf or colour-blind. Surface details may differ across cultures, but it would be difficult to imagine a culture which praised cowardice in battle or treachery to one’s friends. When we are accused of bad behaviour, we come up with all sorts of excuses – which is itself a sign that we intuitively know we have fallen short of some standard of fairness.  (Lewis also suggests reading the Appendix of Abolition of Man to continue this exploration.)

Following his original radio broadcast, Lewis received letters from  correspondents who found it hard to identify with this “Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour”. (MC 20-25) I suspect some such letters, from articulate critics, would have been from writers on the autistic spectrum.

Lewis also deals with the criticism that humans have a “herd instinct”. He acknowledges this may well be true but posits that there is a mental faculty distinct from instinct. We have instincts to eat food, drink water and pursue sex. When we hear a cry from someone in danger, it may stir in us contrary instincts to help and to flee – but there is a qualitatively different something within us which chooses which instinct to follow. This something often directs us to follow the weaker of the two impulses we sense. There is no broad category of human instinct which we must always follow in all circumstances, nor one which we must always suppress.

Inanimate objects are what they are, without choice. Human beings have the capacity of choosing their course of action. It is because we have a sense of what a person “ought” to do we can compare their actual deeds to what they “ought” to have done. We can distinguish this sense of “ought” from what we find convenient for ourselves. We might make use of a traitor, in our national interest, while despising him. (MC25-29)

Lewis notes that an external observer could discern a person’s actions but not their motives. From our own personal experience of being human,  we don’t always do what we know we ought; therefore, by studying human behaviour externally, we can’t establish the “oughts” which are being sometimes heeded and sometimes spurned in the mind of the person acting. (MC31) (Things have advanced since Lewis’s day. Current scientific knowledge of the neural mechanisms of morality are in their infancy; it is not unthinkable, however, that brain-scanning technology might one day be able to identify the presence of particular “oughts”.)

Overall, therefore, Lewis is arguing that there is a universal sense of fair play because all human beings have access to the same objective sense of The Good. If we generally agree that certain human societies are “more moral” than others (taking Nazi Germany as an example of low morals), does that not bear witness to our shared intuitive sense of what a moral society should look like?

Lewis allows that we may learn the Law of Human Nature by education, but argues that is not proof of its lack of objectivity, any more than learning a multiplication table invalidates the fundamental truth that 9 x 6 = 54 and always will be. He will go on to use the existence of The Good as a starting point for exploring the nature of God.

It seems to me that Lewis provides a well-written description of the Law of Human Nature which demystifies it for those of us who don’t experience it in our inner lives – as it is clear that some of the correspondents who contacted Lewis after the broadcast did not. This leaves us with a big question: does Moral Goodness have the same kind of objective reality as Mathematical Truth? That will be the subject of my next post.

* For Mere Christianity, I am using the 1971 19th impression of the Collins Fontana edition first produced in 1955; page numbers will be cited with MC using this edition.

The Slumbering Spirit

Rarely, I come across a book which makes my spirit sing. The author has looked into the Bible and found meanings in Scripture which make sense on paper, and have a deep ring of truth about them, but are not obvious to me before I read them.  One such book is Healing the Wounded Spirit by John and Paula Sandford.

One chapter in this book (and expanded in Waking the Slumbering Spirit) talks about what they call the “slumbering spirit”. The idea is that our innermost souls, made in God’s image, are meant to love and to be loved. When they fail to receive affection in childhood, they fall asleep and become emotionally unresponsive. The soul also begins resenting parents for failing to communicate that love.

When I first read about this, I took it to my confessor. Although I had no conscious awareness of resentment regarding my parents, who were caring but undemonstrative, I repented by faith of any unfelt anger in my soul. When I left confession that day I felt like a great weight had been lifted, and that I had a spring in my step – the only time I have ever felt this after confession.

There are a lot of parallels between Aspie traits and the Sandfords’ description of the slumbering spirit. I wonder if they are in fact describing from a spiritual point of view what a psychologist would call high-functioning autism?

They also talk a lot in their books about Performance Orientation, and how so many Christians are crippled by believing they need to earn God’s love. Personally, I don’t draw my identity from success – but it is one of this things that makes me happy. Alas, it is rare that the daily work of a priest includes talking with a person whose faith has recently deepened, who has received a sense of God’s blessing, or wants to make a genuine commitment to my parish. Success in ministry is a rare currency indeed!

