Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast I have with me, Dr. Daniel Berger. He is the lead pastor at Faith Fellowship Church in Clarence, New York. He is the founder and director of Alethia International Ministries (AIM). He serves as a director of Faith Biblical Counseling Center. And when he’s not with his family and church family, Daniel continues to write and speak around the world in churches, organizations, medical communities, and at various counseling and teacher conferences. He’s also an experienced pastor, counselor, school administrator, and the author of thirteen books, which focus on biblical counseling, biblical phenomenology, practical theology, education, parenting, and history and philosophy behind the current mental health construct. Daniel earned his B.S. in counseling, an M.S. in counseling psychology, an M.A. in pastoral studies, and a doctorate in pastoral theology. Daniel, when you and I get together, we have a really good time conversing. We have a lot of similar interests as far as research is concerned, and we enjoy reading some of the same books that may bore the rest of creation, but we enjoy that. It’s good to have you on the podcast again and to talk about this issue of autism.
Daniel Berger: Truly, my pleasure, Dale. Thank you for your friendship, but also for this opportunity.
Dale Johnson: Listen, I’m excited about the work that you’re doing that the Lord has called you to up in Clarence, New York and the church there, Faith Fellowship. So grateful that you’re leading there now and enjoying some faithful ministry.
Daniel Berger: Yeah, we’ve been there just over a year and just seeing spiritual and physical growth, and just really excited to see what God’s doing in our congregation and our family.
Dale Johnson: Amen. Well, listen, we’re going to talk about autism today, and we jump into this, knowing this is not an easy subject, the subject of autism. Even that language has been difficult for so many people, whether we think about a particular individual or a family and knowing how to navigate these things. Sometimes the church has not done well in dealing with children who experience autism or families who experience these things. Let’s start at a place where we can understand autism. So, help us to understand what we’re talking about when we talk about autism.
Daniel Berger: First thing I want to say is autism is a, you know, what we’re calling autism represents a real physical problem. Autism itself is a construct, so the word “autism” is simply seeking to describe real physical maladies that impair social ways of communicating within relationships, impair motor skills, repetitive behavior, sensory processing, etc. So, one of the things that I point out when I counsel families is that autism itself, like, if you try to find autism in nature, we’re never going to find that but we treat it as such, and there is a difference. Unfortunately, autism is classified in the DSM-5 as essentially a psychiatric disorder. But I distinguish between, the qualifier of a construct is just as important as the symptoms if you would. And by that, I mean, some people would even suggest that the Trinity is a construct, a theological construct so if we differentiate between a phenomenological or psychiatric construct like schizophrenia, bipolar, ADHD versus a physical construct that’s seeking to understand like fibromyalgia or autism. In other words, we’re identifying physical pain, we’re identifying physical struggles or struggles caused by some physical malady, that would be a differential. So, I would start by saying autism is a construct, but not saying that there’s not a physical problem there.
Dale Johnson: Right, and I think that’s wise. Some people feel disoriented, even in part because it appears as a diagnosis in the DSM as if it’s not; there aren’t physical elements to it. So, I think that’s an important distinction. One of the questions that I get asked, Daniel, as I go around talking about issues of mental health, and inevitably, in a Q&A someone will ask about this particular diagnosis, the issue of autism, and they want to know a couple of things. They want to know does the Bible say anything about it. So, I want to pitch that to you. Does the Bible speak about this issue of autism?
Daniel Berger: Yeah, and just to even kind of bridge into this answer. The word “autism” is actually, unfortunately, coined by a eugenic psychiatrist named Asperger who now they’ve taken Asperger’s syndrome or disorder out of the DSM-5 because they’re wanting to disassociate from that. But then Eugen Bleuler use that term as well, another eugenicist. So, it has a very controversial name in itself, so the word itself it actually means “to be removed or to be distant from reality.” And I don’t think that’s an accurate assessment either. In other words, it doesn’t even describe the struggle of a child, most autistic children, whether it’s clear or not, they’re there, their soul is there, and I would argue that all of them are there. Their bodies are actually limiting our access to understanding their soul, so especially when there’s non-verbal symptoms there.
So, when we approach the Bible, we have to immediately get this idea of looking for the word “autism” in Scripture, and that’s true with a lot of man-made constructs. We won’t find the word “Trinity” in the Bible, but clearly, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are realities. They’re true. So you look at passages, like 1 Samuel 21, when David pretended to be in most translations translate that word “mad.” Unfortunately, in Psalm 34, it’s also translated as “mad” there. Those are the only two cases, and they’re both referencing this situation with King Achish where David pretended to be, and the word that’s actually used is better translated. And in fact, it’s always translated as discernment or taste. In other words, he pretended to lack discernment. And the result was very interesting. He did two things, he had repetitive scratchings on the post, repetition is one of the habitual repetition is one of the symptoms of autism, and second of all his spit was running down his beard. So there was a lack of motor control by how he framed his behavior. That word is also used in other passages like in Job where God removes the discernment of the elderly and has what we called “dementia.” In other words, there’s a place when the brain has a struggle or is deteriorating, dementia is called a neurodegenerative disease. Even though I think dementia is actually the natural process of the brain deteriorating. Those are examples of valid physical problems. What causes those problems varies. But essentially, Scripture teaches on, you know, these are, again, as we should expect the sufficiency of Christ covers every possible scenario of human nature. That word is also used for tasting. That’s the other usage where you taste, and of course, in biblical times, they didn’t have the convenience that we did. If you ate spoiled meat, you would likely die, so they would taste just like we would taste the words of someone speaking. Scripture actually uses it in that way as well. So, when the Bible speaks on this, it’s specifically speaking of, this is a child that clearly has what we would say, the inability to express their moral nature. But it’s not that their moral nature isn’t there. And I think 1 Samuel 21 is the best understanding of that.
