Before I knew that people were people, I knew that God existed, and that I was loved by Him.
As a child, I was functionally non-verbal for some years. I could repeat phrases and sentences, or individual words - but I had no idea what any of it was for. My speech either wouldn't happen at all, or I would speak slowly and clumsily. Even now, speech can abandon me when I am in 'shutdown'.
As one of the visual-thinker autistic folk, I think in pictures, not words. Words have no meaning at all in my brain, even now. Or on paper. All the time, I'm imagining what something looks like, or does.
I learned about God and Jesus from pictures. From texture. From warmth. From touch. From scents. From pattern. I still do.
With senses that take in vast detail from the world around me, mine is a world experienced as intensity and beauty. As breathtaking marvel.
I find God, and joy, in things large and small. An endless sky. The peaceful sleeping of a newborn baby. In the beauty of stained glass and choral music. In the companionship of friends. In a carved stone, given with love by a dear friend. Especially that stone. The coolness, living in a world with a brain that wants to run 'too hot'. The smoothness, in a world that so often feel painful to the touch. The message of hope written upon it. And the significance of the friendship. All bound up in that link to God. He who made heaven and earth. The dust from which we are made...which also makes that very stone.
So easy to think, "Oh look, some autistic person who is focussed on a pebble - bless 'em".
Our spirituality isn't easily said in words. But it so often runs deep. Deeper than the deepest ocean.
Ours is not a pale shadow of 'real' faith, 'real' love, 'real' gift to God. It is something marvellous. Something extraordinary. Something to explore, and learn of, and cherish as fellow travellers on the path that Jesus set for us. Our gifts in sharing God's love with others? Those are not a broken version of 'real pastoral skills'.
The times in my life when I have felt alone? It's often been autistic people-of-faith (whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or others) who have been there for me. Offering love, and listening, and caring. Not once have they grown tired and walked away. Not once have they judged me and condemned me. Not once have they shoved burdens onto me to make themselves feel better. A lifetime of life in and amongst autistic folk of every kind, whether verbal or not. As companions, colleagues, friends, faith leaders. It has been a shame that, during the worst of times, it's often been those of other faiths who have wanted to see my humanity...and a few of those of my own faith who have lined up with condemnation. "People like you are a danger to others....people like you have no souls....people like you can't be real Christians...people like you are evil...people like you are self centred, lack empathy, can't be trusted...I'd never be alone with someone like you - think of the risk I'd be taking". Goodness me, imagine if this was the narrative of your faith and humanity, taught to you by some others of that faith. Just imagine. I am grateful to Christian friends who have tried hard to undo the damage of others in our own faith. Many Christians are lovely folk. I am not for one moment saying that all are bad. But I am relating a narrative that has been there my whole life, in our churches, from some. A narrative that I and so many others want to help change, for the better.
That we live in a society where some so desperately wants to see us as broken, damaged, in need of fixing, sure to fail? Some desperately want that to be true. So desperately that they will do anything to prove they're right. It's then like taking a dazzling, musical, rainbow-hued bird of paradise from the trees, holding it under water, and saying, "There, see how it struggles and fights - told you they were dangerous/ useless/ unsuited to God's purpose - look, no singing at all!". No, really, it is like that. A lifetime of some people trying to 'drown' us to prove something untrue? Putting us into situations where of course we're going to fail...and never once enabling us to succeed...using just such simple cost-free adaptations? No wonder we are tired. No wonder some are damaged by it. What have we thrown away through such thinking?
Go find an autistic person of faith. Talk about that faith, as friends. Instead of thinking you are teaching us, listen. Watch. Learn. Look beyond words, to art, and movement, to sound and pattern. To our music and our stillness, our patience and our honesty. To these and so many other wonderful things. You will find a wisdom. And friendship. And faithfulness. Things new and amazing. And you will find someone dearly beloved of God, right there, before you.