Varieties of Supernatural Experience : the Case of High-Functioning Autism

Sammanfattning: It is argued in the cognitive science of religion (CSR) that the empathic ability to ‘mindread’ others underpins  the experience of supernatural communication with gods, ghosts, and spirits. As autism is characterized by mentalizing difficulties, CSR scholars have expected autistic individuals would find supernatural agency incomprehensible. This thesis however turns the question around: why do autistic individuals engage intimately in supernatural relations, despite the social difficulties they face in everyday life?The thesis aims to provide new insights on autistic and religious cognition through examination of supernatural descriptions provided by 17 young, high-functioning autistic adults (16–21 years of age) who label themselves as ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’. The research questions explore: (1) cognitive aspects of experienced interaction with invisible agents, compared with human interaction, (2) the prevalence of unusual embodied experiences (e.g. feeling touch and seeing visions without external input) and its role in attributions of supernatural agency, and (3) the psychological function of parasocial (fiction-based) interaction in imaginary realms.This interdisciplinary project draws on work undertaken in the cognitive science of religion, cognitive and critical autism research, and psychological anthropology. Mixed qualitative and quantitative methods are employed to enable a kaleidoscopic outlook on the topics explored, and to promote a dialogue between idiographically and nomothetically oriented scholars. The study provides first-person perspectives on religious and autistic cognition, which is understood as dynamic interaction between embrained, embodied, encultured and situated input.It is argued in Publication I that  ‘bodiless’ interaction facilitates mentalizing, also in relation to invisible agents, as no cross-modal synchronization of mimicry, body language and intonation is required. Publication II examines the prevalence of unusual, embodied experiences in autism, and it is proposed that supernatural attributions offer enchantment and sense-making of potentially frightening experiences. Results from Publication III suggest that  imaginary worlds and parasocial relations function as ‘simulators’ that autistic individuals use to rehearse social interaction. Publication IV offers a theoretical and methodological discussion regarding the study of atypical cognition. Importantly, this thesis illustrates that these imaginative autistic participants are not drawn to  supernatural frame- works in spite of, but because of the supernatural and parasocial characters these provide.

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