People on the Autism Spectrum and the Church

People on the Autism Spectrum and the Church

With World Autism Awareness Day, 2 April, approaching, churches need to consider how we accommodate Christians on the spectrum.

For Christians on the autism spectrum, attending church can be a challenge. The combination of socialising, and the sensory experience, along with social expectations of how people should act, can lead to a less than positive experience. Ensuring people on the spectrum have a better experience, and learning how to best utilise their gifts, is part of the church’s calling.

In a piece written for Premier Christianity, Katherine Bale, a Christian on the autism spectrum, says that the way that church buildings and services are designed plays a part in how she experiences things from her pew.   

“Before the service, I’m sitting in my seat at church: one or more people are talking to me; the band is playing; the minister is walking in; there’s lots of moving visuals on the screens; several people are wearing strong perfume; there’s loud noise from the heating system; unpleasant coloured electric light. And I am sitting there unable to filter out sensory information that I don’t need, and feeling increasingly tense. By the time the minister starts, I’m not capable of paying attention and it takes a while to be able to calm down and focus. So, there is a lot of hard work for me to do before I can even start to join in with a worship service.”

Autism spectrum disorder is not itself dealt with explicitly in the Bible, as it has only become recognised in relatively recent years. As New Testament theologian Grant Macaskill points out, those who want to think biblically about ASD must look at wider theological principles.

Early research into the autism spectrum began in Germany in the 1930s through the work of Hans Asperger. Asperger understood that particular individuals fit a wider spectrum of attributes. Asperger’s work would become temporarily marginalised, however, as Leo Kanner’s work (which singularly identified people as being “autistic”) became more popular. This would change in the 1990s, however, when Asperger’s work was ‘rediscovered’ and the concept of the spectrum reasserted.

People along this ‘spectrum’, can have a variety of different characteristics. These can include processing stimulation differently, having high or low levels of empathy, and added difficulty in reading social cues.

Some aspects of church services themselves can be challenging for people on the Autism spectrum. Beyond the social aspect of church, and the attendant need to read social cues, the sounds, lights, and sensory experience in general may prove to be challenging.

In Autism Spectrum Disorders and the New Testament: Preliminary Reflections’, Grant Macaskill argues that Christians’ belief in “a radically different account of human being or anthropology, one…derived from the incarnational narrative” means that the church should be a place that welcomes people on the autism spectrum, one that does not evaluate them with the same criteria as our wider society. Macaskill has called for further study and the development of more theology regarding the church and ASD, so that a considered pastoral theology can be developed.

While there is much work to be done in developing this, a few Christians on the spectrum have observed the church’s call to be an inclusive body, including taking up the challenge of making church services more accommodating.

Katherine Bale writes about her experience at Thoughts of an Autistic Christian. In a multifaceted piece on the blog, Ms Bale provides a number of observations about aspects of the service that the congregation should consider in order to better accommodate Christians on the spectrum.

In another piece of advice, she says that churches should train their leaders in understanding ASD and SLD.

This, she writes, includes encouraging people “not to assume someone is being awkward, unfriendly, or rude on purpose, and to give them a chance to be included.”

It should be noted that while the standard diagnostic term ‘disorder’ is widely used, this phrase is not altogether without controversy. It would be a mistake to negatively characterise people on the spectrum, as their neurotypical mindsets also provide them with certain key strengths. Some of those who have found this include ordained ministers who serve the church while also being on the spectrum.  

In a piece for Christianity Today, American pastor Lamar Hardwick describes how his experience of being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder helped shape his ministry.

“When I received the news, I knew this was an opportunity to explore my faith in an entirely new way,” he writes.

“Autistic traits such as repetitive behaviour, the need for precision and routine, and even the way my brain processes language have—with practice, prayer, and patience—become assets. They have helped me develop into a visionary pastor and an excellent communicator. I practice, plan, and pray with more effectiveness now because I understand how God works through what some may consider weakness.”

“This journey has taught me to be more graceful and more authentic. It has taught me to share not only my hopes and my faith, but also my hurts and my frustrations. It has taught me to pastor out of my humanity.”

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15 thoughts on “People on the Autism Spectrum and the Church”

  1. Rev Christine Sheppard

    Thank you Jonathan.
    As a Minister , this article has made me very aware of issues arising for people on the Autism Spectrum, in worship.
    When I was a Mental Health Chaplain, I found that celebrating Eucharist was the best option as it was a more reflective approach.- less wordy.
    A similar approach worked also with those with a Developmental Disability, or those with Dementia.

  2. I am 71 female on the spectrum. Attending church is very difficult and I can only attend when I am having a very good day. If I attend when I am not completely at peace by the time I get home I am in meltdown. I cannot attend women’s groups or socialize in a group.
    I question my relationship with God because I suffer from constant anxiety and am unable to read the Bible or listen to sermons much of the time. I have been a Christian since age 23. I believe the Word and Christ completely but function in a child like faith. I have a deep understanding of many Christian beliefs, but my communication skills are limited. If preaching is not done in a clear, slow manner I only hear blah, blah, blah and cannot process the sermon. Even if I can process it, it is gone from my mind within minutes. Being an autistic Christian is difficult. Church members have no understanding of my many sensitivities and will make remarks that do not help. I am rather isolated although I would like to be more social, I can only socialize on a very limited scale.
    Thank you for caring about people that are different.

    1. Hi Jane, I am also an Autistic Christian and have experienced much of what you describe., it is difficult. I am thinking of starting a group for Autistic Christian Women, do you think that would be something that you would be interested in? Let me know!
      Rachel 🙂

      1. Hi Rachel,

        Did you ever start a group for Autistic Christians? I have Aspergers and I am also a believer, and I would be very interested in joining such a group.

