What comes to mind when you hear the word autism? Maybe Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, or Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory? Someone who is awkward and rigid, with a genius-like ability for maths or science? The truth is so much broader than media stereotypes. There is still a huge amount of misunderstanding surrounding autism. Put simply, autism is a lifelong neurological condition. It isn’t something to be ‘grown out of’ and it doesn’t need a cure, just understanding and compassion!
The Impact of Autism
I am a mum to two incredible autistic young teenagers and those who don’t have autistic people in their daily lives cannot begin to fathom how much low-level trauma they experience, even on ‘good days’. A friend told me of her autistic child recently, ‘The world is a violent shock to him every morning.’
Autistic people can struggle with many things that neurotypical people barely register. Just a few are the abilities to organise oneself, to understand the body and what it is telling them, to incorporate different textures in food and clothing; tolerance for loud noises or the need for extra sensory stimulation. These invisible difficulties are compounded by people who expect them to behave in the same ways as themselves and to have the same social stamina.
Positively speaking, hyper-focus is the delightful ability to concentrate on a subject of interest. The feeling of not quite fitting in makes some autistic people very empathetic. Different ways of thinking and approaching problem solving can bring unique insights. All these can be beautiful qualities within faith. Some autistic people have great memory for Bible passages and stories, show compassion for others who also seem unsure of themselves and can delight in worship and prayer due to their sense of being ‘in the moment’.
As a parent, I have found that God has taught me about adjusting expectations. I have had to ditch some Christian parenting books which pile on the guilt as we see how far we fall short. Talking to a counsellor helped me choose what is essential and what I can let go. I am learning not to compare my circumstances with others and look to the family I have. I am learning to forgive when wounded by others’ comments, whether well-intentioned or just unwise.
Welcoming those with autism into the church family
The Bible speaks of the beauty of diversity in the church. Paul shows us how God has placed the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be (1 Cor. 12:18). He goes on to say, ‘the head cannot say to the feet “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable’ (1 Cor. 12:22). Rather than seeing those with neurological difference as somehow ‘less than’, we need each other to see the world from another’s eyes, for opportunities to learn from one another and to be sanctified as we serve each other.
Realistically it can be hard for autistic people to fit into church life. Church can be a place full of overwhelming strange sounds and people, a frightening place that sometimes can be tolerated, but is sometimes just too hard to be in.
Here are my top three tips for those wanting to help autistic people and their families in church.
- Communicate. Parents often just want to know that their families are included and loved. Tell them that and invite them to share with you how autism impacts their family in both the good and the challenging ways. Questions asked in good faith are usually welcomed.
- Ask autistic people and their families what accommodations would be helpful and try to implement them. Examples might include a quiet room to use or being able to see the order of service or termly planner in advance so they are able plan accordingly.
- Believe what they say. When you are told of the difficulty and low levels of trauma an autistic person or their parents are dealing with daily, accept it and acknowledge it.
In a church family, willingness to learn and understand is impactful. Often compassion is the greatest way of living out Galatians 6:2: ‘Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way fulfil the law of Christ.’