Monday, 21 September 2015

How To Pick Autistic Clergy

First of all, let's get in the right mindset for this.

Do you have any friends or relatives who are diabetic?  Are there, do you think, any Clergy who are diabetic?  Would diabetes stop someone from being an effective Priest?
I'm guessing you're agreeing that it wouldn't.

Diabetes means there is a risk of blood sugar levels being out of control for a while.  During such a time, a person may act 'out of character' until they solve it with sugar/injections/whatever they need.  Does this make them a bad person?  No, it does not.

Suppose there's a person who is diabetic and also a sociopath.  Are all diabetic people sociopaths?  No.

OK, let's look at autism.  Autism is where the brain is so highly tuned for detail that there is a risk of it overheating temporarily from time to time. Quite literally, too hot inside.  And when that happens, the person may act out of character for a short while until they solve it with a rest break somewhere quiet.  That lets the wiring literally cool down to operating temperature again.  Most balance their brain input so carefully that you'll never see it happen.  Does this make them a bad person, if it does happen occasionally?  No, it does not.  It is a physical brain wiring difference, not a disease or a lack of empathy.

Suppose there is an autistic person who is also a nasty individual.  Are all autistic people nasty? No.

Hopefully that's been a useful exercise in how to think about autism.  It's just a brain design difference.  We're lovely people, the vast majority of us.

Autistic people get to be their own expert on avoiding brain wiring overheating.  We work very hard all day long to think ahead.  Thinking about our sensory environment.  Thinking about social overload too.  And how to rest enough before and afterward a big event. We already know our limits. We've lived with them our whole lives.

We have autistic clergy aplenty, from the million autistic people in the UK.  Yes, even one or two Bishops and Archdeacons.  All doing a fine job, managing people, applying pastoral excellence, running committees, organising diaries, and being superb theologians and all else.

And for some reason, we as a church often pretend that we don't have any.  Which means most of our autistic clergy are hiding, worried that someone is going to say, "Aha - you have none of the skills we need (even if you've done the job brilliantly for years!) Be gone!".  Well, it has happened.  Unfortunately.

Now the thing is, autistic folk also cannot see people too well, nor see their body language too well. Surely that is a deficit, you say?  Well, no.  Instead, we use other senses to detect what we cannot see.  Another of our top tips is to ask really good questions and to listen really intently.  We can pick up a huge amount that others cannot - but often need a little bit of thinking time.   Not worse, just different.

If you are picking out who's going to be superb Priest, you need to be aware of autism differences.  You need to be clear that things like eye contact and face expression are not 'readable' from us.  Any more than they would be if a potential Priest was visually impaired.  Would we decide that people with some visual impairment can't be Priests?  What of Paul the Apostle, then?

You need to understand that we give literal, honest answers to literal, honest questions.  We're unbothered by making others think we're marvellous.   That's not a lack of ambition or a lack of talent.  'Selling ourselves' is something we don't do.  We're practical folk.  A good interviewer or DDO will ask good questions, and allow time for good answers - not only during an interview, but afterwards.   They will ask people who understand about autism.  They will take good advice on autism.  They will look at what the person can do.  Quite often, those feeling a Calling from God will turn out to have the most extraordinary skill set.  I've known autistic clergy with photographic memories of every verse in the Bible and Lectionary.  Ones who have extraordinary musical talents.  Ones who have a true gift with working with the young, or old, or more vulnerable groups.  Ask for a portfolio of experience.  Do a few visits to see them in action.  Just sitting in a room and doing an interview?  That will reveal nothing.  It's the wrong thing.  It's not a disability-adjusted way of doing it.  Asking a clueless clergyperson in the community what they think of someone who is autistic?  It's more likely to reveal prejudice than a useful answer.  If fellow clergy have no training in autism, they can misread it as a whole list of negative stuff. Or arrive with a whole set of myths from the ancient past, where autism was entirely misunderstood.

And if there is to be good or bad news ahead, be really clear about when that is going to be delivered. And how. And who will be there for that person, at the time and afterwards, to listen and support them.  Never, ever deliver bad news unfairly AND unexpectedly on an autistic individual, and then just show them out of the door, with no support in place.   Again, take good advice from your autism advisers on what to say and when, and how.  Yes, Priests have to deal with a lot of the unexpected.   But the most devastating news of all is arguably to tell someone autistic who has a calling from God that they are mistaken about it.  That they have imagined it. That their way of accessing spirituality is 'wrong'.  That they have nothing to offer God other than vague stuff anyone else could do.  

Autistic people are amongst the most spiritual, and most dedicated Christians I know.  The level of care, love, dedication and passion for this faith is beyond measure.  If a post is not right for us, we will need to know what we can do about that.  We will know to know a next step, an alternative, a way forward.  Arguably, so does everyone else. But, for us, 'what next' is so important.  Right away, not days later.

Our dedication in getting to that point of asking to serve God, to let His love and presence be glimpsed through the lens of autism?  That has already taken breathtaking courage....endless dedication....unending hope.  And sheer love.

It is never something we enter into lightly, unaware of the challenges we face.  Really, really listen.  Really explore.  Because what you have there is what Jesus found in his friend Nicodemus.  Someone who was baffled by the occasional verbal expression, but was there for him 'through hell and high water'...and there for him at the tomb at the very end...when so many had fled.  I'd want that friend, the same as Jesus did.  Find out why.

Me, I'd not volunteer for the job, ever.  I don't have the skill set.  I can run a company and lead worship and steer charities to great success....but my own skill set is not that of a Priest.  I know this, and wouldn't dream of trying to do a job I cannot do.  Others of my autistic clergy colleagues - goodness me, they have been God's voice and hands to me.  His love shines through them so very very clearly, and I speak with so many who are thrilled that they serve Him.  Don't judge our disability.  Judge us, as individuals.  Fairly, and respectfully, and carefully.