Autism and vulnerability

To be human is to be vulnerable?

I am in the midst of reading Thomas Reynolds’ “Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality”. His key thesis seems to be that human disability assaults the illusion we attempt to armor ourselves and our world with, namely, the illusion that to be human is to be whole, independent, autonomous. One had might as well say that to be human is to be 25, American, wealthy, and Ivy League educated. Begin to deviate from any of those elite attributes and your confidence will probably start to waver. The fact is, even kings and presidents are born naked and completely unable to help themselves and, no matter how much power they may wield in their life, at the end, when their life draws to a close, they are reduced to the same helplessness. To see the weakness of those who cannot hide it is upsetting and provokes the reaction it does because in “them” we see ourselves too, caught in inextricable webs of dependence and vulnerability.

He has much to say about how most of us attempt to defend ourselves from this reality and substantial suggestions toward an alternative approach. I hope to engage more with those ideas later, but, for now, I wish to talk about autism reveals my vulnerability.

How autism exposes my vulnerability

I have a tenuous hold on social standing. I rank rather low in just about any large group in which I am involved. You will not level up socially by spending time with me. I am not what most people expect or want. I am reticent apart from situations where I feel I have the time to explain my odd self. Candidly, I am afraid of rejection, even from children, and tend to hide myself.

I do not attribute this to others’ malice, per se. When I do open up and reach out, I think people often try but fail to comprehend or appreciate what I have to say. The problem is just that the chief interests of my heart are deeply personal and abstractly intellectual. It’s something of an impasse: if I prefer my own passions, I can’t blame others for preferring theirs. It isn’t as stark as it might sound — I have enjoyed rewarding relationships throughout most of my life — these are just the tender and vulnerable parts of me that have hurt and are still apt to be hurt, apt to be longing and unsatisfied.

Does my weakness remind others of their own? I think it must, but I don’t know how much. I don’t need to know. I think what matters is how I respond to it and how that reflects in the way I respond to others.

What to do?

Reynolds says we don’t have to armor over our tenderness. Our need to be known and valued by others is part of our basic human dependency. We do not and cannot live independently, but interdependently. If we can acknowledge and embrace this, then we can realize what we share with every other human and maybe learn to live from love instead of fear. Then, maybe, the more open vulnerability of others won’t offend our self-preservation, but will remind us of our mutual need for one another.

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