Seven years ago, Christian singer-songwriter Lori Sealy experienced what she describes as a fierce battle against the “old vestiges of atheistic doubt.” It went back to her torturous teenage years and her even more difficult beginnings.
Conceived as a result of an adulterous affair, Sealy was almost aborted. Thankfully, her mother decided to walk out of the abortion clinic at the last minute. Sealy was soon adopted, but her adoptive mother struggled with mental illness. Consequently, their relationship was stormy and didn’t do much to help Sealy wrestle through her spiritual questions. She grew up in a church, but it didn’t help much either.
“From my earliest years I had longed to know and understand God, but my questions were either met with petty pat answers, calls to blind belief, or hypocritical hubris.” Fed up, Sealy “turned the page on God.” And while still in high school she began a new chapter of “theistic disdain.”
In college, six fellow students shared the Gospel with her, prayed for her, and eventually led her to faith in Christ. Still, her conversion didn’t come without a fair amount of “kicking against the goads,” and even afterward, Sealy says her doubts didn’t completely vanish.
Years later she found herself wracked again with fierce doubt, before and while helping her husband, Phillip, plant a church in North Carolina (Redeemer Church, Sylva). She says, “I found myself suddenly fainting in my faith and questioning if anything that I said I believed was truly believable.”
Sealy began consulting a counselor. In the midst of one session the counselor suggested that she be evaluated for autism. Sealy thought the idea was crazy. Nevertheless she conferred with several specialists, who confirmed the counselor’s suspicions: Sealy was indeed on the autism spectrum, albeit on the high-functioning end. The next day, Sealy’s 8-year-old son, Josh, was also diagnosed with autism.
In Sealy’s words, “God knew I needed a lightning bolt straight to the brain if I was going to pay any attention to what my counselor was suggesting.” Sealy was sure that her counselor was wrong. There was no way she was ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] “with savant characteristics.”
Still, the more she thought about it, the more the evidence piled up. She remembered how as a young girl she taught herself how to smile by staring in the mirror and how she reminded herself to look people straight in the eye. She recalled all the times she felt overwhelmed in places with too much stimulation — a restaurant, a school cafeteria, places where multiple conversations and kitchen sounds all contributed to a sense of chaos and confusion.
The diagnosis helped her understand some of her social struggles, but it also helped cast light on her spiritual ones as well. In 2012, the journal PLoS ONE (now PLOS ONE) released a study that linked difficulties with belief in the supernatural to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism. The study suggested that people with autism are only 11 percent as likely to believe in God as those without autism, largely because people with autism have difficulty “mentalizing” — a sense of assessing what another is thinking, in this case, God. For Sealy, it was as if the missing piece to her puzzle of doubt had finally been identified. She explains:
“With autism there is a neurological ‘disconnect’ in the way that sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch filter through the body. That ‘disconnect’ influences how we view and interpret the world around us. … For the person with ASD, it is as if much of life is interpreted via the short-circuiting route of a neurologically frayed wire.”
She goes on:
“Take the frayed-wire scenario of autistic struggle to connect with the things of the physical world and insert it into the autistic struggle to connect with the things of the spiritual world. If that which is tangible is so hard to grasp, then how much harder that which is intangible?”
As Sealy worked with her son to help him adapt to a world that provided too much sensory overload, she began understanding her own battles as well, particularly her struggles with doubt. This not only brought some measure of relief; Sealy also began to realize that only Christianity has the spiritual answer to autism. We don’t have to “mentalize” what God is thinking, because He has already revealed it to us in His word.
“My doubt and my disability are related,” she says. “That gives me no excuse for sinful doubt. I must repent of that. But it surely helps me to understand why doubt is such an aggravating thorn in my flesh. Like Paul, the persistent prick of that thorn forces me to see that the grace of Jesus is sufficient for all that I face.”
This perspective began to free her to share her struggles with others — both through music and in person. As a musical artist, Sealy began working on an album titled “Begone Unbelief” that explored the experience of spiritual doubt. She also began talking openly about autism with those in her church and wider community. Many responded positively, especially those with children who struggle with autism, who often approached her with questions and for counsel. Others joined with her in prayer. This was a refreshing experience. In the past, members of a previous church had been confused; they didn’t know what to make of Sealy’s doubt. The experience was painful, but it provided a unique and better perspective on how the church can minister to those dealing with both the physical and spiritual struggles associated with autism.
“I am often asked, ‘So Lori, how does the church hold forth the Gospel and minister grace to people with autism in ways that are helpful and not hurtful?’ It’s a great question, because sadly the church has done much that has been hurtful rather than helpful to folks and families living with ASD. … In regard to holding forth the Gospel, we could talk about the ways that altar-call emotionalism and simplistic summons to blind faith can serve as pitfalls rather than pathways to grasping the Gospel. We could walk through the autistic struggle to understand an intangible God and discuss how the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is presented in God’s perfect word, builds a tangible bridge to that intangible God. We could look at the idea of rest and the fact that physical rest is unknown to so many who live with autism. And finally, we could take some time looking at the simple means of grace: proclaiming, praying, and practicing the presence of the Gospel when our stories intersect with the stories of a soul on the spectrum — just as six college students did when their stories intertwined with mine.”
But ultimately, the most important thing is to care.
“Care about that man, that woman, that child, that family who is struggling as they war their way through the angst of autism. Care enough to get to know them. Care enough to seek to understand them. Care about them as Christ has cared about you — with intentional compassion.”
As far as Sealy’s battles with unbelief, they still rear their ugly head from time to time, and perhaps more often than not. But in the middle of the storms, she says she is thankful for an omnipotent and compassionate God who “gave me autism ‘that the works of God might be displayed’ in my weakness.”
To learn more about Sealy and her music, visit lorisealy.com.