“Neurodiversity’s Visionary Opportunities” creates caring definitions, establishes philosophical principles supporting the common good, offers transcendent ethics of conduct, and proposes biblical, practical life applications. Social science and neuroscience research, understood through a Scriptural lens, is joined to vocational possibilities for neurodiverse individuals. Evangelical scholars have both the legacy of forward thinking and the responsibility to serve their communities for the good. Christian thinkers are well positioned to help future generations to transform “stranger” into “neighbor.” Mark Eckel is President of The Comenius Institute, a Christian study center on the campus of Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). He teaches in the school of liberal arts at IUPUI as well as masters and doctoral classes for various institutions. For over 35 years Mark has served the education community as a high school teacher, college professor, grad school lecturer, curriculum writer, and international speaker. He is the author of multiple books, articles, encyclopedia entries, and writes weekly online.

Temple Grandin devised stockyards, corrals, conveyors, and loading ramps for stockyard cattle because she was attuned to animals’ perceptions. Scenes from the HBO movie Temple Grandin convey Grandin’s personal experience, as evidenced in her 2010 TED Talk1 regarding how different minds process information. Grandin’s mental acuity, her vision, and imagination are different than others; by her own account Grandin is on the autistic spectrum. She is accustomed to visual stimuli, connections that standard verbal processing may miss. Grandin has authored books describing her intellect, among them, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism.2 Her way of thinking is considerably distinctive.

Grandin’s mindset intrigues me. I teach a course at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis, a public university, entitled “Reading, Writing & Inquiry” where students are trained how to reason, then, to communicate their thinking. An essay in Harvard Business Review on military establishments around the world that hire neurodiverse individuals piqued my interest.3 I then made the essay required reading toward a written reflection assignment for my students. The article described “John” whose mathematical abilities made him a prime candidate for military digital research. John’s autism taught him to see what others could not. Prompts toward reflective writing forming an individual response to the article included, (1) Describe a person you know who is like “John.” How do you view people and how do people view themselves? (2) Define and explain the word “neurodiversity” in your own words. (3) Why is it important to understand autism? (4) Should we use the word “different” when describing a person? Why or why not? (5) How did you respond to the phrase “differently abled” used by neurodiverse people? (6) Comment on this statement, “Perhaps the most surprising benefit is that managers have begun thinking more deeply about leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individual needs.” (7) Why is “innovation” a concern in business? How can differently abled persons help? (8) Choose one approach for “inclusive workplaces” and give an example or tell a story of how business, civic, social, educational, religious, and community leaders can work together.

Ahead of the reflective writing assignment, we watched video clips from the movie Temple Grandin. Often in the reflective papers students referenced Grandin as an example of what the world would miss if Grandin’s story were not heard. Responses to the prompts—fully one half of the class—told story after story of family and friends on the spectrum of autism. One individual suggested that the concept of “social setting” has shifted the discussion from people in physical presence to people in digital presence. Another said, the imposition of face-to-face meetings may unnerve a person on the spectrum whereas the ability to interact within the digital windows of virtual reality and interactive conferencing may create opportunities heretofore unavailable. Some referenced playing video games against neurologically diverse individuals suggesting the persons were some of the smartest people they knew. Even more students referenced their parents who had the forethought to introduce their own children to classes full of uniquely minded persons. In the view of one student “different” should not mean “less.” The following is an empathic, storied response of genuine care by one student:

The tic of a boy’s pen is heard in the back of the room – tic, tic, tic. Your palms are sweating, and it is becoming harder to breathe. Every tic is counted and clocked in your brain – thirty- seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine. Outside of the classroom are rowdy football players shouting back and forth about last night’s game, and your head begins to hurt. You cover your ears so the sounds dissipate, but they slip through your fingers. Your urge to get up, move, and scream increases as the sounds get louder. Where is your safe place? Submerging yourself into a fetal position, the eyes of others turn and burn into you. You begin to rock back and forth to settle the overwhelming feelings of anxiety. This is autism.


The amount and quality of student feedback radiated sensitivity, authenticity, and generosity toward others. Students summarily viewed any interaction about neurodiversity as a “gift” to the world.

Temple Grandin’s life, the Harvard Business Review article, the reflective writing assignment, as well as a myriad of other influences, fostered a desire in me to pursue a brief study of neurodiversity’s visionary opportunities. For the public good, the Christian scholar should strive to understand neurodiversity through a biblical-theological lens, seeking incarnational connections in people’s lives, expanding society’s spectrum of visionary, vocational knowledge in order to adapt to situations it will face. This article creates caring definitions, establishes theological principles supporting the common good, offers transcendent ethics of conduct, and purposeful practical life applications under a biblical egis. The layered work of social science and neuroscience research are applied to show the sustenance of future possibilities for those whose intellectual talents may have heretofore been ignored. Stories of neurodivergent people who are on an autistic spectrum are be introduced. Examples of occupations for which neurodiverse people are gifted will be anticipated, moving “stranger” to “neighbor.”