The best thing that ever happens? Hearing the confession of someone who – probably through no good deed of mine – comes to confession after 20, 30, or 40 years away from the life of the Church. I only hear such a confession every couple of years, but I need to jump for joy, literally, as soon as I am out of the confessional!

Say it With Flowers

Kate, a close friend since my undergraduate days, is one of the people I have taken into my confidence about my diagnosis.

Once, I stayed with Kate and her family for a week while attending a conference near her home. During that time I shared about how my Asperger’s is a form of ’emotional deafness’. I think she understands.

At the end of the week, I gave Kate a bunch of flowers to thank her for letting me stay. She was most effusive about the gift and gushed for a few minutes about how lovely they were. Now, I couldn’t tell whether her gushing was because I had bought just the right sort of flowers that she really adored, or whether she was emphasising her gratitude to get past my emotional deafness.

In the past, my main concern would have been whether they were the kind of flowers she really liked; if I can’t tell whether the gushing is genuine, how can I know whether to get the right kind of flowers next time?

But suddenly, I realised that the point of the flowers wasn’t the flowers but the message they conveyed.

If I had chosen well, and the gushing was 100% genuine, this was a big win.

But if Kate was gushing for my sake, it was intended to communicate that she was really appreciative of the gesture. In this case, I had at least succeeded in communicating gratitude, and she in returning appreciation. This is also a win!

As I write these words, I am reminded of several occasions in the past when I have plainly displayed my disappointment that a gift hadn’t been what I had wanted. I had always assumed the business of gift-giving was about identifying what the other person really liked and giving appropriately. But am I wrong? Is it about communicating affection through the intent to give?

I also sent another friend flowers after spending time with her family. The message back was “Thank you – no need, but thank you.” I think that counts as another win!

X + Y

Have you seen the movie “x + y”? It’s a drama based on the life of International Maths Olympiad competitor Daniel Lightman, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s aged 16. The movie’s main character, Nathan Ellis, is mainly but not wholly a reflection of Daniel, who also acted as a consultant to help keep the portrayal true to autistic traits.

A key part of the plot stood out for me – here are necessarily spoilers, so be warned!

The plot shows how Nathan deals with touch. Repeatedly we are shown how his mother wants to touch him, especially in moments of high emotion, but Nathan draws back. His mother needs closeness for her comfort; Nathan needs space for his. But in the course of the movie, Nathan enters a relationship with a girl who has strong feelings for him; he overcomes his aversion to touch when they kiss. Shortly afterwards an emotional dam bursts and he is able to weep for his late father, recognising for the first time that the tender memories he has of his Dad are a sign of what love is; he is finally able to accept his mother’s embrace as she comforts him.

I can recognise the time in my life, up to age 19, when I basically didn’t want to be touched. I had various elderly aunties who expected to be greeted with a kiss, sometimes on the lips, and I always found that to be most uncomfortable. I understood that Mum expected a kiss on certain occasions, but when I gave her one it would be perfunctory.

Then a girl kissed me. Not a snog – I have never snogged anyone in my life! – but a simple thank-you kiss on my forehead for doing her a good turn. And over the next few days, a dormant part of my psyche awoke. I realised I was living in a  world of touching, feeling, human beings but missing out! No-one who was a friend rather than an auntie has kissed me before. This was amazing!

There followed a rather embarrassing period in my life when I tried to kiss lots of my female friends without understanding when and how this might be acceptable. On the plus side, Mum got the first sincere kiss of her life from me when I got home from University at the next vacation!

Over more recent years, I have noticed friends and parishioners becoming more likely to touch me. I don’t know how much that is to do with my body language changing, and how much is the maturity of the people I am mixing with. But this is also a bittersweet truth. Now that it is not so rare for someone to touch me, touch seems to have lost much of its emotional power. So was it the touch itself, or the novelty of being touched, which once provoked an emotional reaction in me?

