All churches have a huge number of people of all kinds, as part of their teams, parishes, groups and events. The picture above shows a reflection of this - coloured pebbles, labelled with different groups. People who cannot read, single parents, people from the LGBT communities, those experiencing violence and fear at home, people who are young, from minority ethnic groups or otherwise. All are people loved by God. All bring much to God and to community. None are 'burdens'.
One such group is autistic people. As we know, 1 in 30 of our parish and congregation.
1 in 30 of our leadership team (Hiding, or unaware as yet that they are autistic?). We know that it is a social communication difference, a natural part of human diversity. Autistic people are good at interpreting each other, bad at interpreting others. And non-autistic people are good at interpreting each other, and bad at interpreting autistic people. Neither group is a broken version of the other group. Autistic brains are tuned to take in vast amounts of sensory information - sight, sound, smell, touch, taste etc. Overwhelming in busy, noisy groups. Fabulous for detecting differences that others cannot detect. Generalising, of course. Autistic people tend to be very literal, and are bemused that non-autistic people are not. And vice-versa. It's not a learning disability. It's not a mental health condition. Most autistic people do not wish for a 'cure', although we'd like non-autistic people to be cured of their own baffling behaviour (joking!).
We didn't know it was that number of autistic people, of all ages, sexualities and genders. We didn't know that a big number of autistic people have always been a part of our churches and congregations, bringing so many good things. Passionate focus, honesty, integrity, dedication, loyalty, love, prayer, worship, skills. Whatever it is, all autistic people are loved by God, loved as people of worth who belong in our churches and in our hearts.
There's a scale of acceptance of autistic people, in Christian circles. It may be useful to reflect on where your own church or group may be, on this path.
Stage 1) Extreme fear, often based in ignorance and myth: Some or all of the following.
Autistic people are 'othered', feared, hated, demonised, bullied? People are told that we are a danger or a disaster. Broken versions of real people, without empathy? People give money to particular autism charities who will keep us away from their group. Extreme myths around all of us allegedly being dangerous. [No more likely than all Clergy being dangerous, as we know]. Particular therapies centre on 'treating' us so that we are guaranteed tamed and controlled, like animals. Training courses often feature 'How to secure institutions so they can't escape or injure anyone - winning ways with iron bars and electric shock treatment'. 'Tragic parents' get huge media coverage from declaring how awful their lives are because of us. (Yikes). There is no understanding that the autistic children are being accidentally put in sensory/social pain every day for no reason, and responding to that pain. The public say they would understand if some parents kill us. "Who could blame them?" say the tabloid headlines. We work towards eugenics, a world with no autism in it. We pray that 'the autism' is cured, whether that is the wish of the autistic person or not.
2) Wary tolerance:
Autistic people are allowed in the same space, as long as no-one has to do anything about it. No-one has time or money to 'deal with' autistic people. We are not deemed to bring anything to groups. Books are written by clueless academic non-autistic people to 'explain' us, and put firmly in the 'medical' section of catalogues. Autistic people are allowed to speak to others, but only if we say that we agree we are a tragedy, and how our lives are awful. Preferably with lots of apologising for existing. We are there to accept pity or good therapies to help us be like other people. Being autistic is not accepted. There's relief if we decide not to turn up to groups and events.
3) Growing realisation:
People starting trusting us enough to talk to us as they talk to other people. We're invited to contribute and say something other than "my life is so hard"...but on an unpaid basis or a token 'expenses' basis. But non-autistic people are given large fees or proper public acclaim for equivalent work. There is some acknowledgement that we are allowed to be ourselves. Some people feel good about how Christian they are for being friends with us. Autistic academics are allowed to write the medical books about autism. Which is odd, because it's not a medical condition, any more than being Black is. People worry about what happens when they are asked why they allowed the stuff in (1) above, and start holding meetings about how to manage the media when the news breaks that this was a bad thing. Gradually, people start to relax, though.
People realise that the myths about autism were nearly all total rubbish. That we're different, with a different culture, communication and set of skills. We're asked into conferences and events as specialists, as experts, paid accordingly. We are invited to talk to people about God, about theology, about what faith means to us. To be open about being autistic at any level in an organisation, and respected for what we bring, not feared. We're allowed to write books about God and our faith, and those are on the same shelves as the other books.
It's a journey. Those are marker points, of course, since all journeys take steps forwards, backwards and sideways.
We've come a reasonable way so far, in a good number of places. I have been blessed with many lovely companions in the many years I have been advising churches and other faith groups.
Find good autistic people to talk with/communicate with. Lots of us who are able to introduce you to this fantastic group of people, in ways that make sense. How to interpret us. How to hold a respectful conversation with us, and recognise that our forms of respect may be different to yours. Both are OK.
Decide if your church wants to declare that it's a place that includes autistic people. Have a look for the guidelines we wrote. http://www.autismandchristianity.org/ gives links to useful materials including those guidelines. You can tick the "Autism friendly" box on 'A Church Near You' website, if you are putting info into it for your CofE church. What do I mean by autism-friendly? There is no test. It's about willingness to learn and grow together. It's about reaching out to good trainers and materials. Talking with us.
Remember, it's not about deciding to welcome a group that is somewhere else. It's about realising that we're already right there in church with you. Making it safe for us to join in more. Share more. Contribute more. And be open about being autistic, without experiencing the hell of Stage 1, above. I've had that experience. It was terrifying.
It's so good to know that the response will be "Great, what can we learn from each other?".
Thank you for reading.