Being a Christian with Autism often comes with a feeling of being the hand to whom the eye says, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). The basic elements of autism are difficulty reading body language and non-verbal communication, impaired motor skills, difficulty with eye contact, unusually strong senses, difficulty with symbolic language and humor, ability to hyper-focus, and an excellent memory. Because of situations stemming from these traits, we too often feel our contributions, as well as our peculiar discomforts in a Church community, are disregarded, which leads to pain and confusion. I think there are ways Churches can both accommodate areas of weakness and how they can utilize the gifts and talents of their autistic brothers and sisters.
Valuable Part of the Body of Christ
Christians with Autism are a valuable part of the Church, with unique strengths and weaknesses. We are a minority within humanity and Christ’s Body. Therefore, we should, on the one hand, be treated in an understanding way, with proper accommodations and charity shown them, while also guarding against resentment towards mistreatment, whether intentional or unintentional.
Neurotypical (those with the nervous system of most people) Christians and Autistic Christians, by understanding one another’s strengths and weaknesses, can grow up in Christ together. Autistics have much to offer the Body of Christ and help it flourish. We should neither be dismissed by others nor hide our God-given talents.
Working With Autistic Children and Adults
One important area for accommodating autistic adults and children, but especially children (as they tend to be less adapted), is Sunday School. In teaching Sunday School, teachers should know the signs of Autism. Students with a diagnosis or in whom they see the symptoms should be understood. They may appear not to be paying attention, staring away from the teacher, or fidgeting. Teachers should understand this does not mean students are not paying attention and in fact, may mean they are trying to focus. Know that it can be incredibly difficult for Autistics to listen while looking at the speaker.
Additionally, Autistic people will experience sensory overload and become unable to handle situations most non-Autistics would feel comfortable. Sensory overload is a very real shutdown of the nervous system and slowing of the body’s processing system. If a student becomes unable to handle the classroom, accommodations such as letting them leave in the middle of class, changing the lighting in the room, or otherwise altering whatever environmental input is overwhelming them should be taken. Different stressors will trigger overload in different people, and these triggers may also change with age, life events, or how long it’s been since their last meal.
While the Autistic person may eventually adapt, it is an act of Christian care to accommodate for us as we would do with a Christian in a wheelchair. Many children with Autism, if treated as a burden, or told they are exaggerating in such situations, may pull away from the Church as they grow older, and see it as dangerous rather than a safe and life-giving place.
Worship services differ between various Christian communions and will thus present different challenges. However, in all settings of a gathered assembly, we can become quickly overwhelmed. Large crowds, or even small ones, can be overwhelming, especially when Christian show genuine love toward each other with hugging and laughing. This true affection can be taken the wrong way. All Churches should understand the apparent coldness (or running away rapidly) that Autistics may display in such settings. Autistics are part of Christ’s Body; a part that should be encouraged to stay and be part of that happy, loud fellowship. One way to help is to encourage us to find a place to sit or stand where it is easier to handle the sensory input.
Autism and the Worship Service
In Evangelical Churches, music is one of the main parts of worship that can be overwhelming for Autistics. The noise of the worship band can have quite the opposite effect from what is intended, leading to Autistic people finding worship an unpleasant experience. That being said, I do know an Autistic brother who plays an electric guitar at his church!
In Orthodox, Lutheran, and Catholic Churches, many Autistic children (and perhaps some adults) may find the communion line a stressful event. The people, the motion, and often the speed may become too much to process properly. Churches in which communicants form lines to receive Communion should be sensitive to this and work with Autistic members to alleviate their stress. Perhaps have them commune either first or last and not in the middle of lots of people. A commotion and crowd makes it much harder for an Autistic person to focus while receiving the Supper, which is very stressful since the importance of the moment calls for the utmost focus and reverence.
Also, making the whole Church aware of our struggles (which should be checked with the person with Autism first) and willing to encourage them is important.
People with Autism have a sensory processing system that differs from Neurotypicals and from each other. Different Autistic individuals will find various sights, tastes, sounds, and smells either soothing or jarring. Indeed, all people have quirky likes and dislikes, preferred foods, music, etc. Because Autistics have a heightened nervous system and feel sensations much more strongly than most others, these are not just preferences they make our surroundings either unbearable or extremely comforting. As the Church, we are to bear with one another. This means accommodating each other. The Autistic Christian should understand, for example, that people should be allowed to wear perfume and those with less sensitive hearing need the sermon projected. The Neurotypical Christians can accommodate by not being offended or critical if the Autistic person, to use the same examples, doesn’t get close to them because of the perfume’s smell or always sits in the back to lessen the noise. These are just common examples of what will necessarily differ between individuals and Churches. In all cases, we should be ruled by mutual love, understanding, and honest communication.
Autism and Abuse
Because we have trouble reading our environment and body language, Autistic people of all ages are especially vulnerable to sexual assault. We may not realize a person is dangerous until it is too late. We also will have a great deal of trouble expressing at all, let alone clearly, that we have been or are routinely being assaulted.
