When I first started asking around in the Asperger’s and Autism community about the whole church issue, the stories I heard made me mad. By the time I’d gotten a few more responses, I was sad. Overwhelmingly sad. The stories did not stop coming.
It breaks my heart when people say they regret staying at their church and wished they had left sooner.
The responses I gathered were from Christian people desiring fellowship. Many of these believers are actively seeking a church or Bible study in spite of bad experiences.
Why is church so hard for people on the autism spectrum?
Getting to the Church on Time, Late, or At All
Every mom knows this is a battle, but with Autism Spectrum Disorder it is multiplied. Most people on the spectrum have terrible issues with insomnia, getting restorative sleep, and waking. When I say trouble waking, I am not kidding. A regular topic is how to wake up. I read somewhere in an autism advocate’s writings about the need for an alarm clock that shakes and shrieks.
Trouble organizing, estimating and managing time, the other hundred hurdles every day brings with sensory, eating difficulties, motor skills issues, and so on make getting out challenging on any day. Sunday is no exception.
Sensory Overloads and Processing Problems
Sensory overload is another big issue. Loud music, flashing lights, over powering perfume add up to an sensory cocktail that can quickly overload. While these things may be a minor irritation to some, for others the input is akin to a sensory onslaught.
The format and language of today’s church can be difficult for a literal-minded person to understand. An emphasis on emotion rather than thought and logic make it hard to grasp the message.
It is a social setting. This is a minefield for someone who can’t read body language, has difficulty recognizing faces, or any of the myriad of other cognitive or social skills typically lacking in a person with ASD. Often, children and young adults are expected to be “friends” at church to the same people who bullied the child at school. People who greet with a hug then ignore the minute they step out of the church door, or even before, will probably be interpreted as hypocritical.
Rejection at Church
Rejection and bullying is something I heard about over and over when I brought up the issue of church. Family members of all ages were bullied. Adults bullied children. Being rejected by people at church is an issue I heard about over and over. You can read about an instance that happened to my kids at church here.
And, no, this one situation did not cause us to leave that church. Often we have to weigh the cruelty of ignorant people against the benefit for our children of continuing to attend.
One of my kids visited a local church a while back. An adult in the youth group began making derogatory statements about persons with disabilities. The fact that this man felt comfortable saying these things in front of leadership and the students made it clear this was not a place we cared to be. Talk about how to keep visitors from coming back!
While the majority of people are kind and caring, I’m sad to say I wasn’t particularly surprised by this encounter.
People assume that since this person is not connecting socially they are not aware of these slights, but sometimes appearances are deceiving. Some autistics are exceptionally intuitive. The inability to express oneself does not necessarily mean a person has no thoughts or feelings on a matter.
Leadership that avoids their students with more needs, or even become hostile to students who ask too many questions is a frequent problem parents cited. Aspies tend to have no qualms responding to the challenge to “prove me wrong”. A lack of social skills coupled with honest answers from a young person who may have an above average IQ can be misinterpreted by youth workers and lead to exclusion.
Do You Want to Be the Church?
I was heartened to find some excellent resources for churches and ministries interested in reaching the “one out of the ninety-nine” as Dr. Stephen Grcevich from Key Ministry put it.
This YouTube video is a good condensation explaining a complicated topic. I think it is an excellent start.
Why Church Should Be Accessible
I talked to many parents. Most have tried church after church. Many gave up on ever finding a church home. Some of the children, scarred and confused by their church experiences, have given up on God. Not all have not turned away. There are those who continue to search for a place to belong, a safe haven to worship and fellowship with other believers. People they can call “brother”.
Some church leaders think church is for the majority, and they can’t afford to spend time making church available to everyone.
God has designed every person with a purpose. There is room in the body for every believer.
God has designed every person with a purpose. There is room in the body for every believer. (Tweet This)
Dr. Grcevich stated in the video that he believes God has a reason for the influx of students and people with Asperger’s and similar conditions.
Qualities common to people with Asperger’s are the tendency to be truth and knowledge seekers, be persistent in faith, have a strong sense of morality, be deep thinking, justice minded, and analytical, to have zero tolerance for hypocrites, and pay no heed to church politics.
Is there room at your church for these kind of people?
I found this article, Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development, to be informative for those who want more information on how to make their church or ministry more ASD accessible.
I felt the need to add to this post for clarity after some feedback from readers.
People with Asperger’s don’t need a special program. Dr. Grcevich explains in the video above that being funneled into the typical special needs ministry would not serve well and be completely inappropriate. What do they need? Respect, understanding, and a helping hand every now and then.
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