A Touchy Subject

Last time, I pondered the question of why people don’t do things when it comes to food. This time, I’m asking the same question concerning touch.

A while back, I was walking alongside my pre-teen godson in a pilgrimage. We have a close and loving relationship, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. But his Mum wasn’t happy. “Only a Dad should touch a boy like that – you don’t see other godfathers doing that, do you?” She was also concerned that onlookers might misread the situation and assume I was a child abuser.

Once again, I have failed to make a study of typical human behaviour – in this case how godfathers normally show affection. And once again, even if I had noticed the absence of such behaviour, I wouldn’t have known the reasons why they don’t do it.

Indeed, in general, I don’t have a good sense of how really close friends behave when they are together in private – I don’t get to go to that many family parties. There are plenty of books guiding Aspies who want a sexual relationship, but none on how to navigate close yet chaste relationships when you are celibate. For instance, when you are a house-guest with a family, should you offer the hostess a kiss on the cheek when you retire to go to bed? There are clearly circumstances when you shouldn’t – if she’s asked you not to, or you know it would make her husband jealous. But is it the kind of thing people don’t do in general? I haven’t been a house guest alongside enough different guests to know! It’s just one small example of the difficulty of not reading the emotional melodies in a life which is occasionally ambushed by affection.

Another thing a close friend asked me not to do is to look into her eyes for too long. I’ve written previously about how I can’t read the emotions in other people’s eyes, but there’s also some good scientific research establishing that gazing into one another’s eyes promotes a sense of bonding – and even gazing into a pet’s eyes produces the “bonding hormone” oxytocin. As a celibate seeking to avoid, and avoid provoking, falling-in-love there’s one clear conclusion – don’t look for too long!

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Food for Thought

I’ve not been blogging for a while due to a series of minor infections – when you’re not running on 100% capacity as a priest you have to prioritise the basics – and it may be a while before I’m posting regularly, but this thought came along.

Why is it that other people don’t do certain things?

Recently, I asked one of my trusted friends for perspective, because I had to fill our a self-assessment form which asked about my social weaknesses. “When you eat soup in company,” she said, “don’t dunk your bread in it. After all, you don’t see other people doing that, do you?”

I learned two things from this conversation.

First, I don’t tend to notice what it is that other people don’t do. I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to how other people eat soup.

Second, my friend (and therefore, if she is representative, a fair percentage of humanity) get an icky emotional reaction when they see someone dunking.

Soup has never come up as a subject before, but at seminary, one student challenged me about dunking my toast in my morning coffee. At the time, my response was to always try to sit at a different table from him, so he didn’t have to watch me. But in hindsight, I think the message I was supposed to get was that most people find that icky and would be uncomfortable around me.

It’s in cases like this that we Aspies might be at a multiple disadvantage. First, if I did notice someone dunking in coffee or soup, I wouldn’t have a bad emotional reaction to that. Second, since I’m not good at reading other people’s emotions, I am unlikely to notice that someone else is uncomfortable about the way that I am eating. Third, since I don’t naturally seek out other people’s behaviour patterns as examples of what to do, or avoid doing, I’m not going to have a sense that most people don’t do that. And fourth, if no one tells you that most people do react badly, then even if you do notice that no-one else is dunking, you wouldn’t know why. Maybe most people simply don’t like to dunk.

My friend also pointed out that not eating part of a meal prepared for you shows disrespect for the time and effort that the person went into making it for you. This is a good example of the different assumptions that Aspies and typical human beings might make when it comes to preparing a meal… and it all depends on the Golden Metarule which I mentioned this time last year.

The Aspie Way

  1. People might have allergies or simply not like particular food. I don’t want to have to eat food I don’t like so why should I put anyone else in that position?
  2. I want my guests to enjoy their meal.
  3. I ask my guests what they do and don’t like to eat.
  4. I make sure that I prepare food that my guests like.
  5. If something goes wrong with my cooking, I want my guests to tell me so that I can avoid making the same mistake next time. How else could I be sure to prepare something they will really like?

The Typical Human Way

  1. Most people like the adventure of trying something new or unexpected.
  2. The host puts a lot of effort into giving the guests a surprise.
  3. The guests show they appreciate the effort by eating all the food, smiling, whatever they really think of it.
  4. They all say “Thank you for a lovely meal.”

Postscript…

I was recently at a bread-and-soup lunch for Christian leaders. For the first time in my life – and I’m now in my 40s – I paid attention to how other people eat. The bread was in the form of sliced baguettes. Of the six others on my table, four put dry bread in their mouths. Two took small pieces of baguette crust and dipped them in the soup.