 

Friends Like These

How do I make new friends? Often enough, it’s by looking for the person in a crowd who isn’t talking to anyone. and going to say hello. When I went to a lot of youth retreats in my early 20s, I did this a lot. I saw it as my Christian duty to welcome the stranger. But back then, I didn’t ask myself why they weren’t getting conversations, nor why I wasn’t. In my case, it was probably to do with the lack of ‘talk to me’ body language I was broadcasting. But as for the others… I’ve noticed over the years that I seem to pick up more than my fair share of manic depressives, paranoid schizophrenics and other troubled individuals among my friends and acquaintances. I’m guessing this is because I am blissfully unaware of the negative body language which is putting off most of the crowd from approaching them.

Back then, I was naïve enough to believe an unlikely sob story which I would now recognise as someone’s paranoid delusions – showing part of  an Aspie’s trusting nature, but also a symptom of our tendency to prize what is apparently empirical evidence (a first hand account from the paranoid person) over our own lived experience of how the world usually works.

Nevertheless, I have made friends over the years, and not only those with troubled backgrounds. On more than one occasion, my first meeting with someone has been marked by a sharp disagreement. But an Aspie doesn’t worry about losing face if they turn out to be in the wrong, and a heartfelt and humble apology can be a powerful foundation for a lifelong friendship.

You may be aware of the concept of ‘Five Love Languages‘ – that of the five things we can do to deliberately communicate affection (words, helpful deeds, gifts, spending time together and physical touch). Most people have one or two which speak to you most strongly and fill up your ‘love tank’. That makes sense to me – I definitely have a love tank, but it is empty most of the time. Several weeks can go by before someone communicates affection in a way direct enough for me to notice and feel an emotional response.

There is a much misquoted statement that 83% of all communication is nonverbal; the correct version is that A. Mehrabian found that this is true in the particular case when we are trying to briefly communicate how we feel about a particular idea. But it doesn’t hold for communication in general!

I once asked my friend Chelsea if it was true that when we were together, even before I used any of these five ways of communicating affection, that she would already sense that she was in the presence of a person who cared for her deeply. To my surprise she said yes, and when pressed about how that worked, said she could see it in my eyes.

That makes me wonder… what is really going on in my Aspie brain? Is the ‘feeling centre’ atrophied and only responding to the biggest, most obvious tokens of affection? Or is it working well enough, and even signalling contentment through my eyes, while for some reason not transmitting that positive emotion into the bit of my brain that holds my consciousness?

In the past it puzzled me why my friends didn’t do more to tell me they cared – a card now and then, a phone call for no motive other than ‘just to catch up’, an invitation to do lunch. In part it is probably because most of them don’t need to go to those extremes to know I care for them, or to communicate care for their friends. In part it is the structure of the priestly life, which means I am often too busy to go out or even take a phone call in social hours.

I do wish my friends would communicate affection more often. It is sad to spend most of my time with an empty love tank. But it is difficult to ask directly for help – if I say ‘I won’t feel loved unless you write, call or touch me’, that sounds like emotional blackmail. I sometimes get angry about this – ‘Hey, I have an emotional disability, can’t you at least make a reasonable adjustment?’ But I guess for the typical human being, it feels weird to over-emote and perhaps even risks triggering the wrong sort of affectionate feelings in them. Nevertheless, I live in hope that one or two of my friends will realise I am emotionally hard of hearing, and start shouting!

Objectively Disordered?

Sometime after I received my diagnosis, a thought struck me. It is official Catholic teaching that a person experiencing homosexual tendencies is ‘objectively disordered‘. Should the same label be applied to a person on the autistic spectrum?

Why does this arcane topic concern me? It’s because of the church’s principle that an objectively disordered person should not seek ordination unless they have overcome the disorder. In 2005, the Vatican issued a document about the ordination of homosexuals which was not a total bar, but required the aspirant to honestly no longer ‘present deep-seated homosexual tendencies’ to qualify. This leaves an ambiguity. The document explicitly identifies the case where the tendencies were a phase which a person has grown beyond after adolescence, but leaves open the unspoken case where the deep-seated tendencies are still present but the aspirant has gained sufficient self-mastery to ensure that these tendencies are no longer ‘presented’.

The key word here is ‘disordered’, which implies a concept of natural order. This leads us to two underlying questions: what would we mean by a ‘normal’ human being, and therefore what do we mean by a ‘human being’? As a scientific question, this is a special case of the very large question of ‘what is a species’.

