The head of an autism association in Turkey has apologised for suggesting that autistic people were natural atheists, and that atheism could be a form of autism.
Sociologist Fehmi Kaya, head of the Health and Education Associations for Autistic Children, was reported in numerous Turkish media outlets as saying autistic children were “atheists due to a lack of a section for faith in their brains.”
“That is why they don’t know how to pray, how to believe in God. It is necessary to create awareness [or religion] in these children through methods of therapy.”
"Autistic children were atheists from birth without being aware of it," he was quoted as saying. “Research says atheism and autistic children are linked. Researchers in the USA and Canada say that atheism is a different form of autism.”
“We cannot expect a child who cannot recognise a picture to recognize God. We need to help the autistic child recognise objects through therapy by targeting areas of senses in the brain.”
The comments have caused a media storm in the country, with Turkish autism charities condemning the statement.
The president for the Association of Protection of Autistic Children (ODER), Engin Güngör, told the Hürriyet Daily News that the remarks were “unfortunate, I do not know what purpose the statement serves.
“This is a statement that could upset around 3.5 to 4 million people."
Adem Kuyumcu, A Life Without Disabilities Association chairperson, told bianet: "We can't sue the association chair for his remarks, but we fear that the unscientific therapy practice could spread across the country," he said.
Kaya, whose organisation is based in the southern Turkish city of Adana, said in a statement, intended for broadcast on Turkish television, that his remarks had been taken out of context, but apologised to families he had offended.
He explained plans for his organisation to hold sessions to help autistic children embrace religion, set to begin in June, according to Hürriyet.
"The purpose was to draw attention to the problems of children with autism and how to communicate the autistic point to the rest of society.
This is my own opinion. But I want to take this opportunity to apologise to families who have children with autism."
Kaya told the Daily News in a separate interview: “The message I wished to give was not about autism and atheism, but to highlight that these children cannot communicate, cannot form empathy, live in their own worlds and are isolated. I meant that we should take them out of their isolation with proper therapy methods.
“I meant that they were disabled, in a way, like a hearing disability, because they are not aware of why people believe. I did not say that all autistic people are atheists."
Mark Embleton, president of Atheist UK told HuffPost UK: "We can only take this story on how it has been reported, but as an atheist and a professional psychologist these claims and ideas are absolute nonsense.
"The suggestion that autistic children cannot believe in an imaginary god because of their 'disability' displays a complete lack of any scientific knowledge and is very likely founded on the originators own blinkered religious views.
"That autistic children should undergo some sort of 'therapy' to get them to have religious faith or believe in a supernatural entity is, in my opinion, child abuse and must be exposed for the crackpot idea it is."
"Faith does not "normally" exist in kids at all," Carlos Diaz, president of the Atheist Alliance International added. "Children are born without any particular religion and most simply adopt the religion that their parents happen to teach them.
"There are scientifically valid methods for treating children with autism, but these have nothing to do with religion. It would be best for the child if treatment focuses on what actually works instead of a highly spurious goal of creating belief."
In 2011, a study by University of Boston did suggest that those with a mild form of autism were more pre-disposed to be atheists.
The study authors, Catherine Caldwell-Harris and Patrick MacNamara studied discussions by 192 different posters on an autism website. They also looked at a survey of 61 people with high-functioning autism, and graphed against results from the Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) test.
The results appeared to show that those with high AQ scores were 'more likely' to be atheists.