Is Your Church Autism-Friendly?
Note: This is based on my experience with mostly “mainline” Protestant churches, as a person with Asperger’s/High-functioning autism. The disability community as whole commonly uses “person first” language, I and many others on the spectrum prefer “identity-first” language. We see autism as a part of who we are, rather than a condition we have. Other people on the spectrum, and their families may prefer “person-first”, and I respect their choice of self-identification. Mutual respect is good!
How Does Your Church Address/Frame Disability Issues?
In sermons, readings, hymns and Bible study, how does your church treat passages that mention blind, deaf, and lame people, people with diseases like leprosy and so forth? Does your church emphasize healing? Does God have a “plan” that includes teaching people lessons with suffering? Are people with disabilities “special children/blessings in disguise/angels” of God? Or are they possessed by demons?
Does your church espouse prosperity theology– the idea that God blesses faithful Christians with wealth, health and other benefits, or perhaps New Thought? Do disabled people just need to have more faith? These are the sorts of messages that you will need to question if you want your church to be welcoming of people with disabilities.
Structured vs. Unstructured Socializing
A typical church service can be a great way for autistics to interact with others. The structure, predictability and repetition can be soothing to us. But many church social events- the after service fellowship time, the potluck, the wedding reception, the youth lock-in- are very unstructured and chaotic, and can give an autistic person a lot of discomfort and anxiety. A church service that the autistic person is familiar with creates a sense of security, their expected role is clearly defined. But once the church service lets out, the random social mingling begins, and autistic person isn’t sure what to do. I’m always more interested in having in-depth conversations rather than engaging in shallow “small-talk” that tends to take place in these settings, especially when I don’t know most of the people involved. The noise and packed together crowds of people can also set off our anxiety. I find large groups easier to deal with when they are more organized- even when people are sitting down at tables, rather than standing and walking around with coffee cups, makes me feel more comfortable.
A couple of options- one is that the individual is free to skip the fellowship time altogether. Fellowship is generally optional, but some congregants may see the person as anti-social or aloof. A better option is to offer small group discussions or hands-on activities, either concurrently with fellowship time, or on other days. Most churches have these sorts of activities, but they too, can present social problems for autistic people.
Age and Gender Segregation
Autistic people develop differently than their peers- emotionally and socially we are behind, but sometimes intellectually we may be ahead of our peers. Assuming that an autistic person belongs with people of their own age group, and will necessarily have more in common with them is a big mistake.
Churches, as compared with schools can potentially offer a lot more flexibility with ages. Consider allowing an autistic teen, or even a pre-teen in an adult Bible study, volunteer activity or other small group, rather than expect them to do “fun” youth activities that they may not actually consider fun! Some autistic people may prefer topics and activities that are directed toward younger age groups. This can be a good opportunity to help a person with autism to learn to be a mentor toward younger people. Also consider whether certain activities are inherently more or less appropriate for particular ages, or if that is more based on traditional cultural assumptions. Try having a multi-age art class, for example, or an adult discussion of Veggie Tales! Remember, bullying, intolerance and social exclusion happen in churches too. This is something I’ve often seen denied by parents and church leaders, but it is definitely something that I and many other autistic and disabled people experience in churches, and it is a major reason why we often do not return after adulthood.
Now, for gender. I’ve noticed both from my own experience and many others on the spectrum that we frequently do not fit well into socially expected gender roles, and that our social difficulties are often exacerbated by being forced into same-gender/same-age groups. Many autistic guys I’ve known find more social acceptance from female friends, many autistic girls I’ve known have mostly male friends. If your church has a theology of “complementary” God-given gender roles, I would strongly ask you to re-consider it. I know I probably won’t change your mind based on this one article, but hopefully I will at least get the wheels turning! Please keep in mind that gender-nonconforming behavior in childhood or adulthood does not imply anything about an individual’s sexual orientation, and it may or may not mean identifying as transgender. I understand that churches may still want to have a men’s/women’s retreat, Bible study, etc. but please do not base too many of your activities along gender lines, and do not make assumptions about what being a man or women means- it varies with each person, and some people do not identify with either!
Smells and bells can be awesome for some autistic people- for others they can be hell.
Autistic people are wired in such a way that their senses are often extra sensitive. Many of us enjoy music, but we may have strong preferences about the volume and tonality. Some of us can’t deal with the scents of candles, incense. Maybe if you’re Catholic or Orthodox, that’s just How Things Are, and it can’t really be changed. Or maybe there’s a different service that doesn’t use those scents, or that type of music that you can switch to. Or you may need to find another church.
Autistic people often don’t like to be touched without warning so the “Sharing/Passing of the Peace” that is part of some services may be challenging for them if the congregants are especially huggy. Autistic people need to learn to watch social cues that others may be planning a hug/handshake or kiss and figure out what they’re comfortable with, and politely assert if they don’t want to be touched, either at all or in a particular way. Other autistic people love hugging, and may sometimes not understand appropriate boundaries (especially between men and women) If this issue arises, please discuss it privately with the autistic person (and their family if they are younger) and make it clear that we’re not judging you, hugging is OK, but explain boundaries and body language to be watchful of.
