MIND THE (interdisciplinary) GAP!

The 1st October 2020 was the first “official” day of my PhD Research. It was one of those days – rainy and sunny at the same time.

No doubt that’s a metaphor.

The rain was a nuisance, but there was a fabulous rainbow as I walked my kids down to school. My 6-year-old asked his favourite question: Why?

As a person of faith, (and a seasoned Sunday School teacher), I was on the point of saying, “It’s a reminder of our friendship with God.” But, before I could answer my son’s question, another parent with whom we had fallen in step gave the scientific answer – something about light and refraction and atmospheric conditions.

If you ask me, it was a bit technical for a six-year-old, but he drank in every word, and I held my peace.

Which one of us was right? From my perspective, both of us, since Christians believe that God is light (1 John 1:5), so for me even the science finds it beginning in God. Which answer did my son need to hear? Probably both too. After all, he is free to make his own choice about the God stuff.

I can’t help thinking that this small encounter epitomises a tension that will dominate my life for the next few years. My project proposal is to study how autistic people describe the experience of prayer, and the effect that prayer has upon their mental health. As such, the project is interdisciplinary and it will be co-supervised, with one supervisor based in the Divinity department of the University of Aberdeen and one based in the Psychology department of the University of Glasgow.

However, just as there are ideologically different explanations for seeing a rainbow, within the disciplines of Divinity and Psychology there are many different, ideology driven, ways of seeing autism…and, of course, prayer.

Sometimes, within Psychology (particularly within neuroscience, and within clinical psychology), there is a convention to speak of ASD – Autism Spectrum Disorder – (italics mine). With the best intention, the word ‘disorder’ implies an aberrant state of being, a misfortune, something which probably requires therapies. Some psychologists don’t like that. Some autistic people don’t like it either.

Likewise, some Christian theology assumes that in a perfect world autism would not exist. A few voices even go so far as to claim that they have seen autism ‘cured’ through prayer. Some Christians (myself included, I must add) find that very discomforting. Some autistic people find it downright offensive.

More usually, in Divinity, (particularly within the department at the University of Aberdeen, home to the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community), one tends to find autism understood as part of humanity’s rich tapestry, another way of being – something to be met with hospitality and respect.

This approach does not deny that autism can entail intense suffering, both for the autistic person and their caregivers. But there is also acknowledgement that wanting relief from suffering is not the same as wanting a cure for autism. One does not necessarily require the other: much suffering, for autistic people, is brought about by society’s “cult of normalcy” (Reynolds, 2009) rather than by the condition of autism itself.

This kind of perspective has many champions within Psychology too, and my perception is that the movement is gaining momentum. Key, high-profile, voices are campaigning to see the ‘dis-abling’ effect of autism addressed, not by ‘curing’ autistic people, but by ‘neuro-typical’ people curing themselves from the dis-abling effects of their own assumptions.

“…one recent study observed a reduced ‘ownership effect’ in the toy choices of autistic relative to non-autistic children. Children with autism judged toys purely on their merits, showing no bias contingent on randomly assigned ownership (i.e. having been given the toy by the experimenter). Despite the autistic group showing more rational behaviour, the authors concluded that “deficits in self-understanding may diminish ownership effects in ASD.” (Hartley and Fisher, 2018, p. 26).”
(Fletcher-Watson and Happé, 2019, p. 45).

Such a meeting of minds (neuro-typical and otherwise) makes me think that an interdisciplinary project such as this one might just be possible, with the important caveat that autistic people, from both disciplines, have a full and long-overdue opportunity to shape the debate.

However, just when I’ve convinced myself that it is possible to take an inter-disciplinary look at autism, I then remember that I’m also proposing to take an interdisciplinary look at prayer. Oh dear…

Inescapably, psychology is a (social)* science. (*This in itself if a point of controversy – fun times!) (Social) science follows empirical method, with the ensuing expectation that there will be empirical results.

Divinity has the opposite draw. Practical Theology (my discipline) often uses empirical method, but at the end of the day, theology is, by definition, non-empirical. (The existence of God will always be an entirely theoretical assertion; therefore, it follows that anything one writes about God, and prayer, can never really be empirical.)

The long and the short of it is that I might have accidentally committed myself to writing about autism and prayer in a way that will have to satisfy both the empirical and the non-empirical scholarly appetite at the same time.

It’s all a bit technical for a thirty-six-year-old.

On 1st October my 6-year-old expressed a desire to skip school, he wanted to go on a journey to chase the rainbow instead.

No doubt that’s a metaphor.

About the Author: Henna Cundill is in her first year of a SGSAH DTP, based at the University of Aberdeen, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow. She lives in Ellon, Aberdeenshire with her husband and two children. Henna works in Christian Ministry and Chaplaincy, and her research seeks to re-examine the Church’s theology of prayer in light of autistic experience. She can be contacted on h.cundill.20@abdn.ac.uk or you can follow her social media accounts on Facebook (@h.c.Dillwrite) or Instagram (h.c.dill.write)

Refernces:

Reynolds, T. (2009) Vulnerable Communion. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press.
Fletcher-Watson, S. Happé, F. (2019) Autism: A New Introduction to Psychological Theory and Current Debate. London: Routledge.

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