Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Autism Myths and Religious Faith - Surprising Stuff

I've worked with faith groups for more than 20 years.  I was one of the ASPARRG group, looking at autism, spirituality and faith issues with Professor John Swinton, Olga Bogdashina and many well known others. http://www.bodyhealthreligion.org.uk/ASPARRG/members.html

I wrote the CofE autism guidelines for churches, commissioned by the Diocese of Oxford, and with contributions from so many excellent people and groups. http://www.oxford.anglican.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/autism_guidelines.pdf I speak at church and faith conferences, and have friends of all faiths and none.  My own faith is so central to my life.

But...those autism myths...let's have a look at a common one about religion.  "Those autistic people can't have an understanding of God".  Sometimes it's more blunt than that, and the speaker announced, glibly, that "People like that don't have souls".  Oh dear.  Dehumanising, 'othering', damaging, horrible myths.  The moment we announce that people aren't human, well...we know where it leads, don't we...Our history involved a lot being put to death under extremist regimes last century, described as 'useless eaters' and worse.  It's a history of my people that is only just starting to come into public recognition.  A history of eugenics and hate.  Even now, autistic people live lives on average 16 years shorter than those of others, often because of the relentless hate and pain, loneliness, incorrect medical treatment, and lack of understanding.

'But, where's the research about autistic people even being interested in faith, Ann', I imagine some might say.  Aha, there is research.  For example, that done by Chris Bonnello, a mathematician.  He asked 477 people for their views on a variety of things.  81 of the people were autistic.  This is what they had to say about religion in a question:

Two pictures, showing results from the statement "I have religious faith: Strongly agree, agree, neither agree nor disagree, disagree, or strongly disagree".
The autistic people in the survey? 46% said yes, they have a religious faith.
The non-autistic people in the survey?  39% said yes, they have a religious faith.
We learn that the 'I might be autistic' group had the same sort of pattern.
Probably not a great statistical difference between the groups. 
The only real difference between the two pictures is for 'neither agree nor disagree'.  23% of non-autistic people ticked this.   Only 13% of the autistic people did.

So, autistic people are every bit as religious and faith-filled as non-autistic ones, in this survey. 

Who are our faith leaders, though?

We know that, for example, only about 350 out of 16,000 CofE churches have ticked the A Church Near You box to say they are 'autism friendly'.  A search online doesn't reveal any number of others announcing it.  I don't even know where to start looking for all the other faiths and denominations for that data.  But I do know how hard it is to access faith services, in many places. I'm blessed with a truly lovely faith community of my own, and a Vicar and team who enable me to lead informal worship for a small group, setting up a dementia service with others, be on the PCC, be a prayer partner to so many in confidential settings....contributing to it all - not being a 'burden'.  Goodness me, no-one is a burden, whether they can do those things or not.  God loves each person the same. It isn't a competition to see who is the most able.

So, a million autistic people in the UK.  People of faith, the same as other people.  A third are likely to be part of the LGBT+ community also.  All are people who are much loved by God, with gifts to bring to any faith group.  Prayer, worship, specialised abilities, immense morality and honesty, patience and determination when set to a task.  And so many desperate to know more about God.

God was the first individual that I knew existed.  God's presence was the first thing I understood.  And it's been God who has been there for me in the darkest times.  Even when I was non-verbal and unable to tell another person what it was like for me.  I encounter God through pattern, through colour, through nature, through safe touch, through justice, through safety, through music...and so much more.   I can't 'hear' God.  But I know He's there.  What of 'that of God in each autistic person?'

We cannot say to a part of humanity, "God didn't want you - he decided you were too much trouble to bother with".  The exact opposite is true.  And that, my friends, is the question that God has asked of us all:  How do we respond that that of God which is autistic?

How do we respond to those autistic people who wish to know more about their faith, and join in with faith activities?  In any faith group?  It's a human right, to be able to access a faith, if people so wish.  Do we wish to deny people that very human right?  Surely not.
I am speaking at conferences this year on this very subject.    I'd ask all who are involved in the lives of autistic people to think about the role of faith...the role of being able to have a choice about it...the part that it could bring to lives often desperately lonely and cruelly cut short.  It's a personal choice, faith.  Of course it is.  But right now, most autistic people are given no choice at all.  And that's not OK.

I'd ask that we do our very best for autistic people too.