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.