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.”