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My Journey as a Minister with Autism

This guest post is from Ron Sandison who works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. This post is part of an initiative on our site called “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” which highlights the experiences of individuals with autism from their perspectives. Have a story you want to share? Email us at InOurOwnWords@autismspeaks.org!

My development was normal until I was 18 months old. At that time I began to rapidly regress, losing my ability to communicate words I had previously learned and ceasing to make eye contact. I have PDD-NOS. The neurological psychologist who diagnosed me informed my parents that I would probably never read beyond an 8th grade level or attend college.

My special interest in high school and college was memorizing Bible verses. Through my daily memory routine (2-3 hours a day), I was able to graduate with a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University with a perfect 4.0 GPA. I also was able to memorize over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament.

My senior year of college, I served as an intern under internationally known evangelist Dr. Jack Van Impe. After college, I served as an associate pastor of youth ministries and a professor of theology at Destiny Ministry School. I am currently employed full-time in the medical field and part-time as a professor of theology.           

I can best describe my struggles with autism in ministry and life with the story of Sally the Seal. On March 24, 1989, the tanker Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh Reef in the upper region of Prince William Sound. This tanker was carrying approximately 53 million gallons of crude oil and within a few days, 11 million gallons had contaminated the bay.

More than 11,000 Alaska residents, along with many Exxon employees, worked around the clock to restore the environment. After spending $2 billion on cleaning the sea, Exxon devised a plan to raise contributions for sanitizing the wildlife. The company’s crafty plan was to contribute $10,000 to a specialist group and have them use the money to clean one lucky seal.

After the seal was purified, the group would use her as a mascot to raise funds to sanitize the rest of the wildlife. The specialists named their mascot, “Sally the Seal”.

The group invited the media, dignitaries, and celebrities to Sally’s return home. Arnold Schwarzenegger told reporters, “Sally the Seal will be back!”

Finally, Sally’s big splash came. Every camera was directed on her as she slid down the slide into the sea. Suddenly, a killer whale surfaced and Sally the Seal became Sally the Meal. My autism has caused me to feel like Sally the Meal! I have experienced great breakthroughs in school, relationships and my career, only to be blindsided by killer whales of rejection.

The reason Sally the Seal was an easy target for predators was that she, unlike other wildlife, stood out as the only sea creature not covered in oil. My autistic oddities and quirks caused me to act differently and not follow the congregants’ image of a minister. Unlike most pastors, I had poor eye contact and at times would ramble on with my personal stories. I also interpreted everything literally and appeared aloof.

During my middle school years, the predator bullies’ sonar systems could detect me out of a crowd and sense I was easy prey. Autism caused me to display unusual behavior. But through education, perseverance and the help of my family and friends, I was able to overcome many of my autistic quirks and achieve success in both ministry and life. At times, I still have my autistic moments. I have learned to laugh and enjoy these moments. On December 7th, 2012, when I married my wife Kristen, my brother Steve, who was my best man, said, “Ron, where’s the wedding ring?”

“Kristen’s sister Heather has the wedding ring,” I replied.

“Heather has the engagement ring! Where’s the wedding band?”

I had married couples as a minister, but I still failed to comprehend that a wedding band was required with the engagement ring. My autistic moments are a result of my neurological wiring failing to process social norms or clues. Being married to a wife who is not on the spectrum has helped me learn these essential skills so that I respond now more frequently with proper social behavior. As the Bible states, “The two will become one flesh.”       

Have a story you want to share for our “In Our Own Words: Living on the Spectrum,” series? Email us at InOurOwnWords@Autismspeaks.org.

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.