|Posted by Simon Lee Briggs on October 27, 2013 at 6:45 AM|
Months ago, via Facebook shares online, I read two articles that bothered me and I know that they also bothered many other people; I also commented on both of them. Both articles discuss autism and faith in God, or the lack of it, and spirituality. One article is titled, "Autism May Diminish Belief in God" and the other is titled, "Are Atheists More Autistic Than Believers?" The very titles suggest that people with autism are inherently less spiritual than others and have less capacity for God, than other people in the population. What is are the authors' explanations for their findings? The writers cite the well-known finding that "theory of mind," the ability to comprehend the feelings and thoughts of other people, is deficient in autism and at the root of so many autistic social difficulties. The writers tell us that the parts of the brain that are involved in appreciating and contemplating God as a Person with thoughts and feelings, are "theory of mind" traits. This "theory of mind" and the involved parts that enable us to see ourselves in relationship with God, are damaged by autism, reason the authors. The conclusion of all this? Autism means a reduced capacity for God and faith.
The first article, "Autism Diminishes Belief in God," focuses on the supposed reduced capacity for God that autistic people have. Their conclusions are based on asking people with autism and those with traits of autism who are not diagnosed, questions about God, spirituality and faith. The writer bases his findings on what his subjects said in the surveys and the more autistic trait, the more the answers leaned toward diminished belief in God. The second article, "Are Atheists More Autistic Than Believers?" focuses on the supposed autistic traits of many atheists, asking whether many of them many have a form of high-functioning autism. These would include Asperger's Syndrome and Pervasive Development Syndrome--Not Otherwise Specified (PDD--NOS). Many who count themselves as atheists are no doubt offended at the suggestion that they may be considered to have traits of autism, but what is far more of a concern, even offense, to me, is the notion that atheism and autism are being compared in this fashion and the suggestion that autistic people are more likely to be atheists. What should be taken away from articles such as this?
Let me answer this question with another question. If autism hinders faith in God and spirituality, who bears much of the responsibility for this? I suggest that much of this is because congregations and people of faith, have not known how or have not tried to learn how to welcome people with autism and many other disabilities, especially invisible ones) into their congregational life. What does feeling and being welcomed into the Church (the community of the people of God) have to do with faith in God? I suggest that it has to do everything with it! It is a serious matter when people feel chronically unwelcomed by the Church! It can harm them spiritually. When individuals, autistic or not, or families don't feel welcomed into the Church or a congregation, they rarely stay. And when individuals, autistic or not, or families feel shunned or not accepted by the people of God, they are going to find it easier to feel shunned or not accepted by God Himself. Let's face it, God is invisible and His people are all we can see. Being human, though we know that God is perfect and His people are imperfect, it is all too easy to confuse God with His people. And when autistic people (who are often challenged in "theory of mind" and higher-order thinking skills) feel unwelcome in the Church, they will be even more likely to question and to doubt God. Why? It is so much easier to believe the message being sent out by the perceived (or actual) rejection of God's people, than it is to believe in the unseen God, His love and His assurance that His favor toward us is not based on what other people think or feel about us.
Let me cite my own experience with this issue in my adulthood. When my our family became members in the Church and in a local congregation, I soon became uncomfortable there. The members themselves were nice, pleasant, respectable people, many being young professionals and these were typical "church people" with traditional, family values. But this came as rather of a "culture shock" to me, as I had spent much of my youth and early adults years with diverse people, and people with various learning, behavioral and physical disabilities. And I was used to them. But in congregations we visited or became members of, I saw much less diversity. Very few people had disabilities with the exception of more severe ones where the need was obvious and where they were much more likely to be welcomed. Yes, I'm sure that there were more than a few members (as in son many congregations) who had invisible disabilities and feared "coming out of the closet" with them because of possible stigma.
I'm not blaming the members (or even the leadership) of any such congregation, as I'm sure so many may not have been exposed to the disability community and may often not know about any disabilities, especially the more complex, easily misunderstood and invisible ones. In this setting of people who were not much like so many I had known and grown up with, I became acutely aware of my differences and my background, which I knew were not "normal." I did my best to "stay in the closet" and when anyone asked me anything personal where I might have to share those "unsafe" subjects, I would clam up. And yet, judging from the reactions of others and even from what I heard from my spouse, people still sensed that "something was up" with me. I felt like a misfit and not accepted. And it wasn't that I didn't become involved so I could make a contribution. I did. Still, this did little to ease my feelings of not being welcomed. And, even today, though I know better, my natural tendency is to confuse God, Whom I cannot see, with His people, whom I could see. I tend to wrestle with doubts about my relationship with God; after all, if I have so often "struck out" with His people, what does this say about my relationship with Him? What does it say about my own faith and "spirituality" if I don't feel welcomed by His people?
And I'm not speaking only for myself here. I know that many other people, autistic or not, disabled or not, have not felt welcome in congregations. I'm positive that this happens with people with disabilities much more often and who have often not felt welcomed in the Church. In the case of those with physical disabilities, welcoming them requires that the Church make their premises accessible: ramps for those unable to walk without difficulty, sign language interpreters for deaf people who use sign language, the allowance of service dogs for those who use them for various disabilities, and I can add more and I'm sure some of you can. And congregations can create a supportive environment where people with invisible disabilities will feel less afraid to "come out of the closet" with their unseen differences and will find that they will not be judged but will be accepted. But I know that many congregations, especially large ones, feel that it is a churchgoer's or member's responsibility to reach out, get involved and make a contribution and that, as a by-product, they will be included and accepted. There is truth to this, that all of us, disabled or autistic or without disabilities, should reach out and seek to contribute to out congregations. However, in the case of people with disabilities, obvious or invisible, more support and often accommodations are needed for most to feel and be welcomed into the Church.
I know that providing physical accommodations needed by so many with visible disabilities, often costs money or may be seen as inconveniencing others, such as allowing service dogs or other service animals. And in the case of invisible disabilities, especially the complex, more easily misunderstood ones, congregations will need to take time and effort to educate themselves about these. Yes, I recognize that, unfair as it may be, those of us in the disability community and with these conditions, will probably have to lead the way in this, advocating for ourselves and for so many others.
Getting back to the topic of autism and faith in God, I can't help but but believe that much of this perceived "reduced capacity for God" and even comparisons with atheists, says something also about how autistic people have often not felt welcomed in the Church. I recognize that the Church often does not feel equipped to deal with a complex neurological condition like autism and so often don't know how to welcome autistic people. And since autism means a different way of thinking and different wiring, the Church needs to find out how to make God real to autistic people according to their different wiring. There are no easy answers to this, obviously. But I think that when the Church will try to reach out to autistic people, we may see more come to our local churches and want to know our God. The writers of these two articles seem to be boxing God in, suggesting that He is not able to reveal Himself and make Himself real to those with different wiring or thinking. These articles insult God as much as they do autistic people. Is God limited by the way someone is wired? Didn't He make the brain in the first place? Who is the Creator of those with disabilities, including autism? And doesn't His call to "go into all the world" with His message include those with autism and other disabilities? I have a practical way that you can, as a Christian, support autistic people. You can sign my online petition, calling on the US government to fund autism services for all who need them.
Is the Church listening? Will you sign my autism petition?