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High-Functioning Autism and Apparent Memories of Past Lives

Why might a grim end to someone's life be "remembered" by an autistic child?

Key points

  • A 2018 study profiled three young children who claimed to have memories of a past life; later, they were diagnosed with high-functioning autism.
  • The odd physical characteristics these kids presented were consistent with their apparent recollections of this other life.
  • A violent or unnatural end to someone's life seems to figure prominently in the reports of many such children.
  • Several reasons have been proposed to explain why individuals with high-functioning autism report anomalous perceptions, versus others with ASD.

As highlighted in my last post, research is beginning to document children on the autism spectrum who report a range of intriguing perceptions. In 2018, a pair of Sri Lankan researchers profiled three children in that country who claimed to have memories of a past life (not necessarily their own) and were later diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Given the presumption that individuals on the spectrum have less imaginative capacity and are less verbally expressive than other children at a similar age, the authors point up how remarkable it is that a boy or girl with autism (even the high-functioning kind) could produce such detailed narratives of an alleged past life.

It’s also noteworthy that, similar to many other children who claim to recall a past life, two of these Sri Lankan kids had a physical characteristic that they said related to the circumstance of the previous life. One boy, at age 3, stated that the person whose life he remembered had been in the military, and had died from a mortar attack. This child had a birthmark on his upper chest that, he claimed, corresponded to where shrapnel had hit. The second child, a 5-year-old girl, suffered from frequent asthma attacks and said that, in the life she remembered, the person had died from breathing difficulties.

The third child did not present a physical "signature" of the previous life but became easily distressed if any of his daily routines were changed; he also disliked being touched and had not formed any close friendships at school. This boy, at age 4, had the memory of being a monk who lived in a remote forest monastery. The other two kids presented their own symptoms of autism, specifically a fear of loud noises, avoidance of eye contact, and repeated demands (in the girl’s case) to have her parents only buy her clothes, shoes, and toys that are red. All three kids shied away from social contact, a prime characteristic of autism.

An interesting speculation is whether trauma in a prior life can somehow "transmit" to someone in the present. Fascinating evidence has been gathered by researchers at the University of Virginia, whose database now consists of more than 2,500 cases of someone "recalling" another life. In 70 percent of these cases, the life being remembered ended violently or unnaturally. Taking the Sri Lankan paper on face value, one might venture to suggest that autism itself—or at least the mild or high-functioning kind (previously known as Asperger’s syndrome)—could have its source in past life trauma.

The Link Between Autism and Paranormal Phenomena

Why does it seem that people with high-functioning autism, as opposed to autism spectrum disorder in general, are the ones who report paranormal perceptions? The simplest explanation is that they’re easier to study. While they may be held back by impaired communication and social relations, these are navigable roadblocks and are often overcome by persistence and a desire, like anyone else, to make the most of one’s talents. So it is possible that research has focused on people with Asperger’s merely because they are more responsive to questionnaires and the like.

However, I’ve proposed a different reason based on a 2008 inquiry into the sense of self in autism. This study found that people with a high-functioning form of autism displayed a weaker sense of self than people who don’t have autism at all. And the weaker the sense of self, the more pronounced were the autistic symptoms.

This leads me to suggest a tie-in to the concept of thick and thin boundaries. As propounded by the late Ernest Hartmann, boundaries are a measure of personality based on the extent to which stimuli are excluded or let in. Thick boundary people tend to hold the world at a distance, whereas thin boundary people absorb quite a lot of what’s thrown at them. For this reason, I contend that people with high-functioning autism have thinner boundaries than those who have a more severe form of ASD. The latter keep their thoughts and feelings tightly guarded. Individuals with Asperger’s, in contrast, are more open—and more likely to notice and be affected by anomalous influences.

My next post will look at the phenomenon of "invisible companions"—which, it turns out, some adults experience as well.

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