Many autistic people are sensitive to fabric texture and may prefer to wear casual clothing that feels more comfortable their skin. I know for myself, the feeling of lace is like wearing burlap. If that is the only reason Junior is getting upset about going to church is putting on that starched suit, count your blessings. Let him wear the sweatpants. People will be able to deal with sweatpants, tantrums- not so much. For autistic teens and adults, it may be easier to politely and discreetly suggest an affordable shopping trip to find clothing that is more comfortable but more formal. The autistic person may still not be interested. Then you may just need to be flexible, and tell people who get uncomfortable “that’s just how Joe dresses, that’s just who he is”. Remember, whatever Joe’s wearing, it’s probably better than the getups John the Baptist preferred. (OK- now there’s a Biblical dude that sounds autistic! Lived in the wilderness, ate locusts- yeah John was a little special)
Church Size: Pros and Cons
In some ways, it may seem as if a smaller church may be better suited to an autistic person than a large one. It’s hard to make that generalization however, as it really depends on the culture of the church, its structure, and the needs of the specific autistic person. Small churches can have a tendency to be cliquish and insular, and that may make it difficult for a spiritual seeker to feel welcome. But it may be easier for small church to make accommodations. It may be easier to educate the entire congregation about autism, and a particular individual’s unique needs. In a smaller church, one person can feel like they have more of an impact.
On the other hand, a larger church, simply by having more people is more likely to contain others with similar disabilities and special needs. A support group for families, or for teens, or adults on the spectrum or with disabilities in general can be formed. An autistic person with a particular special interest is more likely to find others with the same interest. But these points could be made about the size of towns and cities as well.
Class, Status and Money
In this era of uncertain economic change, many people struggle with keep employment and housing- particularly people with disabilities. Instead of asking people what they do for a living, ask them “what are your hobbies?” what is your passion? If they’re formally employed, it’s probably more interesting than what they’re paid to do, and if they’re not then they don’t have to feel bad. Churches need money to support themselves, but please be careful in how you ask for money. In religious communities in which I participate, I always try to chip in something, but sometimes it isn’t a lot. I do not like feeling pressured to donate more than I can afford. I want to be appreciated for other gifts I can offer the community. Use a closed box for offerings, so people don’t feel as if they are being compared. Having sliding scale fees for events is a good way to make sure the church is inclusive while still covering costs. Consider having mission trips that are closer to home, there is always some important work that needs to be done in your own area or region- even if it doesn’t seem as exciting as traveling to Guatemala or even New Orleans. If your community has a support group for people who are unemployed, try to re-frame it so that it is about career networking in general, because funny thing, currently employed people within the congregation will be a lot more useful to unemployed people than…other unemployed people. Recognize that everyone has different challenges that they face, including disability and age (too young or too old) and that conventional suggestions may not be helpful to everyone.
The Parents Aren’t Always Right
Churches, being very family-oriented, have a bias towards assuming that parents always know best, and do what is right for their children. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Some parents, including those with disabled children, neglect and abuse them. A child may experience developmental or social problems, but a parent may deny it and refuse to get their child help. Fellow church members and clergy should keep an eye out for these problems, talk with family and offer them support, and report to proper authorities if there is actual abuse or neglect going on. Adults with disabilities often remain dependent on their parents, financially and emotionally. Young people may be pressured into guardianship when that may not appropriate, or applying for Social Security Disability when it may not be the best option for them or shunted into sheltered workshops, group homes or institutions that may not be the best fit for them, sometimes in part because parents have very few options. Learn about resources that are available in your area and share them with individuals on the spectrum and their families.
Relationships and Sexuality
Autistic people, and people with disabilities in general, are often viewed as being asexual, or if they have a sexuality it is viewed as mostly something to be exploited by others, or with disgust. While churches place great emphasis on marriage and family, and preparing for it, often people with disabilities are excluded, or only partly and very awkwardly included. It is true that autistic people are vulnerable to sexual abuse, but that makes their sexual education all the more important. Autistics may grow up to be any sexual orientation- heterosexual, gay, bisexual, or asexual. Some may live a single life- hopefully a happy one with good supportive friends. Others may have long-term relationships and marriage. Many autistic people struggle to have healthy relationships, and some may think this an inherent part of autism, but it is not. Autistic people can have healthy partnerships and marriages with both autistic and non-autistic partners when they find the best way to deal with their autism and communicate their needs and feelings.
I realize not all of these types of sexuality and relationships are accepted in every church, and every church, religion and denomination must make their own decisions about these issues.
But please, do not tell autistic people who identify as gay or bisexual or transgender, that they have a problem. That they need to change who they are, and that who they are is sinful. I know you may say “love the sinner and hate the sin” but they will just hear “hate”. If you cannot accept them for who they are, please help them find another community who will. I would say that of anyone who is GLBT, but people with disabilities, especially youth are even more vulnerable. So many young people whose sexuality or gender identity is disapproved of, are rejected by their families, their churches, and end up homeless, and often victims of human trafficking. And GLBT communities are not necessarily any more understanding of disability and autism issues than heterosexual and cis-gender (non-trans) communities. So please, even if you can’t accept them, help make sure they are safe.
I also ask that you consider the difference between legal and religious marriage- some people may have benefits like SSDI, that may be cut back if they get legally married. If a couple comes to you with these concerns, please offer them a religious marriage that is not legally binding. The entire community doesn’t necessarily need to know it- they will still be married in their eyes. There are ways to gain some of the legal benefits of marriage in other ways.
Embracing the Eccentric
The single most important question for church that wants to be autistic-friendly is simply, does your church embrace eccentric people? Almost every church I’ve visited, of many denominations loves to trumpet how welcoming they are of all people. But I notice many of them have mostly people of similar skin colors, class/educational status, political views and so forth. And for the most part, church goers tend to be a pretty conventional bunch, because while Christianity may have started out essentially as a radical counterculture of its time, its character has shifted a bit since then. So, really honestly does your church have room for eccentric people? I am one of them, and I will tell you straight up, sorry but it probably doesn’t. Not really. There needs to be space in our culture for weird, oddball, eccentric, geeky/punky/gothy (etc) Christians. Maybe not in every church- but at least in some of them. C’mon, guys I know you can do it. Jesus did it! Embrace the eccentric! Love the stranger!