On Saturday I wrote a post for Autism Awareness Day, and ever since then, thoughts about autism, disability, the church and goodness knows what else have been bouncing around my head. It’s like a whack-a-mole game in there sometimes.
One thing that’s been interesting this week has been the way in which Autism Awareness Day/Week/Month is framed in terms of language. Some autistic commentators prefer the use of ‘acceptance’ over ‘awareness’; others find that, on April 2nd, they become a resource for everyone who wants their awareness of autism raising and that becomes exhausting when you find social interaction difficult in the first place.
All that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how this relates to autism and the church, because that’s my hobby horse. And if autism is a spectrum, so is our ecclesiastical response to it.
It starts with awareness, of course, it has to. There has to be a recognition that autism is actually incredibly widespread, and you’ll encounter it in many different ways, and that, statistically speaking, there are autistic people sitting in our pews so this isn’t something that can be ignored because it only affects a small number of people. And that means we have to do our homework – one of the spiritual buzzwords of the moment is ‘missional’, so maybe think about taking this approach.
How you do that homework matters. Talking to your autistic church members and their families is important, because each person is different and will therefore need different support. But here’s the thing – those individuals aren’t simply a source of information. They are – or should be, hint hint – respected and treasured and valued members of the community, and therefore they’re not just their to answer questions. Some will find that exhausting, some will find it emotionally bruising because they have to explain this to everyone – teachers, employers, statutory authorities, bureaucrats – and half the time they’re not believed or they’re patronised or they’re treated as defendants in court rather than people telling their story.
In other words, sorry, but sometimes you just need to flippin’ Google it. And sometimes your church is going to have to free up time and funds so you can get external support or training.
I wonder if there’s a tension here with the value that the church has placed on personal testimony. Telling your story is a powerful thing, but not everyone’s going to be able to do that to order, not everyone’s going to be able to do that without a lot of emotional exhaustion and anxiety, and not everyone’s prepared to be a go-to expert on all things autism when what they really need is to be able to go to church and be spiritually fed and be accepted.
That acceptance is vital, as awareness alone isn’t enough; we start with it but we can’t end there. If awareness doesn’t lead to acceptance then it just becomes informed exclusion. If awareness doesn’t lead to acceptance, then autism – or any disability – is seen as nothing but a problem rather than a fundamental part of an individual’s identity. That’s not to say additional support isn’t often needed for disabilities, but that support should be provided willingly and joyfully and yes, sacrificially, because we accept these individuals into our church communities and want the best for them, not the scraps from our table.
Or, to put it another way, if you’re moaning about installing a wheelchair ramp, what does that say about your attitude to the person in that chair?
But, as mentioned in this blog post that everyone with an interest in this should read, we can’t just stay at acceptance either. It’s a language thing – for instance, we come to accept something after moving through the stages of grief. And if we want to see autism as something more than just a problem that eats up time and money and resources, then we need to move on to appreciation.
My kids are both autistic. They’re also both better than me at a lot of things , even though I’ve got a thirty year head start – figuring out practical stuff, remembering things, being artistic, being honest about their feelings. All of these things and more are tied up with their autistic identity. Look, I’ll be honest – this awareness-acceptance-appreciation thing is a spectrum that I bounce around on an hourly basis, but I need to appreciate, every day, that both their gifts and their difficulties are bound up in their own personal identity – just like everyone else. And I’d challenge the church in general to work at getting better at this. Maybe I do hold the church to a higher standard than the rest of society, but that’s because we’re meant to be the Body of Christ here on earth and we should be better at seeing the image of God in everyone who walks through our doors, whether they’re neurotypical or not. And maybe that’s something we all need to learn – Jesus doesn’t just accept us. He loves us as well, and that’s what we need to reflect to the communities around us.
(There’s a great speech from Steve Silberman on honouring those on the ASD spectrum here.)