Definitions

Exploration in neurodiversity is expansive and expanding. The perspective of this paper is contextualized within the views of this social-science-minded theologian. Further, my perspectives are those of an application-driven practitioner, an active educator, a pastorally-minded scholar, and interdisciplinary thinker.4 To begin, the Christian thinker must consider the biblical definition5 of humanness. The application of a Christian view of humanity must insist on acknowledging the tension between human dignity and the effects of human depravity.6 Though difficult, it is important to say concurrently about neurodiversity that the fall of Adam twisted all creation7; and yet the intact, undamaged structure of God’s image in humans still exists. Passages such as Genesis 9:6, Psalm 8, Matthew 22:15-22, Romans 8:29, and James 3:9 clearly articulate the theological truth that every individual still bears the perfect stamp of God’s image on them.8

The imperative of this truth is essential to make the point that God’s image in neurodiverse people is undamaged. Christian educational institutions could lead the way in producing clarity for understanding and care because of the dual Scriptural teaching—that humans are both dignified and depraved—within the scope of discussions on neurodiversity. Biblical thinking can encourage a broad, human vision of interconnected, cross-disciplinary opportunities in the academe that both truths teach.

Others-centered9 definitions create structural guidelines for a Hebraic Christian10 academic discussion. Definitions provide formation for examination. Neurodiversity identifies someone who is “differently abled,”11 a term coined based on “a unique set of abilities and intense interests”12 which is a collective expression difficult to diagnose fully or label definitively.13 Autism “is not a single unified entity but a cluster of underlying conditions [that] produce a distinctive constellation of behavior and needs that manifests in different ways at various stages of an individual’s development”14 – autism can be said to be “a different way of being human.”15 Tension about humanness is the proposition that God’s image is maintained in the human person16 but that the person is now distorted in various ways because of the sinful, generational imprint17 the fallen, fallible, finite, fragile results of which humans continue to endure.18 Visionary marks “leaders [who] are pioneers … people who venture into unexplored territory”19 who select and articulate a “powerful idea.”20 Opportunities indicates a Providential plan of God discovered by His people for the betterment of all around which includes both “risk”21 and futuristic, “anticipatory leadership.”22 Stranger, neighbor metaphors articulate the imperative beginning in Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 10 which declares God’s same covenantal love23 for the stranger as is given to His people, reminding them that they know what it means to be an outsider.24

Definitions must not become labels.25 How we talk about people—our nomenclature used within any given neurodiverse group—is an intentional, conscious statement of belief. A purely rational approach26 depends upon “proper balance of difference and discrimination to update our labeling routines using scientific or clinical knowledge.”27 Coons and Brennan further argue that human equality apart from a transcendent ethic must maintain that “All rational persons share uniformly the capacity to be morally good” based on a universal ability to correctly struggle “towards a person’s moral self-perfection.”28 The results of such naturalistic viewpoints leave the imprint of discriminatory terminology impacting personal and economic concerns.29

Labels without a transcendent source acknowledging any person’s worth, value, and dignity leave identification purely up to human definitions. Perhaps instead of “disability”—extracting the “dis” or “de” prefixes—we could put forward the concept of probility, a positive portrayal of a person. Jasrsma and Welin contend, “High-functioning autists should not be stigmatize[d]” referencing “these persons as being disabled, or as having a disorder or use some other deficit based language.”30 Or, should it be necessary to focus on the person’s uniqueness, we might offer differability as a way to suggest diversity. Classifying or categorizing can either stigmatize or esteem others in conversation when moving from “stranger” to “neighbor.”

Christian intellectuals should lead the way with respect to our respect of others. A series of application questions could be a first step in how a stranger might become a neighbor. (1) If you talk about neurodiverse individuals to others, do you show care in word choice and tone of voice, specific evidence from a personal encounter or exchange? (2) When you share your remembered encounter, do you make sure definitions or explanations show sensitivity, using the terms most comfortable to the neurodiverse individual? (3) When you present your explanation of a neurodiverse individual, do you ask yourself, Do I know the person, have I had long, extended, far-reaching conversations to know a bit of who that person is? (4) When you spend time with an autistic person do you add that experience to your knowledge of their personhood? (5) When you experience time with a neurodiverse individual do you tell others about your time in a way that is honest and fair to the encounter, dropping preconceptions and reordering your original thinking? Christian scholars can set an example: people deserve to be more than labels, more than “strangers.”

The evangelical scholar has a unique opportunity to help set the foundation of thought for neurodiversity. Naturalistic, materialistic mindsets may view people as simply “producers” whose pragmatic placement in an organization may support only profit motive. A Christian theological perspective offers personhood and beneficence as the reason for neurodiversity’s societal embrace. How Christians interact with anyone necessitates a careful, nuanced perspective. Following Grandin’s lead, if “social impairments are the very core of autism,”31 then the believing scholar must consider changes about how persons are spoken of and treated as persons in the culture as a whole. Each person should be appreciated for their individuality. Romans 16 is an example of various individuals who contributed to the church.

As Francis Schaeffer well said in a book title There Are No Little People,32 little people do not exist, because God’s image exists in all people. An evangelical theology should set the stage for our collective humanness, a commitment to the shift from stranger to neighbor33 by assuming five biblical, philosophical pillars. First, the creation was created and is sustained by God, therefore all that exists is sacred, belonging to God.34 Second, “common grace”35 can be discovered and enjoyed by anyone, anywhere, recipients of God’s beneficence.36 Third, knowing anything from a Hebraic-Christian perspective begins with “fearing the Lord;”37 the “fear” itself being accessible to all image-bearers.38 Culture and context may condition how knowledge is viewed, but the common nature of reality is true for all people in all places at all times in all cultures.39 Fourth, the Hebraic-Christian Scriptures are education’s organizing core40 for purpose, process, interpretation, evaluation, and affective change. Fifth, public intellectuals bear responsibility for pursuing and teaching truth for cognitive, affective, and behavioral response.41