        1. Lynda Roberts Nicholson

          Has there been a group started for Autistic Christian women? I would enjoy talking with others who have similar struggles and frustrations.

      2. I would be interested in joining an online group for Christain women ‘on the spectrum’ . If anyone in the group lives in Perth, WA, we could meetup. What has helped me immensely is reading! I gain my knowledge about Christianity by reading Christian theology books, and the Bible of course. Have a strict routine and read every day, read the bible on Sundays and Wednesdays. Read the Theology books every day.
        I find church good but are too shy / anxious to go regularly.
        I find the sermons interesting however the retention rate is low. I need to make notes and follow up later in the day , to get anything out of it.

  3. I am a 39 year old female on the spectrum . I have been saved for over 20 years and love God with all of my heart. Being on the spectrum has interfered with my walk greatly due the difficulty/inability to communicate or form friendships with those in the church. I have prayed for years for God to correct this somehow but I am still the same. I want so desperately to overcome this and receive the help and fellowship every Christian needs. Because my autistic traits are mild most people don’t realize that I am on the spectrum (and I generally do not disclose). As a result of my failures, I have finally began the process of seeking medication to see if it can help me. I am hopeful that by sharing with others that I am on the spectrum, with communication and education , myself and others who are on the spectrum can truly find a place in the church.

    1. Hi Deanna,
      Your words really resonate with me! Many Autistic Christians have not yet found a place within the church, despite worshipping for many years. I want to help other Autistic Christians like you and me, by starting a womens’ group for Autistic Christians, do you think something like that would work for you? It is just an idea at the moment, but I am looking for likeminded people.
      Take care, Rachel 🙂

      1. Hello Rachel!
        I’m a young Christian female on the spectrum as well.
        I just recently found this article, and answering your question, at least it would work for me! It is very good that the Lord has put that idea in your heart.
        I don’t know if you’ll get to read this, but a comfortable space for female sisters on the spectrum to share in the light of the Holy Spirit would be great (as long as it is done online, for distance and anxiety reasons).
        Let me know if you read this, if you finally made the group!

        1. Hi Caterina, Rachel, Deanna and Kylie,
          I found https://www.facebook.com/ChristianAspergerAutismGroup/ when searching for a group for Christian Women with Autism. I wonder if it might be a starting point for you?
          Or ask Insights to suggest a way forward in connecting with each other, in a helpful way?

          God loves each of us deeply, and our challenges or disabilities do nothing to change that fact.

    2. Hi Deanna,
      I am a 37 year old single female with Aspergers….I completely relate with your experience. I have been a believer for 13 years but have been unable to find a place in the church. I sent a message to ask Rachel if she has started the group she mentioned….but I have also been thinking of starting one too, in conjunction with a blog where I can share articles, poems, etc. not just about my Aspergers experience as a believer, but other dimensions of my life too where I have felt on the fringe. If you would like to get in touch, I look forward to hearing from you!

  4. My son aged 27 is Aspergers and very shy. He has had a similar experience with church as described above, never really feeling as if he belongs, but has a strong personal faith and sense of wanting to do what’s right . He is still living at home but finds this very challenging as there are 6 people living in our house with different needs and personalities and some of them loud and not sympathetic to his sound sensitivity. He knows he needs to leave home but the challenges involved in this are too overwhelming. I’m sure how to best support and encourage him in venturing out more. Would love ideas.

  5. It’s great to see an article on better inclusion of autistic people in the church (or anywhere for that matter). And it’s great practice that you have engaged with autistic people in writing the article, as much written on autistic people from a neurotypical perspective falls short. I’m loving seeing people connecting in the comments!
    It can be really helpful to frame the conversation about inclusion around the broader category of neurodivergence – which includes autism, but also a range of other different brain types such as ADHD, PDA, dyslexia, personality disorders, PTSD and CPTSD. Encouraging everyone to have a better understanding of how the nervous system functions, tuning into the connection between sensory experience and preferred religious style and practice, and communication differences/disability (an AAC confident church would be amazing!), can be life changing and really shift one’s perspective on how to make safe, inclusive spaces.
    As a person with chronic illness, there is much that could be thought about differently that would allow greater participation. I’ve grown up in the church with messages that it’s not too much to ask to arrive on time, be dressed neatly, sit up straight and pay attention for the hour or so , not require to eat or drink, intermittently sit stand sing sit stand recite, then have several superficial chats with people where the rules of engagement are to not discuss any of the ideas in the service or act in any way that gives people a sense of the impact of your disability on your week. For many people with chronic illness this is impossible. Yet the church environment, practice and attitudes are often not set up to allow for the accommodations needed. At times I’ve created my own accommodations, and even though I’m a confident person, I’m not unaffected by the looks and comments that follow. And sometimes it makes me really sad that the church is not a space that knows and chooses to welcome me in the way that God does.
    Anyhow – it’s important when referring to Hans Asperger to mention that he was a Nazi collaborator and sent people with disability to be euthanised. It’s very important to consider the sources of information about autism as many are controversial to autistic people. For example, the widely promoted Autism Speaks organisation, who have a ‘light it up in blue’ campaign, are considered by many autistics to promote hate speech against autistic people. Look for authorship that is ‘actually autistic’ as much as possible, and research that is conducted with the full involvement and oversight of autistic people.

    1. Thanks for the comments and feedback, and it’s definitely something I will keep in mind for any follow up to this I write.

      So noted regarding Hans Asberger.

      -Jonathan

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