Friday 19 August 2016

Church: What does 'Autism Accessible/Friendly" mean?

I'm sometimes asked what we mean, when we say a church is 'autism friendly'.

It's a difficult one to answer.

It was an honour to write the main guidelines for the Church of England, in collaboration with the main charities and many fine people.  They can be found at  on the Diocese of Oxford's website.

There's a Top Ten Tips page in there for a quick run-through.

We have seen a tripling of 'autism-friendly' churches in the last two years.  I'm counting the ones who have gone to the CofE website A Church Near You, and ticked the box for autism friendliness.  This is of course no guarantee, but it's a start. If yours hasn't, have a think about the info above. 

It's 1 in 30 of your parishioners.  We're just as likely to be Christians as anyone else, research shows.  We know that churches which are autism-friendly grow faster than other churches.  The simple things that help us will help everyone else too.

But there's something else that is increasingly important.  Something that defines whether we feel welcome, or not.

Autism isn't a disease, or a mental health condition.  It is part of human diversity.  Even the medical journal, The Lancet, agrees on this. 

God built us this way.  It comes with strengths, as well as challenges in today's busy, noisy, over-bright world. 

It's a sensory processing and social processing difference.  Genuinely different.  Most of us do not have 'meltdowns'.  Research shows us to be generally more moral than others, more honest, more dedicated to our passionate interests. Our senses can detect things that others cannot.  Ours can be a wonderful inner world, and we socialise very nicely with other autistic people.  We often haven't a clue what non-autistic people are doing with their wildly variable social signalling...but there again, they don't know what we're doing either.  We are different.  Both systems are OK.  We can't see faces very well.  That does not mean that we are uncaring.

If you look at our skill sets, arguably we helped build many of the churches and cathedrals.  We might well be running the services, singing in the choir, playing the organ.  Praying with people. 

Here's an illustration of a myth.  "We can't have autistic people in church because they are too disruptive".  Arguably, it's autistic people building and running the churches, with others.  A shame if we can build it, but are not able to worship in it.

An autism-friendly church will try to ensure that prayer-for-cure doesn't happen without our consent.  It's not a disease.  

Churches could instead find out about sensory needs, and see what simple, cost-effective things can be done to help.  Sunglasses?  Noise cancelling headphones?  Quiet space to retreat to?  Churches could find out how it feels to sit on your own each week, and see if we can be linked to friendly people to sit with.

Because of the myths, many assume that it's a behavioural condition involving us just not understanding how to behave.  Not so.  We may behave and respond differently, because we are genuinely different. 

Some churches give a lot of money to places that use abusive 'therapies'.  These get us to behave as if we are not autistic.  That is the same as 'gay cure therapies'.  It's not appropriate.

Look for charities that have autistic people leading them.  Autistic people talking about their work, for themselves, or displaying their work for themselves.  Not being used as 'inspiration' as they sit there staring passively at a camera. 

Watch out for places claiming that there is a "real person" hidden behind the autism.  We're already real.  It'd be like claiming there was a 'real person' hidden behind the colour of someone's skin.  Insulting, not enabling.  Well, it is.

And, in your church, find out our strengths.  Include us as friends, partners, true members of the church. 

Get really good advice.  There's lots out there.  Ask actual autistic people.  We can speak/communicate.  Some of us are professionals, working nationally and internationally.  Look out for the #actuallyautistic hashtag on Twitter.  Read some blogs by autistic leaders.  Get the Neurotribes book by Steve Silberman.  It gives the history of how the myths emerged.

Get to know us.  Met one autistic person?  Go meet some more.  It's worth it.

Thank you for listening, and caring.