The five pillars uphold five obligations of Hebraic-Christian thinkers in a fallen world whether neurodiversity or any concern. First, a righteous, revelatory standard founded in the Bible sustains support and wellbeing for all humans.42 Second, a transformed spirit, affecting the being, the interiority of the believer, embodies care for all people.43 Third, Christian leaders who submit themselves to God’s standard in word, attitude, and deed44 guide the Christian church toward the practice of Christian ethics in every sphere of influence.45 Fourth, Christians who practice Christian ethics in the society where they live create opportunities for wholeness in any community.46 Fifth, the benefit for a whole society when the group is influenced by Hebraic-Christian ethics is esteemed as “good” even by those who denigrate these obligations.47

Humanness transcends cultural differences, including neurodiverse cultures. Tradition or lifestyle differences do not matter as much as accepting others for who they are, treating all as equals.48 Everyone is made in God’s image coming from His “family.”49 Scripture honors differences while exhorting unity.50 Unity breaks down diversity, misunderstandings, stereotypes, prejudice, and bias.51 Unity creates mutual goals.52 Believers should be anxious to learn, slow to speak, humbly acknowledging that someone may understand more.53 Christians should watch for ways to help and not hurt others, eager to be taught.54 Learning another’s native speech, for instance, demonstrates charity, devotion, beneficence, generosity, prompting aid.55 The Christian source for charity is unconditional sacrifice for others demonstrated through Jesus.56 Charity breaks down cultural distance and nationalism. Charity through hospitality creates opportunities to save cultures, languages, and people groups. Others are attracted by a person who moves to their level.57 Humility breaks down cultural arrogance. Humility creates unassuming, meek servants. The practice of beneficence toward others is what it means to practice one’s Christian faith by “doing good.”58

The practice of goodness is especially important as the Christian holds in tension what is known and what is unknown about neurodiversity.59 The German theologian Karl Barth explained:

If we are to think about life, we must penetrate its hidden corners, and steadily refuse to treat anything—however trivial or disgusting it may seem to be—as irrelevant. To be sincere, our thought must share in the tension of human life, in its criss-cross lines, and in its kaleidoscopic movements. And life is neither simple, nor straightforward, nor obvious.60

Humans do well to consider their place in life as fallen, fragile, finite, and fallible. Creation itself sets the rhythm of response – its every activity is seen as praise, adulation, and adoration.61 If creation knows its place, it comes as no surprise humans should too. Human attempts to comprehend the complexity of the human person must remember Job’s amazement at what little could be known about creation saying, “These are but the outskirts of His works.”62

Questions

Seeking to understand complex problems leads the Christian scholar to ponder possibilities, the need to apprehend varied cognitive functions of neurodiverse people. Consider the questions that might be offered. How are neurotypical63 and neurodiverse individuals different from each other? What if the need for change began with the neurotypical instead of a neurodiverse individual? What if we asked, “What can I learn from others?” instead of “How can I help others learn?” What if we begin to think that autism, Asperger’s, neurodiversity, as a whole has much more to do with latent, innate connections to God’s image, the multiplicity of attributes, and gifts through the ineffable, incomprehensible nature of God? What if the person with autism became the person who supported the abled community, not vice versa? Questions such as these could lead to visionary thinking and then visionary opportunities in the fields of education, writing, and ethnography.

Visionary, neurodiverse principles can be applied in educational theory. Ross Cooper believes everyone is “neurodiverse” and therefore education as a social construct needs to consider how it might accommodate all learners eschewing the nomenclature of “learning difficulties.”64 The Bagatelle model, outlining how numerous neurodiverse categories can be understood, is especially helpful to identify the multiplicity of fields within the educational system.65 Toward that end, living with the complexity of neurodiversity, ten universal principles leading to ten ideal questions for the classroom could move the next generation from stranger to neighbor:

  1. Moral. The “should” of education sets the assumed worth, value, and dignity of every life. The class is then led to ask, “What are the reasons anyone gives for doing good?”
  2. Listening. Investment in understanding necessitates a commitment to appreciate others’ point of view. The class is then led to ask, “How do I hear what people are saying and what they are not saying?”
  3. Deference. Respect does not infer absolute agreement, but an agreement to disagree constructively, to support the voice of other perspectives. The class is then led to ask, “How do we get along with people who do not think like us?”
  4. Exclusivity. Authority structures are necessary for any context including the vocabulary chosen for any conversation. The class is then led to ask, “What are the proper word choices to perpetuate and promote kindness for others?”
  5. Inclusivity. Proactive, intentional motivations for educational processes can protect others. The class is then led to ask, “How do we respond to bigotry against those who have unique thinking processes?”
  6. Empathy. Unselfish focus on others with special opportunity for emotional support by way of learning about others who have had similar experiences forms a social consciousness. The class is then led to ask, “How do we show compassion to others with unique cognition?”
  7. Connection. Inviting and involving others prompts the “diversity” in “neurodiversity.” The class is then led to ask, “When we meet others how do I learn the backgrounds and backstories of their thinking?”
  8. Community. Support across constituencies encourages the search for commonality amid diversity. The class is then led to ask, “How do we celebrate differences that make our neighbors feel accepted?”
  9. Research. Educational study links past with present anticipating future opportunities. The class is then led to ask, “How do I evaluate and implement resources for future contexts?”
  10. Heterodoxy. Celebrating differences, cultivating collaborations in all forms brings neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals together. The class is then led to ask, “How can we practice belonging over bias to encourage hearing of all voices in any community?”

