Are you aware that 1 in 30 of the children, young people and adults are autistic?
Are you aware that autism is a brain design, from birth, that stays with people for life?
Are you aware that it's not a mental health condition? (Although after a lifetime of experiencing loneliness and hatred, many develop anxiety or depression). That it's as likely to be females, for example? That it's any IQ, any background? That it is usually an invisible thing, so you cannot spot an autistic person by just looking?
Are you aware that it is a different communication system and culture to that of non-autistic people?
Autistic people may not give eye contact. They can either hear, or look, but not both. It is not a sign of guilt or unwillingness to engage.
Some autistic people find it difficult to identify faces, but can be expert at identifying people from mannerisms, build, smell, voice, hairstyle, clothing, etc.
Are you aware that most autistic people process sound, light, perfume, texture and taste differently to others? They may take in too much sensory information and become totally overwhelmed. When that happens, they may have a brain event, similar in principle to a sort of epilepsy. During that, they may behave erratically for a short time, or may 'shut down' Recovery somewhere quiet is needed for a while. It's not a deliberate piece of nastiness or refusal to engage. They may need an environment that is away from flickering overhead bright lighting and background noise, or otherwise may not be able to speak to give evidence.
Are you aware that there is no link to greater violence, nastiness or other antisocial behaviour, and that there is usually a huge desire to act in moral and fair ways? Many have strengths of honesty, integrity, diligence, passionate focus on specialist areas, deep caring for others. Whether verbal or not.
Let's look briefly at the communication difficulties that an autistic young person may have in disclosing to a person in church:
a) Some may not use spoken language, but may rely on technology to 'speak' for them. Do we enable this? Do we understand that 8 out of 10 autistic people may struggle to speak in stressful situations, so may need allowances for this.
b) They may have delayed processing of emotions and facts. So, may not report for some time. This can be misinterpreted as 'not very serious' or 'not to be taken seriously'. It's vital to give people enough time to process what has happened.
c) Their faces may not display the matching emotion to that felt, so someone may appear happy when they are desperately afraid, or may appear angry when they are desperately sad. It is vital not to misinterpret this.
d) Autistic people need certainty, and will ask questions until they obtain certainty. If you're not certain of a set of answers, say so. If a timescale is vague, give an outline of that vagueness, e.g. "I do not know but I will check with person X...and contact you again by date Y to let you know the latest, if anything". Not, "I don't know. I'll let you know when I find out.". Having some certainty of further contact may be vital.
e) Autistic people will be persistent. This is culturally expected in the autistic communities and is not an attempt at being harassing.
f) Autistic people will tend to give too much information, in enormous detail, possibly as one monologue that has to be completed. This is culturally expected in the autistic communities also, and is not a sign of 'not caring about the workload of the clergy' etc.
g) 70% of autistic women report unwanted sexual contact. 30% report rape. We know from the recent Inquiry into the CofE safeguarding situation that churches have not been safe places. There will be more cases where autistic individuals have been targets.
I want us to reflect on those statistics. The pain involved. The humiliation. The fear. So few go forward to Court, because the barriers are too great.
h) 30% of autistic people are part of the LGBTQ communities, and may be terrified of disclosing that also, in some churches. If they have been targeted, there may thus be double barriers to justice.
Some autistic people may not understand what is normal in a relationship, and may be very naïve about it. This can make them ideal 'prey' for a predator, telling them that 'this is normal', or 'this means I care about you' or 'God wanted me to do this'.
Autistic people may be terrified of disclosing, or giving evidence, because they have so often not been believed. "You must have imagined it...you must have misunderstood...you must have been having a bad day and it just seemed bad...they're such a nice person and obviously they wouldn't do that to you...". That, and the myths about how autistic people are 'dangerous' have been a huge barrier. It has been so easy for any predator to say, "We all know that autistic people are nasty. They just want to hurt me. I'm the victim here."
If we do not have a system that understands autism, we are failing the 2 million autistic people in the country. We are failing them when they edge towards faith communities. They are as likely to want to be members of a worshipping community as anyone else.
Who in your church knows about autism?
Who are you getting your information from?
Are you getting information directly from the autistic professionals, who are experienced in teaching churches how to ensure safety?
Or are you getting it from a group of people who met an autistic person once and did a day's course in it? [From a recent example...]
Who is delivering your training? Is it done with autistic people, and is it designed by autistic people? What input did autistic people have? Have they checked it and said it is accurate?
I've seen a lot of dreadful 'training' happening in churches, from people who have ended up describing us in appalling ways that have made it harder to disclose, not easier.
Please, get some good advice.
The link at the bottom is a good starting point. The Welcoming guidelines for the Church of England. Although of course autistic people are already in churches, some of them as Clergy, musicians, bellringers, craftspeople, artists, poets, authors, prayer partners, Server, Readers...in fact all the roles. The guide is one I wrote for the Church of England. I don't work for the CofE now, but still help friends in there as an external adviser. Inclusive Church have some contacts for autism as well. Ask for Autism Oxford to do some training, perhaps, or any other good group that includes and respects autistic voices.
Too many autistic people have to live with what happened to them. They need to know who to talk to, or who to write to, in safety. Do they know?
They're relying on your help.
The picture at the top is one I took in a church. It shows Mary, the mother of Jesus, with the baby Jesus in her arms. She is sitting down, looking at him with love. A shaft of light is falling on him.
For me, it says everything about the care we need to give to one another, all part of God's creation.