Neurodivergent followers of Jesus are a gift
We live in such a time where we are discovering more and more about neurological differences, also known as Neurodivergence. What is Neurodivergence you may ask, well it refers to individuals with neurological differences, such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other conditions.
Historically, many of us may have named these as quirky differences. Which some of us have come to accept in our church membership and community as part of being welcoming of all types of people. But others of us, have been labeled as “not like us, not like-minded, or excluded for not fitting our culture. In the main, however, neurotypicals have interpreted this as odd behaviours but expressed a degree of tolerance because of the Neighbourly love ethic and inclusive invitation stance of the Gospel. But often that is as far as it goes.
That being said, you may have noticed there seems to be a high number of neurodivergent folk in our churches, you may be neurodivergent yourself, that many of us are in the church, and even in leadership in the church.
There is a growing movement amongst neurodivergent and mental health professionals that is challenging a neurodivergent understanding that sees it as inherently disordered or disabled. A growing view, of acceptance of differences as a strength and gift within the community, is gaining more traction.
This area is of interest to me personally, as well as professionally as the Director of Vital Leadership. Personally, because of my mild dyslexia (and the extra challenge of managing this well), my father’s autism diagnosis in my teens as well as in my teams the number of students having a ADHD diagnosis and needing medication to navigate School (and the controversy of this at the time). More of late, awareness of women in my extended family with neurodivergence and the place of masking for acceptance.
Professionally, my interest in how many, initially via anecdotal observations, neurodivergent people found the Christian faith and Christian community central and deeply meaningful for their lives proportionately to the wider population. In my current role, I see many seeking or wanting to offer leadership in the church have either a diagnosis or show behaviors or are open about the journey of discovery of their mental health and neurodivergence.
This intrigue has called me to explore the connection between faith and neurodivergence a little further. I uncovered a recent study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, individuals with autism may have a stronger attachment to faith and spirituality than their neurotypical peers. This study found that individuals with autism reported higher levels of religious involvement and a greater sense of belonging to their faith communities. Additionally, another study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that children with ADHD had higher levels of religious coping, which involves using faith to cope with stress and adversity.
Other research also suggests that individuals with dyslexia may experience faith differently. According to a study published in the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health, individuals with dyslexia may struggle with traditional religious practices that involve reading and writing, but may still have a strong sense of spirituality and connection to their faith. This raises questions for me about how wordy our liturgies are and the place of contemporary or contemplative music, for example.
While there is still much to learn about the relationship between faith and neurodivergence, these findings suggest that there may be unique ways that individuals with neurological differences experience and express their faith. For example, individuals with autism may be drawn to the structure and routine of religious practices, which can provide a sense of predictability and comfort. Individuals with ADHD may find solace in prayer or meditation as a way to quiet their minds and focus their attention. And individuals with dyslexia may find that their connection to their faith is strengthened through other sensory experiences, such as music or art.
It is important for Christian communities to recognize and accommodate the needs of neurodivergent individuals within our congregations, whether that means providing alternative methods for practicing faith or offering support and understanding. Faith can be a source of comfort and strength for individuals and communities with neurological differences, and it is important to create space so that everyone has the opportunity to experience and express faith in meaningful ways.
Accommodating neurodivergence is only part of the picture. What we call neurotypical is based on the assumption of a so-called average proportion of the population’s neurological ability. Often making navigating processes, and demanding neurotypical responses to be marked as, compliant, acceptable, and behaving correctly, often isolating the neurodivergent. This is evidenced by the low tolerance for sensory overloading behaviour’s or normalizing for self-soothing behaviours that help regulate the neurodivergent person.
There is also a dark history to Neurodivergence awareness, which I don’t have time to explore here, except to highlight that in 1944 Nazi Germany, Dr Hans Asperger, who was a paediatrician that pioneered the diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, later to be known as autism psychopathy. He termed the phrase “high-functioning” with this diagnosis. Such folk were spared from euthanasia, due to their perceived extraordinary gifts, be it with music, or intellect. Tragically, 789 children were sent to their death with such a diagnosis if not considered high functioning at the hand of Dr Han’s clinic. A tragic legacy that can be seen today is reflected in the term “high-functioning “as having functional value all be it a suspicion of that person being disordered. This has to change.
Another belief that autistic people don’t feel is also gravely false and untrue; current evidence and lived experience demonstrate that this is profoundly untrue. People with autism feel deeply but may find it difficult to express those feelings in ways neurotypical can understand.
The truth is, that we as a movement of Jesus have a long way to go, to be the people of God, in Christ, that welcomes all people. While such diagnosis are modern, one could argue that the biblical narratives and Christian tradition focus on grace, love, and acceptance in Christ with the hope of a new creation and justice, then exclusion based on at best personality difference. I often wonder what biblical characters would have a diagnosis today, I mean look at some of the prophets. I take great comfort that they, as with you and I, we are part of the salvation story of God.
Christian communities are to be a place where individuals can come together and support one another on their discipleship journeys. However, for many neurodivergent individuals, the experience of participating in churches can be challenging. Neurodivergent individuals have differences in neurological development that can impact the way they perceive and process information, and this can make certain aspects of religious practice more difficult.
For example, some individuals with autism may struggle with sensory overload during worship services, or have difficulty understanding abstract concepts. Individuals with ADHD may find it difficult to focus during long periods of sitting and listening. Dyslexic individuals may struggle with reading religious texts, which can form a central part of many faith traditions.
So, how can neurotypical members of your congregation be more accommodating of their neurodivergent counterparts? Here are some suggestions:
- Educate yourself about neurodivergence. Learn about the different conditions that fall under the neurodivergent umbrella, and how they can impact an individual’s experience of life and faith.
- Be flexible in your approach. Recognize that there may be alternative ways of practicing faith that work better for neurodivergent individuals. For example, offering alternative worship spaces that are quieter or have sensory-friendly accommodations.
- Avoid making assumptions. Don’t assume that an individual’s behaviour or difficulties are due to lack of faith, laziness, seeking to be disruptive or lack of interest. Instead, be patient and understanding, and seek to understand what may be causing their difficulties.
- Be welcoming and inclusive, not just tolerant. Neurodivergent individuals may feel excluded or isolated from faith communities due to their differences. By being welcoming and inclusive, you can help ensure that everyone feels valued and supported and part of Christ’s beloved community in God.
- Foster a culture of acceptance and support. Encourage open and honest communication about neurodivergence within your faith community, and work to create a culture that accepts and supports individuals with neurological differences. Make space for story sharing, and what is going on for Neurodiverse folk.
Ultimately, creating an inclusive Christian community requires effort and understanding on the part of all Christians. By taking the time to learn about neurodivergence and adapting practices to be more inclusive, faith communities and congregations can become a place where everyone feels welcomed, supported, and able to participate fully in the mission of God’s love and justice together.
Neurodivergent and Neurotypical followers of Jesus, let’s keep the conversation going. This is a conversation needed in our time as a Uniting Church. We are a highly neurodiverse tribe. Together all of us share gifts and are gifted for the common good and the mission of God’s reconciling love for all creation. Let’s be honest and explore this with much love for each other so we can all find our home with God in the expression of the Christian community we know as church.
Rev. Ben Gilmour