Classroom Examples

Classroom contexts in the twenty-first century can be promoted by opening neurodiverse worlds through film. Movies like Temple Grandin can spur public understanding and empathy for characters on screen that viewers see in everyday life. In addition, The Accountant is an action-thriller in which the main character, played by Ben Affleck, is diagnosed with a form of high functioning autism. The portrayal of a life lived behind the veil of numbers and stoicism enlightens an audience, exposing them to a world they may know through the lives of others. Please Stand By sensitizes viewers to a young autistic woman (Dakota Fanning is the female lead) whose life revolves around Star Trek and her compulsion to submit an episode to the series. Mannerisms of social awkwardness juxtaposed with her brilliant memory and visualization of futuristic worlds seen on screen are reminiscent of characteristics, which may be seen in members of a neurodiverse population today. Life Animated radiates warmth showing what it’s like to live with a son on the spectrum.

Rain Man, the movie that broke open the discussion of intellectual savants, remains an example of neurotypicals coming to terms with their own shortcomings. The movies My Name is Khan and Adam portray young men with Asperger’s both in pursuit of a noble cause, each displaying social awkwardness with gentle sweetness, affective traits important to both storyline and everyday life. And, The Peanut Butter Falcon brings Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to life as a Down syndrome teenager (played by Zack Gottsagen who lives with Down syndrome) pursues an inauspicious wrestling dream. The heartwarming nature of the movie moves audiences, making a powerful statement both for life and a life well lived, no matter one’s mental acuity. Christian educators should accommodate to the usefulness of film to communicate effectively in popular culture with a decidedly Christian point of view.

Visionary, neurodiverse principles can be applied in composition studies.66 Writers David Sousa and Maryanne Wolf demonstrate the importance of understanding neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change, to reshape its neural circuitry over time—for digital and print media.67 Sousa explains, “Whatever stimuli children experience during the first three years of their lives will profoundly influence the way their brain develops.”68 For her part, Wolf wonders if continued screen usage will “atrophy” teenage minds for “critical analysis, empathy, and reflection.”69 Pondering “cognition” in a different way, what if neuroplasticity plays a key role in creating new neural connections via variant compositional practices which will value neurodiverse writers?70 If so, what if students who are autistic, begin in failure mode only because their approach to composition is wholly other than neurotypicals? And further, what if compositional strategies are reconsidered to begin where are near neighbors—those on the autism spec- trum—already find themselves? Could it be that neurotypicals are the “failures” for not seeing where they are, not invested in the construction of writing bridges across the neurodiverse chasm? Approaches to teaching writing would to change in order “to hear our students’ voices.”71 Tomlinson and Newman suggest the classical concept of mētis for construction of strategies helpful for students who think differently.72 The crablike creature (mētis) moving sideways, embodied a cunning and allowed success where other humans failed. The visual metaphor could shift curricular thinking allowing the neurodiverse student to write about what they care about, translating ideas into their own language while embracing writing methods that work for them.

Indeed, the opposite could also be beneficial: the study of autistic stories in neurological medicine. Michael Whelan, an academic and father of an autistic child, encourages “the roles of biomedical and pathographic texts in telling the stories of autism.”73 If nothing else, the human derivative of empathy in medical students after a humanities course74 accedes to the need for narratives of neurodiverse people be included in any ongoing understanding of neurodiversity. What if medical schools incorporated “curricula in history, literature and poetry, narrative medicine, and the visual and performing arts?”75 For instance, Columbia University has a program in “Narrative Medicine” whose mission statement includes, “The intersection between narrative and medicine [to] improve the effectiveness of care by developing these skills with patients and colleagues.”76 Lillian Campbell’s research connects rhetoricians with doctors so as to improve pedagogy.77 Even graphic novels are being used to better understand autism’s differences, subverting prejudices, leading to alterity.78

Further, could it be that autism is beneficial for focused language study? Atleast in the life of Steven Kunkel such a suggestion is true. Beset by communication problems as a child, Kunkel’s autism actually prompted a response no one in the medical community anticipated. Missionaries to Uruguay, Steven’s parents decided to stay on the field keeping their son with them after doctors suggested a return to the United States. “Kunkel’s experience as a missionary kid inspired him to become a missionary himself,” reports Andrew Smith. Living in Japan ahead of college, Steven felt God’s call to serve in that country. But Japanese is a hard language to learn. Steven explains, “My autism is a benefit and a blessing. It requires me to focus on one or two things at a time. That part of autism made me very passionate about learning Japanese, and it’s easy for me to spend hours and hours developing my language skills.”79

Steven Kunkel’s narrative could be retold in story form following the pattern of books such as The Girl Who Thought in Pictures80 and A Boy Called Bat,81 books for children about children with autism. The Girl Who Thought in Pictures is based on the life of Temple Grandin. A Boy Called Bat is fictional about Bixby Alexander Tam (nicknamed “Bat”), a boy on the autism spectrum in need of structure. The stories are replete with genuine connective care, an important addition to literature and the opportunity for inclusiveness with the neurodiverse community. Gabe Lyons in The Next Christians communicates the necessary concern Christian public intellectuals have for the common good, putting first things first:

Too often we confuse first and second things. If I want my children to have beautiful imagina- tions (a second thing), I must first turn off the television, read them descriptive, fantastical books, and give them experiences that let their minds wander and dream (a first thing). I can’t tell them to practice “imagination.” I have to create an environment that first encourages it.82

Creating imaginative environments is exactly the need in training young people to think counter-culturally about anything, including neurodiversity. The next generation of Christian thought leaders can be helped by this generation of public intellectuals who manifest care in all arenas of life, helping everyone to accept the stranger as neighbor.