All sexual assault victims have a great deal of shame and difficulty processing and responding to their situation. In any such situation, trust has been violated. This is magnified in a Church setting, where the abuser has taken advantage of people’s trust in order to gain access to his or her victims. People are ready to believe the abuser as it is often a person with respect and standing within the Church.
Autistic people’s difficulty using the right body language and people’s propensity to disbelieve us about most things. As a result of this, it makes our vulnerability that much higher. The Church has a moral (and often legal) obligation to protect these defenseless sheep. To protect us (and others) Churches should be careful who they allow into positions of power or opportunity. Sunday School teachers, pastors, priests, janitors, and anyone else entrusted with authority or access should have background checks. A good person would be willing to have a background check. Also, as with all victims, believe those who come to you for help. Especially with Autistics, who may not speak for years or properly express ourselves when we do.
Please put up necessary boundaries, make the congregation aware of the signs of sexual abuse, and be watchful for Autistic people before they wander into a dangerous situation in Church or outside. Be sensitive to those who do come forward make them feel safe and protected. As with any victim, avoid disbelieving them, telling them to go privately to their abuser, or telling them to simply ignore the abuse.
Moving to a very different issue, Autistic people often use repetitious motions to calm sensory overload. These actions are called stims. Stimming is done when stress, anxiety, and sensations begin to build up. Stress and sensations cause tension or tingling. The overwhelming feeling can cause us to panic, be short of breath, and develop cramping or even bad blood pressure. Autistic people use stims to calm themselves.
Almost all people have things they do which are often called nervous habits, such as clicking pens or lightly squeezing their hand. But because of our social unawareness and because our senses are heightened (due to having several times as much serotonin as non-Autistics), our stims are much more intense. To an unaware observer, it may look strange or scary. Autistics often stim by spinning in chairs, flapping their hands, and other movements which are easily misunderstood (sometimes even by others with Autism). These stims are often done without much or any awareness and may be actions, which in other circumstances would be indicative of self-harm. When I was a teenager, I had a stim of taking a knife and tapping into the counter with it while casually conversing with family members! I was unaware that I was even doing so, but most people would be concerned by such activity!
This is an area where I think it is best for us as Autistics to accommodate others, especially in a Church setting. Finding less shocking stims, ones that will not cause as much misunderstanding or rejection would be best. I suggest squeezing one’s hand quietly or having in your pocket an object such as a small stone or ammonite to rub.
Teaching and Autism
An area that many traditional Protestant and Catholic Churches especially can work on accommodating Autistics is catechesis. One of my Catholic friends says, “Much like traditional schooling, catechetical instructors must be attentive to the needs of their students, be educated in caring for all types of kids, and put those practices in place. Almost all our instruction is volunteer (lay lead), so this is a huge area that could be improved.” The same is true in Reformed and Lutheran Churches, although their catechism classes are more often elder led.
An area that many Orthodox and Reformed Churches especially can work on is reducing the fear many parents have of having or admitting their child is different. Often, parents in these churches are afraid something is wrong with them or are embarrassed to have a child who is different. Especially the older generations are afraid to even get therapy or a diagnosis and feel they and their child will be stigmatized and looked down on if their Church community finds out. Often this is, in fact, the case, though younger people in these communities are beginning to be more of aware of mental and neurological health issues. Church leaders should work on destigmatizing disability, emphasizing the doctrines already present in these traditions of all people as equally Image Bearers and equally redeemed by Christ’s blood. This can be done by mentioning the issue directly in sermons and Sunday Schools, emailing the members with helpful information, or hosting events to discuss mental and neurological health of all kinds including Autism.
Autism and Boundaries
One area all Christians should address is boundaries. Many Christians have a more worldly than Christian view of boundaries. While there are truly toxic and abusive people who it is acceptable to limit interaction with, Christians are called by Christ to love each other and if a man asks for your coat give him your shirt as well. I have heard of pastors who justified or even recommended people cut off anyone who made them uncomfortable or who they found too weird. This resulted in Christians feeling justified in excluding Autistic people who were struggling in life but trying to be in the Church.
Such an attitude is not Christian. As Christians, we are called to a level of vulnerability, risk, and openness. We are called to take down the boundaries we naturally form against those “not of our tribe.” We are called to love our enemies, our friends, the foreigner, the fatherless, the widow, and the stranger. Autistics are strangers in their land and culture, having difficulty in forming relationships but longing for acceptance and friendship. As hard as it is to embrace us, it is hard for us to let down the defensive walls we have formed and embrace Neurotypicals, let us be open and vulnerable with each other.
Communication is key. Different Churches are different, and all Autistics and Neurotypicals are individuals. The best way we can accommodate each other is understanding and communication. In all our varied circumstances, Churches should be aware and made aware of Autism. Congregations should be equipped on how to understand Autistics and why we have the responses to stimuli that we do. Reasonable accommodations should be made in a spirit of love and welcoming them into the Body of Christ. Let all things be done in a spirit of love and humility.