the mildly autistic jehovah’s witness experience

This YouTube video was interesting to me, as someone with a Jehovah’s Witness upbringing:

The first thing that stood out is that I have the same neurosis about making too much noise in my apartment.

Relating everything back to autism issues, another thing that jumps out is the way she explains how having 10 million rules and living in constant fear of breaking them causes you to distrust yourself and handle situations in a very intellectual way, which is easily overwhelmed. Having a rule for everything makes every situation controllable, once you know all the rules. I started reading Tony Attwood’s Asperger’s book, and it talks about that as an adaptation more often seen in girls. I learned to socialize from my Jehovah’s Witness, probably autistic mother.

The clinician perceives someone who appears able to develop a reciprocal conversation and use appropriate affect and gestures during the interaction. However, further investigation and observation at school may determine that the child adopts a social role and script, basing her persona on the characteristics of someone who would be reasonably socially skilled in the situation, and using intellectual abilities rather than intuition to determine what to say or do. An example of a camouflaging strategy is to conceal confusion when playing with peers by politely declining invitations to join in until sure of what to do, so as not to make a conspicuous social error. The strategy is to wait, observe carefully, and only participate when sure what to do by imitating what the children have done previously. If the rules or nature of the game suddenly change, the child is lost…

While in conversation with a boy with Asperger’s syndrome, the listener is likely to consider the child a “little professor” who uses an advanced vocabulary for a child of that age, and is able to provide many interesting (or boring) facts. Girls with Asperger’s syndrome can sound like “little philosophers”, with an ability to think deeply about social situations. From an early age, girls with Asperger’s syndrome have applied their cognitive skills to analyze social interaction and are more likely than boys with Asperger’s syndrome to discuss inconsistencies in social conventions and their thoughts on social events.

A bit later, an Aspian explains that this approach doesn’t scale, due to the increasing number of edges in a fully connected graph as the number of nodes increases:

When I explained to a teenager with Asperger’s syndrome that the degree of stress is proportional to the number of people present, he started to work on a mathematical formula and geometric representation of the number of potential connections between individuals that can occur as more people join a conversation. With two people there is only one link; with three people, three links; with four people, six links; five people; ten links; and so on. This is one of the explanations as to why people with Asperger’s syndrome do not like large gatherings.

Exactly! The scaling properties of the social graph! Computationally intractable using our algorithm.

It also struck me that she started talking about being afraid of a Jehovah’s Witness randomly being around to report you, and how that’s later expressed as a fear of hidden cameras. I work in computer security…

Then she talks about how learning about operant conditioning was a lightbulb moment for her, which helped with the self-deprogramming. Social worker dad and lots of psychology books lying around…and my dad’s ethics textbook. This blog is over-intellectual complaining about inconsistent social rules.

It’s always been very difficult to convey what exactly was messed up about being a Jehovah’s Witness. People aren’t familiar with it. It sucks for autism-specific reasons, as the same person explains:


Assemblies! Needing to sit still and be quiet while listening to lectures about Christianity all day. It was always in a stadium in the middle of summer, and it was hot. Acceptable activities included listening, trying to find something interesting to read in the Bible, and fanning yourself with a pamphlet or magazine (thank God). You do not want to get into any kind of scene, so you stew in hate all day. Constant awareness that your disbelief means everybody is judging you and your mom, for illogical reasons. I remember sarcastically insisting on “giving back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” to shame the adults for having us jaywalk so we’d catch the train to the assembly on time. We’d be staying at my aunt and uncle’s house, where my aunt was really concerned that, as a child, I was going to leave crumbs everywhere. My uncle played ear-splittingly loud opera music while drinking wine and talking about his watercolor paintings from his annual Switzerland vacation.

This guy understands:

I’m very glad that my family were not Jehovah’s Witnesses through that part of my life. I cannot imagine trying to get to meetings, stay at meetings and go out in regular field service while having a child with special needs. I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to take him to stadiums full of 10,000 people where they all clap simultaneously to someone speaking on a loud PA.

That, I can safely say, would be absolute hell.

He comments on a JW-produced video with an autistic child:

His congregation believes in a scenario where their deity would brutally execute an Autistic boy for not being a Jehovah’s’ Witness. That’s why they are helping him, because they see him as being in grave danger.

This amounts to phobia indoctrination, and is tantamount to coercion by way of emotional control. In other words, they are using the fear of an imminent and painful death to retain his membership in their religion.

The very next scene shows the boy and his mother at a desk with one of the JW.org comic strips laid out next to a self-typed report. This really shows that the comics are not mere leisure activities, but are actually study tools for the young Witness children.

These comics sometimes cover stories in the Bible with extremely graphic content, such as their comic on the story of Lot’s wife and her divine execution. The pictures they use to depict her death are extremely graphic and intense.

Instead of being simple fables, these stories are considered to be historical accounts that are taken extremely seriously. No doubt the Autistic boy in the film has studied these images, and is deeply affected by them.

I think it’s interesting that the JWs make us into “little adults” by not having separate Sunday school for children. Everybody attends the same meetings. The Sunday meetings have a prayer, song, sermon, and song, followed by an hour of going over a Watchtower article. Just like in school, people take turns reading a paragraph out loud, and answering questions at the bottom of the page. Kids are encouraged to participate as early as they can. As an adult, I’m frequently impatient with other people’s inability to handle discussion of disturbing topics.

My parents didn’t believe in lying to children, on an ideological level. My dad was on board with the “no Santa Claus” thing. I tried to be the playground buzzkill about the nonexistence of Santa. But then I read that honesty and weirdness about pretend play are aspie traits…