Dear Abbey Dharma,
I am a 30-year-old man with Asperger syndrome. I am an adopted Buddhist, but I find it difficult to be both autistic and Buddhist. Buddhists are not supposed to judge people as much, for example, but I find I get scared of certain kinds of people: they overwhelm my senses, and I become annoyed by people who seem to complain about everything, make liberal use of expletives, and are very loud and obnoxious. I also find I carry a lot of stress in this world, sometimes born of the fact that I don’t seem to fit in. Even if I am not at all in line to be Dalai Lama or a monk, how is it possible to be a Buddhist and autistic?
When I read your account of becoming overwhelmed by situations of too many people or loud, unexpected voices and harsh words, I do not think of your response, even though it is negative and aversive, as being judgmental. I think of your response as the way your nervous system reacts to stimuli that are genuinely painful to it. Asperger syndrome and autism spectrum disorders are the medical names for conditions that cause discomfort in social situations for the people who have them. They are not character traits, and having them is not voluntary. And as I am sure you know, there are techniques that people with autism or Asperger’s use to mitigate the distress of their exaggerated startle responses. People with these syndromes go to school or work, have families—in other words, they live in society with everyone else—and even become Buddhists! The trait of nonjudgmentalism that the Buddha spoke of is, I believe, the spontaneous tolerance or forbearance that develops in one’s mind as wisdom deepens. The more I am aware of the suffering in my mind that is the result of fixed, egocentric views—“This is good”; “This is incorrect”; “That person should not have said that to me”; “I’ll never succeed!”—the more I see that these views, in fact judgments, cause me suffering. Judgments are put-downs of ourselves or others, and putting anyone down, or up, creates emotional distance rather than empathic closeness. You do have a special situation. I try to keep remembering that everyone has some special situation that challenges them even if it isn’t visible. The practice really is reminding myself of the First Noble Truth, the ubiquitous fact of suffering. Everyone suffers. It’s not their fault. It is how life is. Remembering that makes me kinder to everyone, including myself. After reading your question, I thought that perhaps you were a bit caught in a judgmental view of yourself: “I can’t be a good Buddhist.” I think aspiring to be a good Buddhist is hoping to develop compassion for one’s own limitations and stresses, and for everyone else’s too. We are all, nobly, doing the best we can. Welcome to Buddhism.
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