Natalie Brown: Neurodiversity may explain why Latter-day Saints experience church policies, practices and preachings in varying ways

It could explain, for instance, why some women see the faith as sexist and other women don’t.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attendees listen to talks during General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023. Tribune guest columnist Natalie Brown suggests that neurodiversity may help explain, for instance, why some women view the faith as sexist and other women don't.

I recently heard an anecdote in which a local authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints asked women in a congregation to raise their hands if they felt equal at church. Half the hands went up. The other half stayed down. What feels familiar to me about this story is that I am often reminded that people are having different church experiences.

Some women strongly feel that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a sexist gender hierarchy, pointing to language like the word “preside” in the family proclamation or to language (formerly) in temple ceremonies. Other women believe that they are indeed equal at church, because they feel treated as equals in their relationships. For them, hierarchical language within the church or an exclusively male priesthood is less important than their social experience.

Some missionaries thrive under strict mission rules that challenge them to become more disciplined or discover their testimonies. Other missionaries experience emotional breakdowns because they are unable to comply with every rule or feel fraudulent bearing testimony when they are unsure of their own beliefs.

I suggest that the different ways we experience church — as well as the divisions and frustrations that often characterize Latter-day Saint culture — are partially a product of neurodiversity. I use the term “neurodiversity” to include medical diagnoses such as autism or anxiety disorder as well as differences in emotional intelligence, extroversion versus introversion, or even differences in the primacy we give to learning through texts versus learning through experience. Although neurodiversity cannot explain all of our differences, recognizing the ways in which our brains are programmed to react differently to situations can help us understand others’ perspectives as well as shape a more inclusive culture.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints frequently prescribes rules for its practitioners to follow. Whether those rules induce the desired behavior and learning, however, varies depending on an individual’s cognitive makeup. As a former college teacher, for example, I learned that some students require grades to motivate their performance. Other students, however, are too prone to perfectionism and following authority. Grades do not necessarily motivate these students, but they can induce anxiety that is counterproductive to learning and growth. Similarly, some Latter-day Saints find that detailed rules surrounding dress, diet and Sabbath activities help them lead better lives. Having a life rulebook is comforting. Others, however, develop issues with excessive religious scrupulosity and anxiety when immersed in a rules-based culture.

Neurodiversity impacts how we interpret principles as well as how we follow them. The church does not have a consistent hermeneutics, encompassing instead a hodgepodge of ways to perceive religious truth. It validates a variety of approaches, including listening to religious authorities, experimenting with principles to see if they work in one’s own life, feeling the witness of the Holy Ghost, and studying the scriptures. A variety of methods adds welcome diversity, but methods can sometimes conflict. The women who perceive the church as sexist due to the presence of hierarchical language and the women who feel equal at church because of their positive social relationships are being authentic to their experience, but they are giving primacy to different data and experiencing the weight of language and sociality in their lives differently.

Neurodiversity can also impact one’s ability to perform the motions of being a proper Latter-day Saint. Too often, this leads to unfair judgment. It can be easy to characterize some people as irreverent, for example, when their behavior might be driven by attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or simply their age. In a culture that often praises women for attributes like their sweetness or expects men to serve missions, autistic members who struggle with social interactions might find it difficult to conform to these ideals. Extroverts might be more drawn to activities at church or tapped for leadership positions than introverts who find attending youth or other activities stressful.

Recognizing that neurodiversity exists within the faith gives us an important tool for understanding how others experience church and grappling with our differences. Recognizing neurodiversity can help us be less judgmental and meet individual needs better. It also can point us to policies, practices and texts that need updating to be more inclusive.

(Courtesy) Natalie Brown, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Natalie Brown is a writer, scholar, lawyer, mother and Latter-day Saint based in Boulder, Colo. She is writing in her personal capacity. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the church or her employer.

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