Thursday 20 September 2018

Autistic and Trying to Find a Faith Community?

I'll start by saying that this contains discussion of faith communities whose behaviour hasn't been ideal, further down, so comes with a content warning for that.

I'm an external adviser to churches.  I'm brought in by some to help explain what autism is, and help prevent mistakes, misunderstandings and problematic ideas.

I'd like a world where autistic people have the choice of looking for a safe, welcoming faith community.  No-one should have to explore a faith if they don't want to.   But if you do want to, the last thing you need is a faith community that doesn't want you there.  That's not OK.

So, what should you look for?  I'll talk here about churches, since that's my own faith.  But the same things may be true for other faiths, too.

Firstly, maybe ask other autistic people locally if they know of a good church.  Online autism groups, perhaps?

Maybe there's information online about places that are welcoming for autistic people.  For example in the UK, there's a site called You can put the word Autism in the search box, and a town or city location, and it may show some nearby from the Church of England.  Alternatively, the Inclusive Church network has churches that wish to include as many people as possible, and who should be willing to work with autistic people to find safe and accessible ways to be fully included 

Have a look for the website and details of that church.  Anything online that gives you a clue what sort of church it is.  Some have online recordings of their teachings (sermons).

Churches have different ideas about disability or neurodiversity.  It depends on the leaders of the church and their own background.

Jesus was pretty brilliant with neurodiversity and disability.  He had an autistic friend, Nicodemus, for example.  And he usually asked people what they would like for themselves; he didn't just barge in and do things to them without their consent.

It'd be good to find churches that are like that.  Churches where people see you as a friend, and want to know what works for you (if you want to share that information with them).

As we know, autism is a neurodiversity, not a disease. Although, many are severely disadvantaged, and some need support for particular things (just like everyone else does - but our things are more particular).  On average, autistic people are more fair, more keen on social justice, more accurate, more determined to follow rules.  More loyal, and more focused on our specialist areas.  Some are church leaders, musicians, prayer partners, children's team members and all sorts of other roles in church.  So, it's important that a church is willing to learn what it is. And to realise it's every age, gender, background, IQ.

Many autistic people, as we know, also have major sensory and social differences.  We socialise differently, and we encounter the world differently.  It can be too bright, too loud, too intense.  We may use different body language and different speech and writing patterns, which are our culture and our way of communicating (not a broken version of 'real' communication).   So we need churches that are keen to learn about the different communication, and keen to help us stay in sensory and social situations where our brain can cope OK.

Some of us need a bit of extra support, for example knowing what sensory and social hazards are ahead of us in that church service or event.  It is important to have a church that doesn't do the whole eye-rolling thing where this is seen as a Huge Burden.  We are all members of God's church, all loved, all important.  All part of the Body of Christ.  We're not a burden.

So, what different ideas about autism might a church leader have?  Important to start by saying that lots of church leaders are great.  I am part of several absolutely fantastic church groups, now, filled with people I love spending time with.  It's possible.  They're out there.

But here's a few sorts to be wary of (and this applies to many religions, not just Christianity):

Medical Model:
Some that believe that autism is a medical condition that needs curing.  Either by doctors, or by praying at the person. It's not.  Although individual autistic people may wish for a cure, and that's a personal choice.

The "You're a Sinner" Gambit:
Some that believe that autism is caused by sin, and it's our fault for not being sin-free.  It's nothing to do with being sinful.

The "You could choose not to be disabled/divergent" fantasy:
Some that believe that autism is our choice, and we could just choose to not be autistic.  A bit like thinking that being (say) 5 ft 6 is a choice, or having size 7 feet is a choice.  Very strange indeed.  But, some think it.   And they're not correct, of course.

The Charity Model:
Some that think autistic people are a special gift from God, given to the church so that people can show how Kind they are to us.  You may be pitied and helped, whether you like being pitied and helped or not.  Mmm, not good. Others in the church may be given praise for being 'kind' to you, possibly awards and publicity for it.  You will be barely mentioned in the article.  It looks very good for publicity, but is the opposite of enabling and inclusion.

The 'You were meant to suffer' sadists:
Some that think autistic or disabled people are given 'suffering' by God, and therefore it's good that we 'suffer'.  Because that way we'd get into heaven faster, or similar.  Very strange.  Also wrong.  But in places like that, no-one would give you any assistance if you needed it, because they think God wants you to struggle.  Cruel, really.

The 'it's my church, it's all for me' gambit:
Some may think that church should be all about them, and don't like anyone else getting any 'attention'.    So they will tell others that autistic people or disabled people are attention-seekers.  Nope.  Most of us absolutely hate public attention on us, as it is an additional social 'load'.  