Visionary, neurodiverse principles can be applied in ethnographic studies.83 Bustion’s position is that self-reporting from Christians with autism should be an integral component leading to ethnographic studies. Heuristics is “a way of self-inquiry and dialogue with others aimed at finding the underlying meanings of important human experiences.”84 “Transcendental Phenomenological Theory” includes ethnography as a key component of study focused on (1) grouping, collecting data, (2) clustering individuals, grouped within themes, (3) validation of participants and interviews, (4) construction of experiences, and (5) meaning derives from a description of the experiences.85 Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump is perfectly explained in the ethnographic subtitle The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year-Old Boy with Autism.86

Phenomenological research such as ethnography depends upon individual experience but should be adjudicated by a researcher who must acknowledge her own cultural context which could shape interpretations: in the case of neurodiversity, neurotypicals must take note. Researchers should “explicitly identify their biases, values and personal backgrounds, such as gender, history, culture, and socioeconomic status that may shape the interpretations formed during the study.”87 Communicating the social actions of others begets another struggle: once an ethnographic study is released, the work is then conformed to media, restated by editorialists, truncated for length, then interpreted by a public which may or may not understand the nuances of the original study.88 However, an ethnography can come to be seen as “an authoritative source of moral deliberation…a richer and more contextually appropriate ethical discourse.”89 Bustion’s concluding comment about autistic self-reporting is worth reading in its entirety:

Better assumptions (autistic self-understanding is in fact self-understanding) lead to better methodologies (ethnography). Better methodologies lead to better findings (a more fine-grained picture of the self-understandings of autistic Christians). And better findings lead to better theologies (ones attentive to the empowering contextual theologies that actually autistic Christians improvise in the face of disabling stories told about them by social and behavioral scientists, academic theologians, and philosophers of religion alike).90

Neurodiversity ethnography could be a change agent for the neurotypicals community, moving from stranger to neighbor.

Science Examples

A spate of “brain books” have introduced Christian audiences to public intellectuals who are communicating their neurological research in ways accessible for the common good. In Am I Just My Brain? Sharon Dirckx explains her studies in brain imaging that address apologetic issues such as “a God gene,” free will, and the “hard wiring” of belief. Interacting with studies in neurotheology, for example, Dirckx contends that religious experiences “cannot be reduced to brain activity,” passing off neurons firing in the brain as simply a physiological reaction to external stimuli.

In particular, Dirckx tells the story of a young man, Luke, in her church who is physically and mentally disabled. Her descriptions of Luke’s rhythmic movements and noises during a sermon exactly mirror others in the neurodiverse spectrum. The moving description of Luke expressing his faith in Jesus as his savior comes “without inhibition.” According to Dirckx’s informed physician’s analysis, she contends “God is greater than the human brain, and does relate to anyone and everyone, regardless of their cognitive capacity. No one is beyond his reach.”91

In The God-Shaped Brain Timothy Jennings examines how theological truths from Scripture connect with neurological truths from science. Interacting with biblical teaching about love, fear, truth, sin, judgment, goodness, and forgiveness, Jennings makes immediate, convincing arguments as a Christian public intellectual who explains the natural, neurological world in synthesis with the supernatural world.92

In Rare Leadership authors Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder intersect brain science with leadership principles. In one instance, they relate what they call “the mutual mind” to the sharing of “gestures, facial expressions, voice tones, synchronized energy levels, and mirrored feelings” within personal interactions.93 Christian public intellectuals could build on furthering research to see what kind of connections can be made between neurotypicals and neurodiverse groups.

In What Your Body Knows About God Rob Moll examines neuro-transformation, brain plasticity, and how some physicians know there is a strong connection between one’s mental state and spiritual life. Recounting a myriad of stories Moll contends there is an interconnection between the Maker of the human mind because He created the neurological connections.94

Consider Christian missions as an ethnographic study and imagine you are an Old Testament scholar. You study shards from archaeological digs and know more than a dozen languages. You write, speak, and teach about the ancient Near Eastern world. Now imagine you are also the parent of a Down syndrome child. How would you carry on your scholarly work given your circumstances?

Imagine as a child you stopped breathing for some time. You developed a mild form of cerebral palsy. You live with the difficulties of your condition all your life. Now imagine you are called to serve on the mission field. How could you properly share the gospel of Christ with noticeable mental deficiencies?

Imagine you, as a young girl, suffered a tragic diving accident spend the rest of your life as a quadriplegic. You need assistance in every physical process. Yet, you develop the ability to draw using your mouth, you write books, speak on behalf of the differently abled, and God uses you to be the progenitor of a world-wide ministry on behalf of the disabled. You do not have to imagine anything.

You can read these and many other stories in the volume Disability in Mission: The Church’s Hidden Treasure. The principle stated and restated throughout the book is that “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.”95 Not only is the book brimming with stories of people working in ministry around the world but over and over again the reader is struck with the idea that so-called “disabilities” may well be gifts to the world. Public intellectuals bear responsibility to consider the broad reach of God’s Providence through His people for His purposes.

Conclusion

The parents had built a room in their home with windows so they could watch their children inside the room. Both children are severely autistic, unable to communicate in the world most of us call “home.” Dad and mom sought help, something, and someone to intervene, to find a way to communicate with their own children. My son Tyler has mental difficulties of his own. A connection was made between Tyler and the family. The parents invited Tyler to their home, wondering, since he had unique mental challenges, if he could find a way into the children’s world. I watched the two-hour video of my son and his interplay with two primary aged little ones. What I saw, I did not understand; but the moments were full of wonder, pondering the opportunity and ability to enter another person’s world. In Tyler’s recounting, he met other minds in that room, offering an invitation to his world. The effort was one that created a bond, a thoughtful relationship with the parents and children, offering them care and a possibility of hope.

