Autism is a developmental disability that is usually diagnosed in early childhood. There is a spectrum of autistic disorders ranging from classical autism to the higher-functioning pervasive developmental disorder. These disorders are characterized by (1) impairments in the ability and desire to form basic social relationships, (2) abnormal communication and language skills, and (3) limited or nonexistent imagination, and rigid patterns of behavior with a desire for sameness. Although the exact cause of autism remains a puzzle to researchers, many scholars claim that there is a genetic component to the disorder.
Similar to the complex phenomenon of autism, the concept of spirituality also remains a challenge to define. The experience of spirituality remains dependent on individual experience. That is, spirituality can mean different things to different people. Spirituality can involve belief of a higher power, or a way of life defined by a particular religion. It can also involve a feeling of being one with the environment and others, or a guiding sense of meaning or value in life. For some, it may include a desire to understand and express their purpose in life, and understand their place in a greater spectrum. It can include the experience of love, joy, pain, sorrow, peace, contentment, and wonder about life's experiences, and to care about and respect all living things.
Overall, both autism and spirituality are multifaceted concepts that remain relatively unexplored within the disciplines of social sciences and education. Even less understood is the concept of spirituality as it relates to autistic children and their caregivers. This lack of definition leads to further questions regarding how researchers and educators can address these issues in children. It is important to explore the connections between the two concepts as a better understanding of the spiritual experience for autistic children may provide insight into the inner worlds of these children and assist them in developing a sense of spirituality.
The study of spirituality and autism is particularly difficult due to the nature of the disorder. Autism is a disability that involves impairment in psychological connection and affective engagement with others, the skills necessary for spiritual awareness with others. Since most spiritual experiences involve relating, how can autistic children participate in spiritual activities? Furthermore, autistic children have language impairments, making it difficult for them to communicate.
These communicative deficits present a problem for those children attempting to participate in spiritual activities where many of the teachings are explained through written texts, such as the Bible.
Another challenge in experiencing spirituality for autistic children is their difficulty with understanding and representing abstract concepts. Much religion is based on theological principles. Since they are unable to think in abstract terms, religion may seem imposed by an institution detached from their own reality. This experience can be frustrating, as one autistic individual described religious experience as being like "an outsider looking in." If a concept of spirituality is to exist for autistic children, it must respect the culture of those who cannot understand the concepts of universality and abstraction easily.
Although there are many challenges for autistic children's experience of spirituality, several forms of therapy aimed at increasing the autistic child's emotional responsiveness are used today, and may in turn foster their ability to experience spirituality. For example, music therapy has been shown to greatly improve autistic children's communication, and may help to promote a sense of spirituality. Music is a form of expression to most people to varying degrees. It is comparable to verbal language in its variety, subtlety, and power to affect communication in the emotional realm. It is particularly useful with nonverbal individuals as it does not require the use of language. By aiding in their communicative abilities, it may assist autistic children to express themselves and their spirituality.
Therapy with animals such as dogs or dolphins has also been used to assist autistic children. Animal therapy has been useful in encouraging pro-social behaviors, by decreasing self-absorption, and making autistic children more aware of their social environment. By improving children's social, communication, and emotional skills, autistic children may be better equipped to experience and express spirituality. A sense of spirituality can be very enriching to the life of an autistic child. Based on the developmental challenges the autistic child faces, it is important that it be considered in terms of the context of the individual's emotional, cognitive, and spiritual environments.
Spirituality must also be rooted in their personal, cultural, and religious experiences. If this can be accomplished, then spirituality can play a positive role in the lives of autistic children.