40 blogs of Lent – Day 32
Welcoming Autistic people to church
What is church – Day 1
After wading through the messages to seven churches in Revelation, I am concluding my Lenten blogs with a look at the modern church. I will be looking at it from three negative aspects, then five positive ones. Here goes.
Hello. My name is Steve and I am on the Autistic Spectrum. Specifically I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Or at least I suppose I do, having been strongly suspected of having Asperger’s Syndrome by two different psychologists (I have the letters) but being told that there is no funding for adult assessment in my local health authority (I also have the letter).
But this is not the start of some 12 step programme to get better. I’m afraid I am stuck with it. Asperger’s, like all Autism, is a neurological condition, my brain is wired differently to the typical brain. It is not a mental health condition. This is me, despite the difficulties of being on the Autism Spectrum I am happy with who I am.
Although unable to get a diagnosis I have been helped by this, especially by the description of melt downs in the Diocese of Oxford report below.
To write this blog I am drawing on three main sources:
- A blog on CNN by American Christian and radio DJ/Presenter Brant Hanson from 2013.
- The report, “Welcoming Autistic People in our Churches and Communities.” From the Diocese of Oxford, updated in 2015
- My own experience.
Why should an Anglican diocese need to bring about a report on welcoming autistic people? Because we are poor at it? No. It is because Christian churches are spectacularly bad at it.
Shut downs and melt downs
There are two main things that can happen when an autistic person gets too much stimulation.
When stressed some people with autism suffer from a shut down, the brain shuts off and they go quiet and uncommunicative. This is a classic autism response, but I do not suffer from it.
People who know me will have seen this. I t looks like an adult is acting like a five year old having a tantrum, it looks like extreme anger. But it is not anger. It is when the brain is overloaded and overheats, there is just too much stimulation. A lot of noise. People jostling about, bright light, scents, being touched and other things. Te thing is we cannot switch our senses off, so the conversations around are all being processed at once, along with the patterns of light coming through windows, even worse if coloured light from stained glass windows. The two times this is likely are at the kiss of peace, that point where congregations milling around shaking each others hands and at after service coffee. We need a quiet place away from sensory stimulation when this happens.
I understand that either of these reactions are upsetting to other people and that churches have a duty to protect people.
Lack of empathy
It is said that autistic people lack empathy/ This is not strictly true, but we do not easily pick up body language. Tell me you are hurting and I will empathise, but subtle clues as to how you are feeling will be missed, I only pick up the blindingly obvious, such as weeping into your hands. Often the sign that i have missed the subtle sings and should have backed off earlier.
Having grown up without being able to read body language or tone of voice means that we often do not show the same body language as other people who are neuro-typical. The outcome works both ways. We may misunderstand you and you may misunderstand us. People with Asperger’s are used to being misunderstood. Myself, I have been a host on an internet chatroom, a bulletin board and then an administrator on that board. I am able to function well in these circumstances, even then I occasionally came across as weird. Face to face I have coping strategies, but it is hard work. To others I can be hard work too.
But as for other things as to where churches treat people with autism badly, all that is needed is good practice, welcome people, show new people to their seats, never force a handshake onto people (an enthusiastic hand-shaker appearing suddenly during the peace can ruin a whole service for me. Again I have worked out coping strategies.)
So that is it for me, please read the linked articles.