It was fascinating, paying attention to this and noticing what other people do. A reminder that my way of being an Aspie includes no desire to conform to other people’s actual patterns of behaviour, no instinct to monitor that behaviour, and no awareness of non-verbal signs of fellow diners are reacting to my behaviour.

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?

 

Didn’t you get the Memo?

One of the most frustrating things in my life as a priest is taking part as a visitor in large Masses without a Master of Ceremonies. If an MC tells us where to process, bow and genuflect then the whole ceremony can be carried out with dignity. Without an MC it depends on priests having a shared knowledge of the liturgical rules and a respect for the dignity of the liturgy.

Few priests seem to realise than in the revised Roman Missal, in the absence of a deacon, a concelebrating priest should speak the invitation to the sign of peace and the dismissal. Of course, when I am the second and only other priest present with a principal celebrant, I never initiate this, because I can almost guarantee you he won’t expect it. (I have only once since 2011 had a presiding priest point at the relevant texts and expect me to say them!)

If I am the principal, without the assistance of a deacon, then in theory I am supposed to elevate the chalice myself. But to the concelebrant standing next to me, this will seem a rude and selfish gesture unless he has read the new rules and knows he is not meant to assist with the chalice at that moment.

For a principled Aspie, this is a terrible dilemma. I have made a promise to celebrate the liturgy according to the rules (liturgical law is an extension of canon law). But if I follow them I will sow discord. At least in this case there is a principle, which the Church has thoughtfully put in writing (GIRM 95 and 96), that you go with what makes for a harmonious display of unity even when that’s against the letter of the law. The rules apply more directly to being a member of the congregation (so if the majority stand when they should kneel, you should too, rather than implicitly rebuking your fellow worshippers by kneeling anyway).

As for processions, it’s rare that a group of more than a handful of priests will intuit the same ideas about where they should bow and genuflect on a given sanctuary. Hence the need for an MC.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, we are given the story of Jephthah. In a fit of joy, he makes a rash promise that he will sacrifice to God the first living creatures he spies on his estate when he returns home. But when he is within sight of home his only daughter runs out to greet him – “Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!”

Jephthah faces an impossible choice – sacrifice his daughter or break a solemn vow to God. He decides to be a man of his word, though he allows his daughter some months to ‘bewail her virginity’ before sacrificing her. Here the Bible is clearly warning against rash vows rather than endorsing human sacrifices, but there is also a cautionary tale against forcing believers into vows which could backfire. The New Testament generally advises against the making of oaths (see e.g. James and Matthew).

At least there is some wriggle room in the liturgy to preserve harmony rather than the letter of the law, but I do dream of a day when all the priests at Mass have read the same Memo so we know what to do. The Book of Revelation describes Heaven as a liturgy – perhaps that’s so we priests can finally have a chance to get it right!

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!

Explaining Myself

Over the years since I got my diagnosis, I have found it useful to explain myself, at least to some degree, in appropriate circumstances. it’s not always necessary to use clinical labels.

When I’ve had a ministry in a school, I have confided in the Headteacher that I am autistic. I trust Heads, as educational professionals, to keep confidences and understand something about what a diagnosis of Asperger’s implies.

As a newly appointed parish priest, I haven’t used the clinical label. Rather, what I say to my new parish council goes like this: In seminary, we are encouraged to became aware of our own personal strengths and weaknesses. What I learned about myself is that I am very head-centred, and in committee meetings I might focus to exclusively on the task at hand. I might not notice if I have touched a sensitive nerve for one or more persons present – so if that should happen, please bring it to my attention.

With friends, it gets a bit more difficult. When a friendship becomes close enough, I do disclose my diagnosis. But here the tricky part is around how I talk about communicating affection. I can say, quite truthfully, that if they feel warm towards me, I will not pick up on that warmth unless they communicate it very directly through an unambiguous word, action or touch. But it’s almost impossible to explain this without it sounding like ’emotional blackmail’ – ‘Unless you tell me that you care about me, I won’t believe that you do!’

So, gentle reader, if you have a friend who is an Aspie, let me ask on their behalf. If they were deaf, you would speak up, wouldn’t you? So in this case, check what they are comfortable with, learn their love language(s), and when you find yourself naturally emoting, amplify it to become a big, unambiguous gesture.

I once read an account of someone who arranged for a group of badly disfigured World War II pilots to each have a beautiful female companion for a special evening event – actresses who were well able not to betray any feelings of disgust at the wounded faces. The story touched me deeply, because it showed that someone understood the need “to be loved” is present in people who are repulsive for reasons beyond their control. So if you care about your Aspie, tell him or her, even if communicating it so clearly takes you out of your comfort zone. Isn’t this what you’d want someone to do for you?

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.