Ann Memmott has written about feeling valued- what it is, and what it is not, and the “othering” of people like her, in churches. Being tolerated and being exhibits in the name of awareness raising, versus being seen as friends and being offered the same chances. Jesus didn’t feed the 5000 and leave all the Autistic people hungry- Autistic people aren’t seen as “other” in front of God.
Autism, faith and church is a difficult subject, which is why I appreciate personal accounts like this one by Brant Hansen. It’s real, and it’s both humorous and sad. He often felt like an alien at church, eventually wondering if God had rejected him because he had never had an emotional experience of God’s presence. While he still felt alienated from many parts of Christian culture, he finally found that Jesus was the only one who made sense- and explained why.
There are so many things I like about this post! It starts with a Youtube clip called “I’m Brianna Couture”, three girls all posing as 15-year old Brianna Couture, who all describe Brianna’s invisible disability- but it’s not till the end of the clip that the girls divulge which of them is the “real” Brianna Couture.
Too often, when discussing inclusion in faith communities, I have heard: “We don’t have any members (of our congregation) with disabilities, so we don’t really need to think about inclusion.” Really? There are NO members with disabilities? Watch the video again.
We don’t “do inclusion” for our members. Rather, creating an inclusive community is about being ready. When we wait until someone comes through our doors, often it is too late and the accommodations become reactive. True inclusion is proactive.
Here are some great resources promoting disability inclusion in the church. While written by and for different denominations, the information and suggestions would work across most church communities.
The Diocese of Oxford has put together a very thorough 23-page booklet called Welcoming Autistic people in our churches and communities. It’s a very practical set of guidelines, explaining some of the features of Autism, and some quick low-cost changes that can make a huge difference for Autistic people (eg change fluorescent lighting, check noise levels, give clear instructions, explain any complicated language either at the time or later, warn of physical events, have a quiet/rest area available etc). I especially liked the “hard” and “easy” descriptions of an Autistic person visiting church.
Based on the above booklet, is this checklist for How Autism Friendly is your church? Readers are encouraged to consider the place and environment, events and what is going on, and people and social activities.
This clip, by Rev Malcolm Duncan, senior pastor at Goldhill Baptist Church, is fantastic- says it all. I highly recommend listening to it. He talks about how disabled people are treated in the church, and the church’s mission to, with and alongside people with disabilities. People with disabilities are not first and foremost people who have something wrong with them, they are sons and daughters of the living God. Inclusion isn’t about ramps and loos, as important as they are, it’s about heart and attitude, it’s about a change of mindset that sees people, not as objects of charity, but as equals.
Making churches accessible– this short article has some simple suggestions for how to make church services accessible for people with learning disabilities.
“Evidence suggests that churches that have actively made their worship services accessible to people with learning disabilities the services become accessible to many others; people with poor literacy, for those whom English is not the first language, people from un-churched backgrounds who have no experience of Christian language, and increasingly for people with dementia.”
When Church Hurts, by Shawna Wingert (Not the former things blog), and Why Church Is a Burden for Special Needs Parents, by Sheri Dacon. This is a subject not often discussed, but it needs to be! People with disabilities often struggle to find churches that are willing to accommodate, accept, engage with, integrate and welcome them. Shawna writes a very descriptive account of her son’s sensory overload at church- crowds of people, various smells, loud and louder sounds. She also gave examples of judgment for non-attendance, judgment of parenting abilities, and exclusion from Sunday school. Sheri recounts her tears, when her son’s new Sunday school teacher treated him as a child, not a problem- and she learned that it was okay to expect love and acceptance.
We have not often attended church as a family, since our youngest, “Abi”, was little. She finds the noise and quantity of people difficult- we have spent several services walking circuits around the carpark, or laps up and down the stairs. She’s not always quiet and still, so although I did monitor her noise/activity level, I’ve been “invited” to spend the service in the creche, which had no video/audio input, more times than I’d care to remember. I’ve accompanied her to Sunday school, but there was nothing in the lessons that she could participate in. In the end, we figured it would be more comfortable for one parent to stay at home with her- because neither she nor her accompanying parent were actually participating in the service.
These experiences were across multiple churches. Two of the churches we’ve been to were very willing to work with us to include Abi- but weren’t the right fit for other members of our family. In particular, our older daughter, “Hannah”, is wanting solid teaching and discussions and connections with likeminded peers- yet the Sunday children’s/youth ministry at many churches ends as children finish primary school. Those churches were a great source of healing to me- to know that there were churches where we were welcomed, and could attend as a family.
The last few years have been an intensive immersion in learning about autism, for me. As evidenced by this blog, I’ve done a lot of reading, and have also attended numerous courses. And I’ve come to the realisation that just as Abi has the right to an academic education, she also has the right to a spiritual education. But more than just an education- I believe she has the right to be loved, accepted and included as a member of God’s community. However, in order to access that for her, I will need to advocate and educate.
While I can’t speak for all Christians or all churches- in most cases, I don’t think that the exclusion that many people with disabilities have experienced is deliberate. I think that many Christians/churches simply don’t know how to engage with and integrate people with disabilities. They may not be aware that their programs/services aren’t disability-friendly. Sadly though, there are some churches that are unwilling to integrate people with disabilities- therefore they’re not places I’d want to be, anyway.
The problem is, I don’t have the energy for education or advocacy of this magnitude at the moment. If I’m going to do it well, it will be a big job. I don’t want to start, then it all end up a failure because I wasn’t able to follow it through. There’s a lot of big things that have happened in our lives- some related to autism, some not- but we have learned that we can’t do everything immediately, so we’ve had to prioritise.
In the meantime, as I ponder the specifics of what inclusion could look like for Abi, I came across a wonderful program run by Christian Blind Mission in Australia, called Luke14. Luke14 is a CBM Australia initiative equipping churches to be places of welcome and belonging for people and families living with disability.
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind… and you will be blessed.” (Luke 14:12-13)
I could easily link to every page on the Luke14 site, because there is so much good information! It’s nice to know that there are programs available to help churches learn how to welcome people with disability- and really integrate them.
I hope to see such programs implemented in many churches in the not-too-distant future.
Raising Peter – what my son taught me about my faith, by Mary-Beth Werdel. The author outlines her experience taking her 4 year old son to Mass- his determined desire to “blow out people’s prayers” (the prayer candles), and his terror of the noise of the bells. Like many families of children with autism or sensory processing difficulties, they stopped attending church for a period of time, and during that period, she changed.
I see now why I could not let go of Peter’s phrase [“blow out people’s prayers”]. I pray now in thanksgiving and in gratitude for the fact that Peter has blown out my old prayers of normalcy and re-ignited them as prayers of relationship and love. And I pray that with education—on autism and sensory integration, on a theology of hospitality and on a perspective of love—others, like myself before them, will find a space in which they feel safe enough to let a little boy blow out their prayers.
Autism and Faith. A very moving, insightful and practical documentary about how to integrate children with autism – and their families! – into places of faith.