We recognize that this is an unusual and even unprecedented time to be doing ministry. This post pertains to more normal times, and you may not find it relevant in the next few weeks. However, we are also aware that, with many of us working from home, some people may have more time to read blog posts now than they usually do. We hope that you will be able to read this now and use its guidance at such a time as our activities return to normal.
April is Autism Awareness Month. While the organization Autism Speaks uses the slogan “light it up blue” during April, many autistic self-advocates rally behind the hashtag #RedInstead and advocate for autism acceptance instead of just awareness. This push reflects the “nothing about us without us” mantra within the disability rights movement—the contention that people with disabilities must be included in and indeed central to decisions about disability policy.
As an autistic adult, here are five pieces of advice I have for welcoming autistic people into your church community:
- Consider making services more sensory-friendly. This might mean rethinking the lighting you use in services or turning down the pastor’s microphone. If you have older or hard-of-hearing members at your church, it may be necessary to get creative in order to balance the needs of those members with the needs of autistic members who may find loud noises distressing.
- Have discussions as a church about what it looks like for autistic church members to be present for services. Having sensory-friendly services is part of this, but there’s more to the story, too. Autistic people may need to stim (short for “self-stimulate”) in order to get the sensory input they need to stay calm or pay attention. This could look like playing with a handheld toy, spinning around in the aisles, making repetitive noises, arm-flapping, or something else entirely. This might be distracting or distressing for other church members to be around, and, again, it may be necessary find creative solutions to balance various members’ needs.
- Learn more about autism. Shortly after I joined the church I currently attend, the choir sang a piece with the line “Look people warmly in the eye.” The children’s sermon that week was about the importance of making eye contact with people in order to make them feel seen, and the adult sermon reiterated that point, talking specifically about the importance of making eye contact with people experiencing homelessness. As an autistic person, I felt utterly excluded from the message that week. Eye contact is often physically painful for me, sometimes to the point of being impossible. I was left feeling like I had failed before I began. I doubt anyone meant for me to feel this way, but delivering exclusionary messages is a risk you run when you lack knowledge of a topic. Just as it’s important to learn about the experiences of people whose race, gender, of sexual orientation differs from your own, it’s also important to learn about the experiences of people whose brains work differently than yours. If you’re looking for a crash course in autism, this blog post of mine is a decent starting point.
- Reshape passing of the peace. Physical touch is often an area of sensitivity for people on the spectrum, and the passing of the peace was one of the worst parts of my week for my entire childhood and teenage years. My current pastors use the phrase “Please greet one another in a manner that is comfortable for you,” which leaves room for me to share the peace without physical touch, which makes church a much calmer and more pleasant experience for me. (COVID-19 has made many of us much more aware of what we touch, which may add to this discussion and make it easier to get people to realize that touch need not be mandatory.)
- Host a forum about autism or neurodiversity more broadly. I started exploring the possibility of getting diagnosed with autism after hearing a forum at my church about autism while I was in my early twenties. No one had ever raised the possibility that I might have autism before this forum—which is common for those of us who are raised as girls. Getting diagnosed earlier makes it easier to get appropriate treatment and accommodations, and it also helps people avoid misdiagnosis and inappropriate treatments. Since church forums are one place where people are sometimes exposed to information they weren’t necessarily looking for, which makes them a good place to educate people about this sort of topic.
The goal of this post isn’t to urge you to shape every practice in your church around your autistic members at the expense of everyone else. There will be times when it’s necessary to balance different people’s needs, and it’s likely that no one will be completely satisfied or comfortable all the time. But things like encouraging people to share the peace in a manner that is comfortable for them are easy ways ensure that everyone has a little more control over their experience. And if you’re wondering about how to make Sunday school a better experience for autistic kids in your congregation, check out this blog post.