Dr. Rachel Brezis has a BA in Psychology with a minor in Anthropology and Cognitive Science which she obtained at Hebrew University. Dr. Brezis also has a MA and PhD in Comparative Human Development where she received both at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Brezis is current position is at the Center for Culture and Health at the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of California in Los Angeles. Her main focus of research currently is Autism Spectrum Disorder in India and the United States.
Dr. Brezis dissertation was titled: Social and Non-Social Memory in Adolescents with Autism: At the juncture of biological, cognitive and social development. Her research interests are in Autism; autobiographical, episode, and semantic memory; neuropsychology; MRI; adolescence; cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience; in Israel and India. Dr. Brezis also speaks French and Hebrew, along with English, of course.
To begin with, I believe we all interpret and interact in our cultural environment in many different ways which helps us make sense of the world around us; just some of us have a little difficulty in processing that raw data to create meaning to our lives. Children and adults with autism are examples of individuals who have a hard time in creating that meaning. Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the social and communication skills of a person, and is followed by ritualized behaviors. Dr. Brezis suggests that attempts have been made to trace this type of behavioral manifestations of autism to particular brain regions, recent anatomical and functional imaging studies are pointing to a deficit in brain connectivity. Autistic people may have a glitch in the way they processing information to create meaning.
According to Dr. Brezis, autism is a condition that fundamentally disrupts the junction between self and others, or self and culture, autism provides a unique lens onto the process of acculturation. Acculturation is a modification in a culture group or individual by adapting or borrowing traits from another culture. According to Dr. Brezis, some theories suggest that since people with autism have problems in processing others thoughts, they are incapable of religious belief. To some theorists, people with autism cannot link meaning to events that happen in the world. For instance, if a person was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and all of a sudden got better, it was because of some overseeing force that controls everyone’s destiny.
Some theories suggest that any religious practices autistic people are involved in are mechanical and interpersonal, and are unable to attach real self meaning to that religion. But with recent research done by Dr. Brezis, this may not be the case. Maybe through acculturation individuals with autism may have found a way to interpret and interact with a higher power. Through a string of interviews, that Brezis conducted, with children and adults with autism and Asperser’s syndrome, and of Jewish religion, Jewish because, according to Brezis, its special emphasis on the behavioral performance of biblical commandments and their derivations, despite its lack of an explicit credo, Dr. Brezis came to a conclusion, that these individuals, as Brezis calls it, displayed a sense of an agentive God who gives meaning to the world and events in it.
Brezis revealed through a series of interview questions, questions involving background, simple descriptive questions, questions related to their parents degree of religious practice, and tracing their religious education to see if their religious practices had changed over time and if their religious practice were driven by their own choice, Brezis came to the conclusion, that autistic individuals do have a sense of a higher power and can link that agentive God to an event that establishes meaning. In one interview, a young boy claimed he spent all his money on a bicycle, and did not have any money left but said that God would provide for him. And after a awhile, he was offered two jobs. He contributed him having a job to a higher power. This demonstrates that autistic people can, and do, have a sense of an agentive God and can connect events to a higher power.
Brezis also claims that in reviewing her transcripts she discovered a week sense of self in autistic individuals, and that they use narratives of personal interest to create or construct their identities.
As autistic people may use cultural surrounding to create colorful scripts to determine religious meaning, the average person, whatever average means, creates alternative ways to learn, such as, the three learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Each learning style has its own cultural flair to help people process that raw data to create meaning, to help educate that person. Someone with a visual learning style may use graphs and body language when learning. Individuals who learn through auditory learning do better with hearing and listening forms of education, while others do better with a hands-on approach, which is called a kinesthetic type of learning. We all use colorful scripts to help us create and understand the world we live in. I really liked the way Dr. Brezis puts it, using a metaphor, “because of the unique pattern of abilities and disabilities associated with autism, the condition may be seen as a reflective prism through which the white light of culture is broken down into its myriad color components.” Rather than blocking certain elements of culture, the autistic mind pushes that person to use cultural resources creatively, coloring the cultural scripts that they appropriate with new hues. We all see and learn things in different colors, and those colors help us all to discover the meaning to the lives in which we live.