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Teenage Problems/19 yr old sister who's autistic joined Scientology (should I be concerned?)

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Question
I'm 27, and my sister is 19, she has autism, and recently told us she'd made some new friends. I was glad to see her happy.
However, I only recently found out these new friends were Scientologists; my sister admitted to me she'd been "stress tested" when on the way to college and joined Scientology thinking it was good.

Now me and my parents are a little worried about her; legally we can't stop her from this, but we're worried it may affect her mental health, she did used to self-harm aged around 14-15 (not with knives etc. but still, she did used to sting herself deliberately with nettles or scratch herself on holly bushes; holly trees were, and still are, one of her interests; they have been since childhood; to call it an obsession would be mean).
She still does self-harm if stressed

Is there anything we can do to help her make friends without trying to be disapproving? I worry she'll get herself damaged with Scientology. She does have very few friends as it is and has asked for help trying to make them; her past attempts have been unsuccessful.

She is 19, but mentally acts a bit younger, but not childish. She does have outbursts, of depression and self-harm. She also binges on Skittles if depressed.

I know Scientology is followed by people like Tom Cruise etc. and this may be why she joined; she probably thinks if someone famous can join, it's OK.

I have heard rumors that people in black Chevy/GMC SUVs follow people who quit Scientology; could this happen to my sister.

What should our family do?

For us, it's a tricky thing; how do we balance her rights/needs of the individual with protecting her for her own safety?

Answer
Hi Joanne,

Thank you for taking the time to write to me and I hope that I can help.

Scientology has been receiving more and more publicity over the last couple of years and the number of people joining appears to be increasing. Supported by wealthy and successful clients, as well as those from everyday working lives, Scientology has been able to have a global reach and establish itself, in some countries at least, as a religion (making it exempt from paying certain taxes). The intrigue and mystery surrounding the supposed entry tests and what is taught at its core message, as well as the fact that famous movie stars are happy to discuss their involvement, means that joining Scientology is almost the 'cool' thing to do. For your sister however, I think that wanting to join something like Scientology is more to do with her thinking that it will allow her the opportunity to meet more people, improve her confidence but without really, perhaps, understanding what it is that she has become involved in. My only concern is that your sister may potentially be vulnerable to financial abuse (depending on her understanding and mental capacity) whereby she may be encouraged to donate money either that she does not have or that could be used to support her in other ways. I am not suggesting that Scientology preys on the vulnerable and has the sole aim of extorting money but there will come a time when she begins to be asked for donations and the amounts requested will increase; and if it offers her everything that she thinks she needs then she may begin to pay it without thought. Depending upon who manages her finances, be this herself, you or your family, I would keep this in mind and begin to question any unreasonable or unjustified expenses to safeguard her in the longer term.

The other concern with your sister is if that if she does join that she may be exposing herself to situations or stress that can bring about self-harming and distress. I am not an expert on Scientology but one of the criticisms leveled at it is that once you join it is hard to leave and because of the rigorous and personal nature of the testing upon application, it has been suggested that they use the information disclosed to almost bully people into staying by threatening to expose their secrets. In someone such as your sister, who because of her autism may already find it difficult to make friends, if she decided to leave because Scientology wasn't for her then she may face the possibility of being isolated further if her personal life is leaked; so she will return back to Scientology because she will feel more isolated and the cycle continues.

I am not suggesting that Scientology is 'bad' or that it is negative and it could be that being around people that share a common interest with her may help to improve her confidence. People with autism find it difficult to socialize and meet people because they do not have the ability to read social cues and understand basic levels of emotion. Because of this people with autism tend to indulge in a lot of self-play when they are young children (choosing it over playing with other children) and they tend to have set routines, fixed ideas and literal thinking. As the child becomes a teenager and then an adult, they become more secluded because although they want to make friends and lead a 'normal' life, they struggle to make small talk and find common ground for conversation. So it would make sense that your sister may be using Scientology (but in reality, it could be any religion) because simply by attending the hardwork of having to make small talk has been removed because everyone is there to seek knowledge and have a shared experience. What your sister may not realize is this kind of situation where everyone has the same common ground does not have to be found in an exclusive religion but rather, things such as societies and local groups.