I have thought of that event often. Within the world of neurodiversity, my mind has asked the question again and again, “Will the future generations see the need for translators between neurological worlds?” Tyler and I have discussed what such an endeavor would look like, what would be necessary to see the effort come to fruition. We both agree that the first step in the process must be the acceptance of neurological translation as a bridge between worlds. If we know that mental differences exist and perhaps future therapists, counsellors, psychologists, and scientists can map an intellectual GPS to create the path.96

From a Christian point of view there should be no surprise to find human sciences connect to Christian theology. Discoveries in the scientific community are verifiable by researchers around the world who collect data, apply information, explore, and observe. What is true in one place is true in another. All people, consciously or unconsciously, are taking note of God’s interaction in the world and will “ponder what He has done.”97 Christian scholars bear responsibility to enact a creational mindset within the sphere of neurodiversity discussions discovering more and more of God’s creational intricacies.98 Diligent probing can disclose new information. If the universe is as infinitely great as the thoughts of God and if the universe will endure then Christians can explore, study, and locate universal mysteries without exhausting them.99

God created humans with senses they could use to study, investigate, and care for creation.100 God cares and provides for the needs of His creation. All life is dependent on God.101 God has spoken both in His Word and in creation to help humanity in this life.102 Discussions about human uniqueness and difference are suffused throughout Scripture, the principles applied through visionary opportunities enlightened in education, writing, and ethnography. Scripture is full of stories communicating human response to difficult situations; so too, Christians apply the transcendent principles from Scripture through stories found in varied cultures and contexts. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon the Christian scholar to practice her academic craft to pursue the following ideals:

  • The Christian scholar acknowledges the difficulties of any endeavor, while trying to offer solutions and instill practices benefiting people, demonstrating Jesus’ command to love others.
  • The Christian scholar sees the limitation of human endeavor knowing that superhuman energy is available through the Spirit for her work.
  • The Christian scholar studies all who contribute—Christian or not—agreeing with Scripture that not only is all truth God’s, but He unifies all truth.
  • The Christian scholar exegetes the past—encountering Christian forebears—whose work in the past makes possible our work in the present.
  • The Christian scholar weaves the creational world with glimpses of The Creator’s mind so as to see the interconnection, Heaven with earth.
  • The Christian scholar buttresses her clarion call to use her God-given gifts for the good of fellow earth-dwellers, serving, giving, sacrificing, committing.
  • The Christian scholar stewards the academic-intellectual gifts given knowingthe Source, giving credence to The Scriptures for interpretation.
  • The Christian scholar asks questions to prompt answers, expanding opportunities for other scholars to follow her work, a collaborative juggernaut, knowing God has created us for relationship.
  • The Christian scholar displays examples for the encouragement and edification of those who suffer and for those constrained to relieve suffering who arecompelled by Christ’s suffering.
  • The Christian scholar cares that her work never be for self-promotion but fordoxological celebration of the One on whose behalf she labors.

The scholarship of Christian public intellectuals is the necessary foundation and permeation of every subject of study, including neurodiversity. Hebraic-Christian thought synthesizes creational definitions with Scriptural direction. Caring for all people, no matter the divergence of intellectual abilities, is the mark of a Christian thinker. Graciousness leads to asking questions which may prompt thoughtful shifts in approaches to neurodiversity. Multiple examples from life in the classroom to research in the laboratory opens new redemptive vistas. Perhaps most important is The Church’s collective response and responsibility providing cognitive, affective, and behavioral shifts to foster new approaches toneurodiversity.
What began by watching Temple Grandin, reading a Harvard Business Reviewarticle, applying the principles in a classroom, and becoming convicted by the need to broaden my own engagement with neurodiverse people became what I hope to be a small contribution for the broadening of insights in the church and the world. It is imperative for evangelical scholars to read outside their dominant fields of study since “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it”103; by so doing, we will not be surprised to find intersections of thinking, typical or diverse.

Cite this article
Mark Eckel, “From “Stranger” to “Neighbor”: Neurodiversity’s Visionary Opportunities as Public Intellectuals Promote the Common Good”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 49:4 , 369-385

