Pastor perseveres despite autism diagnosis

Rev. Henry Clarke at the Palace Theater in Eastwood, NY, where he has the Hillsview Church.
Rev. Henry Clarke at the Palace Theater in Eastwood, NY, where he has the Hillsview Church.

The Rev. Henry Clarke has always enjoyed solving puzzles. But until he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome at the age of 45, much of his life was a puzzle he just couldn't work out.

Things like math, engineering and computer systems were always a cinch for Clarke to understand, even without formal training. He could usually read a book or manual or just look at a problem and figure out what needed to be done.

As a child, Clarke was fascinated with circles and spinning things. Rather than ride a bike or pull a wagon, he would tip them over and spin the wheels and gears to see how they worked. He also loved numbers, and once devoured three years of math in one semester.

Finding the pace of classroom learning too slow and boring, Clarke often mouthed off to his teachers. In his hometown of Amelia, Va., and even in his family home, finishing high school wasn't that important, so he didn't.

In his late teens, Clarke was flipping through the TV channels one Sunday morning when he heard a TV minister asking viewers if they were tired of their lives. The minister told viewers God had a plan for them. Clarke said, “I thought, 'I would like my life to be different,' and I prayed, but I didn't know if it would be.”

After becoming a Christian, Clarke got his GED diploma and found acceptance from some young pastors. “They just loved me and accepted me,” he said. “While I didn't notice how important that was, it was a contrast to being an outsider in other aspects of my life.”

Clarke moved to Florida to help out with a new church, and within five years he was working at the largest engineering firm in Jacksonville, Fla. He also met his future wife, Susan, a Bible school graduate who had just completed a year of missionary work in Eastern Europe.

Throughout their marriage, Susan Clarke observed her husband's quirky and troubling behaviors, but because he was brilliant and successful, she tried to shrug off his meltdowns and compulsions as eccentricity.

Simple things such as ordering food at a drive-thru window confounded him and could trigger a meltdown if she or one of their three children changed an order. He was so unnerved by the drive-thru their youngest daughter, then 5 years old, once offered to handle it for him.

Susan Clarke finally realized her husband had a serious problem when he gave a talk at an Indiana church about their missionary work. As he spoke to the congregation, he kept poking his fingers through holes in the lectern, so distracted by the holes he kept losing his train of thought. “At that moment, I realized there was something wrong because he couldn't stop himself,” she said. “He just kept doing it until he finished the message.”

She confronted him about his behavior on the drive home, but he rejected her concerns. She was also anxious about her husband's social challenges. He often missed social cues and had to shut himself up in the basement for a couple days after periods of social or professional interaction with other people.

In 2009, when he was an associate pastor at Abundant Life Christian Center, in East Syracuse, N.Y., Henry Clarke finally faced the puzzle that was his life.

“As a minister and someone who had done a lot of good around the world, I had to ask myself, 'What is wrong with me?'” he said. “How can so many pieces of my life be successful, … in other people's words, brilliant, and yet simple things are just a struggle?”

He looked for answers. “I came across this article about adults with Asperger's syndrome, and quite frankly, I thought I was reading my own story, so I dug further.”

Henry Clarke took a test he found online — the Autism Spectrum Quotient — which indicated there was a high likelihood he had Asperger's or some form of autism. While the results were a revelation, it was still a devastating diagnosis. “It can only be described as my life coming together and falling apart at the same time,” he said. “It just hit me, because I started realizing what I'd put my wife, my family through.”

His armchair diagnosis was soon confirmed by a neuropsychologist, and he looked to his faith for help.

“One of the things that helped me through all of this was something the Apostle Paul wrote, 'In my weakness, God's strength is perfected,'” Henry Clarke said. “I had to acknowledge my weakness and my strength.”

Susan Clarke said life is much better since he was diagnosed.

“Before, he needed help, but didn't know he needed it and didn't know he could ask for it. Now he realizes that and knows that certain things he does or things he doesn't do or things he should do, that I bring to his attention, are important.”

The Clarkes are facing the issue head-on as co-pastors at Hillsview Church a new, independent congregation they've started.

“We're trying to focus on helping and loving people, but we're also saying whatever is on the inside of you, that's what we want to develop,” Henry Clarke said. “And that means us being real honest with ourselves about what our limitations are and our need for one another.”

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