Daniel Bowman places faith in the beauty of bridges.
In his memoir, On the Spectrum: Autism, Faith and the Gifts of Neurodiversity, Bowman lays down his words—and, ultimately, himself—across dried-up riverbeds and needless divides that puncture the landscape of neurodiversity.
Autism tends to be a tender topic—in writing and discussion, the greater community of faith pass words about neurodiversity gingerly between one another like they would a newborn with a soft spot. But Bowman's approach feels different. A sturdiness attends each sentence; Bowman’s words hold firm as they stretch out, giving the reader a path to travel in place of an uncertainty to cradle.
By loving design, his work creates “a bridge from the experience of beauty to language,” as he writes; from testimony to true recognition; from hopeful exhortation to “an alternative vision of autism.” And he extends this vision to “a new generation of autistics who will become musicians, painters, poets, novelists, filmmakers and the like.”
On the Spectrum relays Bowman’s own story, of sensing and confirming an autism diagnosis in his mid-thirties. Finally gripping this frame, he casts glances back and through, making sense of early life; and he fixes his eyes on the future, toward what a soul can do and who it can be when self-knowledge and self-love come cascading down.
To its credit, the book kicks against the goads of conventional wisdom in Christian publishing. On the Spectrum isn’t a self-contained text, answering its own questions or crafting a comprehensive theology of autism. Rather, Bowman offers the story of his life so far, with all the implications and overtones living produces. The book presents itself in lyric essays and compact, plainspoken sections, even in letters and interviews—that is, the many ways a life expresses itself in words.
Through a diversity of expression, Bowman’s bridge elevates form to the same level as function. Imitating his creator, the author invests grace into that which could simply be useful. Every arch and angle of the book, its great pieces and smallest rivets, say something about the beauty of living with dignity and love.
“There are no shortcuts to learning how to love your neighbor,” Bowman writes early on. “There is no list of action items, and there is no saying, ‘Just tell me what to do.’ What you can do is inhabit the whole story—and see the autistic heart, mind, body, and spirit at work in both the profound and the mundane.”
With this, Bowman calls neurotypical readers to a contemporary, embodied embrace of Jesus’ words in John 4 and 6 when he shrugs off questions about prescribed paths, saying his food is to follow God and that the work of God is belief.
In early passages, Bowman implores readers to shake off their expectations of what his book should be. If they aren’t on the spectrum, they should also discard freighted notions of relating to people who are. Quiet yourself and open your hands, Bowman suggests. Once you come with nothing but breath and being, you may listen and learn.
“Stick with it. Let us teach you how to love us,” he writes.
This blessed education comes as Bowman details the particular pains and, as the book’s title suggests, prizes of his life on the spectrum.
No one is built solely for survival but, as the book displays in its means and message, for beauty. That beauty is coaxed full and free through empathy and understanding, often the very things withheld from people living on the spectrum, Bowman writes.
“Hurting happens—inadvertently, mostly—by virtue of the fact that what autistics need so deeply, just to function from moment to moment, seems often to run counter to what people need from us,” he explains.
Personal visions of hell arrive in moments of despair and inside-out disaster Bowman himself can’t always understand. With a poet’s pen, he describes “unplanned social interactions” like living, breathing jigsaw puzzles composed of thousands of pieces:
... where you get the feeling early on that any number are missing; where the sky in the corner—all the pieces form white clouds and look exactly the same—has somehow grown larger in the time it took you to fit together a very obvious section of the border for which you feel disproportionately proud.
“I have no spatial sense. I hate puzzles,” Bowman concludes. “So I often give up, or never begin.”
Writing around individual and collective scar tissue, Bowman exhibits an ability to create comforting mindmaps. Utilizing “a combination of lifelong observation and autistic instinct,” he plots points in a way that would make Mary Oliver proud and orients readers to their own landmarks.
Writing around individual and collective scar tissue, Bowman exhibits an ability to create comforting mindmaps.
He models remaking the world through shared language. Stepping into, and expanding the borders of our literature, we discover power enough to elicit love. “I know that language used well increases us all,” Bowman writes.
Here, he delivers his most necessary call to the Christian world; rather than offer an abundance of meaningless kisses, he inflicts the trustworthy wounds of a true friend.
“Bad storytelling is bad theology, forwarding an immature view of God, self, and neighbor,” he writes. “... Failing to call out bad storytelling is also bad teaching.”
If words become flesh, then each one matters. Do they give life or strip the soul? Bowman calls readers to account and introspection. Following writers like Thomas Merton and Walker Percy—who he affectionately quotes—Bowman practices what he preaches, learning before our eyes to put his life and the lives of his neighbors into appropriately miraculous terms.
“I came to know that the constellation of traits I displayed had a name: autism—and that taking on the name autistic, while scary, could also be redemptive,” he writes. “In the end, it’s about being my true self.”
Some books spur us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Others free us to actually love ourselves. Few books accomplish this by gently leading us to love the author as ourselves.
On the Spectrum sounds two additional cautions. Bowman is no doubt a growing expert in the field of his own experience, but he never pretends to speak for everyone on the spectrum. He nods to other Own Voices works in memoir, graphic novel, and fiction forms. And like a tasteful jazz musician, he takes a solo and then steps back, eager to hear what his cohort will contribute to the song.
He also reminds readers to come to autistic authors on subjects other than autism, to experience how the dimensions of these writers’ thinking and feeling augments wisdom elsewhere. Knowing him before—then better through—this book, I would read Bowman on anything and everything.
Some books spur us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Others free us to actually love ourselves. Few books accomplish this by gently leading us to love the author as ourselves. That’s what On the Spectrum does. In one early passage, Bowman quotes Paula D’Arcy, who said that “God comes to us disguised as our life.”
God also comes to us, in these pages, disguised as Daniel Bowman’s life—and every sort of reader will be grateful for the encounter.