Dale Johnson: Well, I appreciate the way that you’re helping us understand the dynamic in which the Bible speaks about our human experience and even acknowledges the lack of function in some ways, as we see biological degeneration, and the Bible’s not unaware of that. Like God’s not unaware of that in terms of our human condition. I mean, that is a byproduct of the fall of man. The sin of man, Paul in 2 Corinthians 4 talks about the body decaying in different aspects. And certainly, if we’re a holistic being as the body decays, there will be a lack of functioning on some level. But in the end, what we have to realize is that’s where eschatological hope points us in the Scripture, in the New Testament, that we long for the day when we’re not looking for something else to redeem us body and soul; we’re looking to Christ to accomplish that. And that’s the hope that we have even here.
So let’s get practical. We’ve talked about this issue of autism, trying to understand a little bit better, even some of the ways in which, in wisdom, God speaks about these types of symptoms, if you will. Let’s talk practically about the church and how can the church help families who have an autistic child or have an adult child who is autistic. What are some of the things that the church can do to really help families who are wrestling with this?
Daniel Berger: That is a loaded question that we certainly won’t have time to cover, but I think first of all, it would be, you know, even understanding the symptoms that we discussed. Even with David, none of those are moral issues. So we’re not talking about, like, in another construct like ADHD where a child is told to remain seated and they’re getting up and running around, there’s not a moral diagnostic tool if you would. These are all amoral issues. I want to start there. And really, with that in mind, I would start with number one, teaching parents and church members that there is a spiritual need as well as a physical need to hear, and it takes discernment on our part to recognize does the child need to be spiritually taught and discipled? Or is this something that an occupational therapist or a physician needs to address? And encouraging them to utilize occupational therapy, the repetition or what we would call neuroplasticity that even in secular theory right now. Neuroplasticity is part of what they’re calling autism or seems to be in what they would say normal children or normal child-like development. Neuroplasticity is there. And the theory is that it’s hindered and what we’re calling autism through various things. Fetal alcohol syndrome as an example. Autism is one of the symptoms.
That’s another thing I would say is just teaching parents to understand that physical things produce what we’re calling autism. Usually autism is a symptom, not something in itself, but even as I’ve mentioned encouraging them to go to occupational therapy. One of the things our church does is we have a Sunday school class in which we teach special needs or disabilities, and we go through answers in Genesis. There are many other means and methods of teaching, but we want to make sure that they get the gospel. We don’t know what God is doing in their heart. And so, we are very cognizant, we’re very purposefully giving them the gospel each week and allowing God to do His work. We also provide a respite program. In fact, we’re really excited about it. I’ve been at our church for about a year, and we’re launching that in November. We’ve been planning it from day one, and already parents are just so excited. So many families just get left by the wayside. The number one thing I hear from families with an autistic child is we feel isolated, we feel left out, just feel neglected. And so, as a church just you know, three simple things we can do is teach a dualistic-neurodiversity point of view that highlights God’s sovereignty Psalm 139, this child and every child is fearfully and wonderfully made. This isn’t a disorder that God somehow, out of His order, has made an accident or made a mistake. That is so important. So, I can’t emphasize this enough. I wish I had more time to express that, but we really need to come alongside. If we don’t know what else to do, just come alongside and learn, help out, give some respite to these families, and minister grace to them. Be the hands and feet of Jesus.
Dale Johnson: Yeah, those are some great ways I think the church can really step in and help and really be hospitable and demonstrate care, love, and concern, and move toward the family, as opposed to remaining distant out of ignorance of things that we don’t know or we’re afraid of. So, I think that’s really important. Now as in many topics that we might discuss, autism is not without controversy, a lot of different controversies surrounding its construct. So, Daniel, I want you to talk about some of those controversies and how to think about those.
Daniel Berger: Yeah, I think the historic nature of it in itself is controversial, but an article just came out in July that one in thirty children now, some estimate have autism. It’s a fifty percent increase from 2017. So, either we’re doing something or consuming something that is causing autism or where it’s become so loose of a diagnosis that, you know, really it causes those who genuinely fall on the autism spectrum to be minimized. So, why it’s controversial is we are talking about a spectrum. We’re talking about why many people view a fluid concept that has no beginning and no end, and so, if a child has behavioral issues, they can be diagnosed as autistic. And again, I want to be very careful and emphasize this actually hurts children that are truly autistic; it’s not helpful. There are a lot of benefits for a child to be labeled as autistic, especially when they’re having behavioral issues. So, it’s controversial because so many people now are saying my child is autistic and finding a doctor that would agree with that. If sensory processing is one of the symptoms, which it is, then if a child has trouble seeing or has trouble hearing, does that qualify? If they’re having social impairment, in other words, they don’t have friends, does that qualify? So, we have a very fluid construct, a very fluid spectrum, if you would. And that’s one of the things that really needs to be narrowed down. I like to say when you see autism, I mean, when you see it, you know, and we have to be very, very careful and discerning and not just lumping all behavioral issues into that. I did mention just briefly the history. Asperger coined the term autism, and then Bleuler made it really popularized, Eugen Bleuler, and so that it is controversial in and of itself. So, there are many ways that it’s controversial, so hopefully, that helps a little.
Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think, I think in giving us some of the constructs, understanding a little bit about autism, and then even some practical helps in the ways the church can engage and make this less scary to so many families, and to be able to minister to families who have an autistic child. I think this is very, very helpful, and I think it’s helpful that we start talking about it because as we remain in ignorance, fear grows. And so, we need to squelch that and engage in ministry in the church. So, thank you, Daniel. I really appreciate your time.
Daniel Berger: My pleasure.
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