If your sister is set on joining Scientology then all you can do is to research it, provide her with the information, check her understanding by asking her questions about her reasoning behind wanting to join and seeing what she knows about it. If her motivation for joining is simply to make friends then there are other ways. If her knowledge of Scientology is basic or flawed then this again justifies that she may be doing it as an attempt to appear 'cool' and just because her friends are.

The way you handle it depends upon her capacity of understanding and the rigidity of her thinking. If she is the kind of person who becomes stubborn and adamant that she has made her mind up about something and she will do it; then it will be difficult to dissuade her from doing it and all you can do is make your concerns known. If the focus is all about the social aspect of it and she is able to change her routine quite frequently, then offering her alternative ways of meeting people through her shared interests and offering to attend with her for the first couple of times may mean that she is more likely to change her mind. All of that said, if her friends are Scientologists it still may be difficult to break her away from joining because she will want to follow her peers.

It is always difficult to try and find the balance between what your sister will want to do and what you and your family thinks is in her best interest to do (or not to do) and there is a fine line between making a 'best interest' decision (whereby part of her choice is removed because of diminished understanding and the choice becomes her family's) and removing someone's freedom. Every decision that is made regarding what may happen has to be managed and assessed with the idea that although the decision being made may appear to be the wrong one, would anyone with autism make the same decision? If the answer is 'yes' then it usually remains the individual's choice, even if the consequences may be negative (but not life threatening). If the answer is 'no' and the decision appears to be irrational in so much as from the outset the negative risks and potential consequences are obvious (and the resulting decision may physically, emotionally or financially harm the individual) then it may become a 'best interest' decision whereby welfare services and the family have to have a meeting to decide whether or not the choice should be removed. The whole area of Deprivation of Liberties (removing a choice from someone deemed to not have the understanding to make an informed decision) and human rights (whereby we all have a right to lead our life unhindered) is a massive and gray area but it is worth being aware of if any of the concerns we have discussed become evident during your sister's time joining or after joining Scientology.

As a family, all you can do is stay informed, be vigilant and if in doubt, seek legal support. You are doing everything that you can do as a family and hopefully, things will work out positively for all concerned.

I hope that helps.  

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Daryl Taylor, BSc (Hons) Psychology, PGDip (pending certification)

Expertise

My expertise covers everything and anything to do with growing up, being a teenager or a young adult or being the parent of one of the pre-described. I can cover issues on identity, sexuality, love, relationships, families, drug/alcohol abuse and anything and everything in between.

Experience

I have volunteered for AllExperts.com for over ten years now, but even before that I was trying to use my experience to help others by working with Advice4teens.co.uk, Teenadviceonline.org and even Lycos and Ask Jeeves. My experience comes from being a teenager primarily but this lead me to work with young people from the age of 13. I have worked front line, face to face and over the telephone, e-mail and webchat for a government department called Connexions UK (aimed at young people aged 13-19); as well as being student counselor in New York, a Peer Mentor, a student teacher and working for my school, college and University to help raise the aspirations of young people. My life has not been easy and I have been through my fair share of issues; so there is little that I haven't been through in reality opposed to just reading it from a book or from my academic studies. I have been featured as a case study as achieving through adversity for a number of magazines and I have featured in a couple of books on both sides of the Atlantic; even though I am UK based.

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The Albert Kennedy Trust

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Relationships: Cathy Senker, 2012, Raintree The Dean and Chapter Positive Nation GTEN Television Aim Higher

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BSc(Hons) Psychology Post Graduate Diploma in Multidisciplinary Design Innovation Basic Counselling Skills Effective Listening Skills Mental Health First Aid

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Outstanding Student achievement Adult learner's Award

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Allexperts.com Advice4teensuk.org Teenadviceonline.org lycos.co.uk askjeeves.com Connexions Direct

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