To forestall comments, I acknowledge and accept that theologically, human beings are ontologically different from mere animals. But this does not invalidate the biological approach, which can only analyse and recognise the continuum between the human species and other species.

As we now understand genetics, the basic unit of living creatures is the gene, a string of chemicals (using an alphabet of just four molecules, coded A, C, G and T) which instructs a living cell to make something or do something. A particular combination of genes (a genotype) results in a particular kind of creature (a phenotype). When a phenotype can exist and thrive successfully in its environment, the genotype (which always suffers random errors when reproduction takes place) tends to stay stable. Unsuccessful tweaks die out quickly from the gene pool. Sometimes, a random change produces a new phenotype which, even if only subtly different from the old pattern, is slightly more successful in the same environment, and thus evolution occurs.

A ‘species’ is how we refer to a stable pattern of genotype and phenotype. Within this, we will find plenty of in-species variation. So among the various apes and primates, the stable pattern of ‘no tail, big brain, walks upright, not very hairy’ characterises the human species. Traits like the colour of hair, skin or eyes are in-species variations.

If we measure a lot of individual adult humans, we will find natural variation in properties such as height, foot size and athletic ability. On each of these measures we can define what an ‘average’ human being is like; there will be outliers with extremely large or small values far from the average.

Less commonly, we will find variations not merely of degree but of pattern. A person might be born with an extra finger, only one kidney, or the plumbing of the heart reversed. These differences might be due to a genetic error, or a glitch in the way the body laid down its template while forming as a foetus.

Because the Bible speaks of God forming creatures in their ‘kinds’ (and the very word ‘creature’ implies ‘something created’) there is a long heritage of thinking of a ‘kind’ or ‘species’ as something fixed for all time. But in the light of modern genetics, we can only describe a species as a currently-stable pattern of genotype and phenotype – there is no sense that the pattern ‘ought’ to be a certain way. Now the term ‘disorder’ literally implies failing to live up to the pattern which ‘ought’ to be there (philosophical disorder) but can also colloquially mean ‘something that impairs body function’ (practical disorder).

A reversed heart is clearly a practical disorder, and will prove fatal without surgery.

A missing kidney is only revealed as a practical disorder if the function of the remaining organ begins to fail.

If it moves smoothly together with the other fingers, it’s not clear if having an extra finger is a ‘practical disorder’; it may indeed provide extra ability at tasks such as playing the piano! Its presence may cause a social handicap if the individual is identified socially and penalised for being ‘different’. Whether we consider it a philosophical disorder depends on whether having five digits on each hand is intrinsic or incidental to human nature…

What, then, about homosexual tendencies or autistic traits? Are these variations within the ‘normal range’ of human variation?

In the past it may have been naively thought that all persons were either clearly heterosexual or clearly homosexual in orientation. Nowadays it is acknowledged that there are different degrees of orientation. Autistic traits also exist on a spectrum. The average human (in the mathematical sense, for which you can use mean, median or mode) is neither homosexual nor autistic. But there will be humans whose orientation is mostly or entirely of same-sex attraction, and as a shorthand label, we call these people ‘homosexual’; similarly there are degrees of autism which makes it sensible to use labels such as  ‘Asperger’s syndrome’ and ‘low-functioning autism’.

Are people with strongly homosexual tendencies objectively disordered? They are also objectively far-from-average. But here theology intervenes. There is a strong narrative running through the Old and New Testaments that God’s plan is for men to marry women and for such couples to be fruitful. This indicates a divinely-instituted order within which men and women are either to refrain from sexual intimacy, or marry an opposite-sex partner. So a person of homosexual tendencies is ‘philosophically disordered’ with respect to the divinely revealed plan. Whether or not this is a ‘practical disorder’ depends largely on the prevailing attitudes of society.

Are people with Asperger’s objectively disordered? They are objectively far-from-average, and therefore likely to be socially handicapped. Given the way human society works, this constitutes a practical disorder. Given the mix of typical autistic traits (honesty, integrity and social awkwardness) there are traits which point towards good philosophical order as well as those which point away, so, in my opinion, high functioning autism does not constitute philosophical disorder.