Footnotes

  1. Temple Grandin, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds, TED Talk, 2010.
  2. Temple Grandin, Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism (New York, NY: Vintage, 2006).
  3. Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano, “Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage,” Harvard Business Review (May–June 2017): 96-103.
  4. Mark D. Eckel, “Interdisciplinarity within Biblical Theology,” Christian Education Journal 12.2 (2015): 384-396.
  5. Words such as “definitions” or “semantics” can conjure concern. Christopher Mole, “Autism and ‘Disease’: The Semantics of an Ill-Posed Question,” Philosophical Psychology 30.8 (2017): 1126–1140.
  6. Pier Jaarsma and Stellan Welin conclude their research with a both-and response in “Autism as a Natural Human Variation: Reflections on the Claims of the Neurodiversity Movement,” Health Care Analysis 20 (2012): 20–30.
  7. Genesis 3:7-19; 5:3; Jeremiah 12:4, 11; Romans 8:22-23; 2 Corinthians 5:2. Not only does the creation “groan” but so do “we ourselves.”
  8. See the strong argument made by John F. Kilner, “Humanity in God’s Image: Is the Image Really Damaged?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 53.3 (2010): 601-617. Find other theological perspectives and explanations from Beth Felker Jones and Jeffrey W. Barbeau, The Image of God in an Image Driven Age: Explorations in Theological Anthropology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2016).
  9. Practicing the love of neighbor includes language modification; adjustments in how a person speaks about another person should show receptivity to what that person would like to be called.
  10. The hyphenated words are meant to suggest a unity, cohesion, and interconnectedness between the First and Second Testaments showing the foundation for all Christian thought begins in Hebraic thought.
  11. Austin and Pisano, “Neurodiversity,” Harvard Business Review 97. It must be acknowledged that the term “neurodiversity” (and its accompanied definitions) is not universally accepted. It is not the purview of this paper to parse the variant viewpoints. It is also important to acknowledge not all individuals on the spectrum will have the social and genetic disposition of a Dr. Temple Grandin. See Marion Quirici, “Geniuses without Imagination: Discourses of Autism, Ability, and Achievement,” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 9.1 (2015): 71-88.
  12. Steve Silberman, NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (New York, NY: Penguin Random House, 2016), 405. The definition is intentionally broad for this brief paper. A full set of characteristics or traits along the spectrum of neurodiverse individuals is best accessed in Silberman’s book.
  13. Temple Grandin, The Autistic Brain: Helping Different Kinds of Minds Succeed (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2014), 101-116.
  14. Silberman, NeuroTribes, 469.
  15. Barry M. Prizant, Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 4, 9. See also Des Fitzgerald, Tracing Autism: Uncertainty, Ambiguity, and the Affective Labor of Neuroscience (University of Washington Press, 2017); Andrezej Kicinski, “Autism,” in Encyclopedia of Christian Education. vol 1, eds. George Thomas Kurian and Mark A. Lamport (New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 106-107.
  16. Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1; Psalm 8:5-8; Matthew 22:20-21; Hebrews 2:8.
  17. Genesis 5:3; Psalm 51:5; 58:3; Mark 7:21-23; Romans 5:12.
  18. Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9-10; Ephesians 4:17-19; Titus 1:15-16.
  19. James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1987), 32.
  20. Burt Nanus, Visionary Leadership (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 16.
  21. Hans Finzel, The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2007), 71-86.
  22. My personal definition of “anticipatory leadership” is seeing what is around the next corner; leadership sees the future through people (Acts 13:1-3). Leaders set the future. Pioneers generate plans to discover uncharted territory, creating new paths, while adjusting to everchanging horizons. Next generations Christian leaders are trailblazers (Romans 15:14-25).
  23. The Hebrew word used for covenantal love for Israel is the same word God uses to explain His love for the alien and stranger demanding the same affective commitment from His people (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
  24. “For you were sojourners in the land of Egypt,” Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34.
  25. C. D. Herrera, Alexandra Perry eds., “Introduction,” in Ethics and Neurodiversity (Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 2-3.
  26. One book among many makes the point in its title, Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism by Cornelius G. Hunter (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007).
  27. Herrera and Perry, Ethics, 14.
  28. J. E. Coons and P. M. Brennan, By Nature Equal: The Anatomy of a Western Insight (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), 121.
  29. Tyler Cowen, “An Economic and Rational Choice Approach to the Autism Spectrum and Human Neurodiversity,” George Mason University, Department of Economics, Paper No. 11-58, 2011.
  30. Jaarsma and Welin. “Autism,” Health Care Analysis, 28.
  31. Grandin, Autistic Brain, 110.
  32. Francis Schaeffer, No Little People (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, 2003).
  33. Loving one’s neighbor because one loves God is the essence of what it means to be a Christian (Leviticus 19:18; Matthew 19:19; John 13:34; Galatians 5:14).
  34. 1 Chronicles 29:10-16; Psalms 24:1; 50:9-12; 89:11.
  35. God gives good gifts through creation to everyone; Common Grace—the goodness of all creation benefits all people (Genesis 39:5; Psalm 107:8, 15, 21, 31, 43; 145:9, 15-16; Matthew 5:44-45; Luke 6:35-36; John 1:9; Acts 14:16-17; 1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
  36. Job 26; 28:1-11; Psalms 104; 111:2; Proverbs 25:2.
  37. Proverbs 1:7; 9:10.
  38. Genesis 1:26; Psalm 8; Psalms 64:9; 65:8; 66:1-5; 67.
  39. Psalms 107, 117.
  40. Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25; 30:11-15; 2 Timothy 1:14; 2:15; 3:14-17.