The rumour-spreaders:
Some may claim that all autistic people are 'dangerous'.  In reality, autistic people are generally less violent and less criminally-inclined than other people.  There is no link between a diagnosis of autism and any malicious conduct whatsoever.

The Predators:
A few may think you are an easy target, either for assault, or for taking your money or stuff away from you and saying it was God who commanded it. And you would be punished by God if you said no.   Watch out for that, because that's criminal nonsense.  God never said any such thing.  Ask, if you can, about their safeguarding policies and training.

Having said all of that, remember there are lots of actual good faith groups out there.  Yet at present, going to church whilst disabled is a bit like entering the Wild West.

If your church is getting training on disability/autism etc, who from?  Do the checklist with them:
Is it material written by disabled/neurodiverse people, or in equal collaboration with them?  Equally supported, equally mentioned by name, equally paid (if paid at all).
Is it material delivered by disabled/neurodiverse people who are good and experienced people in training?  Lots of such individuals out there.   Or, at the very least, by allies who promote the work of the disabled/neurodiverse people?
If it's all non-disabled people, talking about us without us, avoid.

The Church of England has updated autism guidelines which are hosted by Oxford Diocese, and written by me in collaboration with many fantastic people and groups. is a link to the page.

As I say, there's lots of really good faith leaders out there.  But there's also a few really strange ones who really do need some training.  

Watch, listen, think.  And if you're not sure, stay clear.

Hoping you find a fantastic place, filled with love and hope, if you so wish.  There's good ones out there.  

Tuesday 4 September 2018

What do we mean by autistic females? A third are Gender Diverse.

We need to talk about autistic females, and what we mean by that.

Rita George has been working on this subject for some years.  The picture above is from her 2016 paper, Here

I'll talk us through it.  It shows the results from 216 autistic people ("ASD" on the chart) who have 'female' on their birth certificates, and 158 non-autistic people ("TD (Typically developing) who likewise have 'female' on their birth certificates.  They were asked what their gender identity is.

For the autistic people that many have been referring to as females, a third do not use the word 'woman' to describe their gender.  Some identify as male or as Transgender.  Some as BiGender, fairly large numbers identify as Genderqueer or couldn't find the right word from that list so ticked 'other'.  So, 1 in 3 of the autistic people we're calling female or woman may not identify with those words.

Why does it matter?  Because we get all these conferences for 'autistic females/women', and all those books for 'autistic females/women'.  There are blogs about autistic females, videos about autistic females...

...and the rest are erased from view by nearly all of the big reports, budget holders, major charities.  In most cases there's not a mention of gender diversity.   There's mention of males. There's not mention of the other gender diversities. 

The other gender groups may be missed from research, because there aren't studies that ask for their participation too. So we are missing up to a third of our data set, and the research on 'all autistic people' may not be correct.

Pretty much everywhere they go, they are missing from the list. 
A full third of autistic people many may think of as women (but who identify otherwise) are being routinely ignored in the places where it would matter to their lives and survival.

Why in particular does it matter?  Because we know from research that individuals who are autistic and have a different gender or sexuality are at far greater risk of bullying, exclusion and really, really bad outcomes from that.  Greater risk of suicide. Greater risk of poor health.  It matters because if we are trying to improve outcomes, we need to know what our starting points are, and we need to work with autistic people in collaborative and good ways.

We're not doing our best for autistic people until we look very seriously at gender identity, instead of only using the male/female binary and thinking we've done the job.  Do I mean that conferences for women should call themselves something else?  No.  Do I mean they should give equal billing to other gender IDs when it's a conference about males or females? No.  I mean that when someone's on that platform talking about "men and women" it would be good to remember the greater diversity too.  I mean when people commission books, they might want to commission more on gender diversities.  I mean when people set budgets for a conference series, they might want to set one for gender ID differences also (and some have - thank you).  I've worked for decades to raise public aknowledgement, diagnosis and inclusion of autistic females, and I also raise the same for the other marginalised gender IDs now.

I've focused here on what we mean by females, because this is the subject of this blog post.   More than 1 in 5 of the autistic people we're perhaps calling male don't identify as male.   We're not assisting them either by failing to notice or include them.

Autistic people are immensely diverse.  We need to be mindful of this, and of our collective responsibilities to seek good outcomes for all.  We need more good research for, by and with autistic people in partnership.  We need more support for those who are struggling to survive, in a society where hate for autistic people is too common, and hating gender-diverse individuals is too often seen as OK.  Seen all the stuff about 'Oh my, there could be a gender-diverse person in the toilets!".  Imagine that life of non-existence for our young autistic Trans individuals, struggling to survive, for example.  The only time people notice them is to hate them for needing to pee....?  Is this the best we can do?

Too many of our loved and wonderful autistic young people pay for all of this with their lives.

Every single life is precious.

Thank you for reading.