  41. 2 Chronicles 17:7-9; Proverbs 2:1-6; 2 Corinthians 10:3-5; Galatians 5:22-25; 2 Peter 1:5-9.
  42. Psalm 119:89; 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Peter 1:20-21.
  43. Psalm 19:13-14; Romans 8:5-9.
  44. 2 Kings 23:24-25; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1.
  45. Psalm 15; Hebrews 10:24; 13:1-7, 17.
  46. Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Jeremiah 29:4-7; Titus 2:1-10.
  47. 1 Peter 2:11-17, 20; 3:13-17; 4:19.
  48. Proverbs 14:31; 22:2.
  49. Genesis 1:26; Ephesians 3:14.
  50. Ephesians 4:1-6.
  51. Deuteronomy 10:17; Romans 2:11.
  52. John 17:11, 20-23; Romans 12:4-5.
  53. Ephesians 4:24-32; James 3.
  54. Proverbs 3:27-31; 12:15; 13:10.
  55. David I. Smith and Barbara Carvill, The Gift of the Stranger: Faith, Hospitality, and Foreign Language Learning (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000).
  56. John 1:12-18; 13:34-35; 1 Corinthians 13.
  57. Philippians 2:1-11.
  58. Titus 3:1, 8, 14.
  59. Deuteronomy 29:29; Job 40:1-6; 42:1-6.
  60. Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans. 6th ed (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1960), 425.
  61. For instance, Psalm 114:3-7; 148:1-13.
  62. Job 26:14.
  63. “Neurotypical” denotes a person or persons who are considered to be outside the spectrum of autism.
  64. Ross Cooper, “Neurodiversity and Dyslexia; Challenging the Social Construction of Specific Learning Difficulties,” n.d. 1-12.
  65. Cooper, 6.
  66. Elizabeth Tomlinson and Sara Newman, “Valuing Writers from a Neurodiversity Perspec- tive: Integrating New Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder into Composition Pedagogy,” Composition Studies 45.2 (2017): 91-112.
  67. David A. Sousa, Engaging the Rewired Brain (West Palm Beach, FL: Learning Sciences In- ternational, 2016); Maryanne Wolf, Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2019).
  68. Sousa, Engaging, 27.
  69. Wolf, Reader, 203-4.
  70. Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2015), 73.
  71. Tomlinson and Newman, “Valuing,” 92.
  72. Ibid, 96.
  73. Michael Whelan, “Inspiration is Power: Voices of Information and Advocacy for the Reader of Autism Narratives,” Social Alternatives Vol. 36.4 (2017): 44-48.
  74. P. Ravi Shankar and Rano M. Piryani, “Changes in Empathy Among First Year Medical Students Before and After a Medical Humanities Module,” Education in Medicine Journal 5.1 (2013): e35-e42. DOI:10.5959/eimj.v5i1.36.
  75. Sarah Mann, “Focusing on Arts, Humanities to Develop Well-Rounded Physicians,” Association of American Medical Colleges News 15 (August 2017): https://www.aamc.org/ news-insights/focusing-arts-humanities-develop-well-rounded-physicians.
  76. “About Narrative Medicine,” https://www.narrativemedicine.org/about-narrative-medicine/.
  77. Lillian Campbell, “The Rhetoric of Health and Medicine as a “Teaching Subject”: Lessons from the Medical Humanities and Simulation Pedagogy,” Technical Communication Quarterly 27.1 (2018): 1, 7–20.
  78. Agatha Mohring, “Therapeutic Journeys in Contemporary Spanish Graphic Novels,” European Comic Art 11.2 (Autumn 2018): 98–117. doi:10.3167/eca.2018.110206
  79. Andrew J. W. Smith, “Autism is a Ministry ‘Benefit’ for Japan Missionary Steven Kunkel,” Southern Seminary (Spring 2019): 50.
  80. Julia Finley Mosca, The Girl Who Thought in Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin (Seattle, WA: The Innovation Press, 2017).
  81. Elana K. Arnold, A Boy Called Bat (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2017).
  82. Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians: Seven Ways You Can Live the Gospel and Restore the World (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2010), 206.
  83. Olivia Bustion, “Autism and Christianity: An Ethnographic Intervention,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 85.3 (2017): 653-681.
  84. Clark Moustakas, Phenomenological Research Methods (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing, 1994), 18.
  85. Ibid, 120-121.
  86. Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism (New York, NY: Random House, 2017).
  87. John W. Creswell and J. David Creswell, Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approach, 3rd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publishing, 2014), 183.
  88. Didier Fassin, “Why Ethnography Matters: Anthropology and its Publics,” Cultural An- thropology 28.4 (2013): 621–646.
  89. Michal S. Raucher, “Ethnography and Jewish Ethics: Lessons from a Case Study in Reproductive Ethics,” Journal of Religious Ethics 44.4 (2016): 636-658.
  90. Bustion, “Autism,” 677.
  91. Sharon Dirckx, Am I Just My Brain? (Denmark: The Good Book Company, 2019), 106-107, 117-118.
  92. Timothy R. Jennings, The God-Shaped Brain: How Changing Your View of God Transforms Your Life (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).
  93. Marcus Warner and Jim Wilder, Rare Leadership: 4 Uncommon Habits for Increasing Trust, Joy, and Engagement in the People You Lead (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishing, 2016), 101-102.
  94. Rob Moll, What Your Body Knows About God: How We are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 155-189.
  95. 1 Corinthians 1:27.
  96. It was Des Fitzgerald’s section “The Throbbing Emotion of the Past” from his book that compelled me to enter my own personal story. Tracing Autism, 47-59.
  97. Job 37:7, 14; Psalm 64:9; 65:8; 66:5.
  98. Job 28:3, 11, “Man searches and brings hidden things to light.”
  99. Isaiah 55:9; Psalm 148:1-6; Ecclesiastes 3:14; Daniel 12:3.
  100. Genesis 1:28; Proverbs 30:24-28; 1 Kings 4:29-34.
  101. Genesis 8:22; Psalm 147:7-9; Matthew 6:25-34.
  102. Deuteronomy 30:11-15.
  103. Psalm 24:1.

Mark Eckel

Indiana University
Mark Eckel is President of The Comenius Institute, a Christian study center on the campus of Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI). He teaches in the school of liberal arts at IUPUI as well as masters and doctoral classes for various institutions. For over 35 years Mark has served the education community as a high school teacher, college professor, grad school lecturer, curriculum writer, and international speaker. He is the author of multiple books, articles, encyclopedia entries, and writes weekly online.