Part 1: Interviewing Autism - "An Introduction to My Life, Conversion, & Diagnosis"
Part 2: Interviewing Autism - "An Overview of Autism As It Manifests In Me.
Part 3: Interviewing Autism - "The Challenges to and Benefits of Faith As Well As Some Talk About Tangibles"
Rather than exposing all of the nuts and bolts of the specific struggles those with autism could use encouragement with (struggles such as trying to make it through, or even into a worship service; struggles to partake of the Lord’s Supper due to sensory or conscience conflicts; or struggles to figure out how to connect with those in the congregation) let me lay a more foundational answer to this question.
I sincerely believe that the starting place for the church to serve is for the church to seek to understand.
In the past 6 months I have had a number of conversations with adult on the spectrum, with parents of children on the spectrum, with pastors of parishioners on the spectrum, and with elders who are called to shepherd sheep on the spectrum. Those conversations have revealed a lot to me about autism and the church.
I’ve recently read about 50 emails and blog posts written by those who are dealing with autism and dealing with it as it collides with the House of God. I’ve left many of those conversations and readings simply wanting to weep – a few I’ve left wanting to spit nails!!
Many individuals and many families… (Hold on, I want to make sure you hear this)… MANY individuals and MANY families are leaving the church and are resorting to various versions of “home church” or no church at all because of the lack of understanding they’ve encountered and/or due to the felt pressure to perform as the neuro-typical world assumes they should. Those issues have simply been too much to handle for some of these families and individuals - particularly on top of everything else they are facing hourly, and thus they are exiting the ecclesia. (Now, I am not excusing the decision to walk away from the Bride of Christ, but I think the possibly pandemic nature of this occurrence gives us cause to pause. Church, what are we doing wrong in ministering to the least of these?)
When the neurological manifestations of autism are called sin and parents are regularly exhorted to “just spank that kid more so that he’ll behave properly”…
… when the struggles of shyness in an adult with ASD is confronted as a possible reason for her to consider not joining a church (though no offer to help her find confidence in Christ is offered)…
… when an adolescent's autistic phobias of facing the horrific stimuli of the worship hour are pursued as grounds for possible church discipline due to his forsaking of his vows(rather than the elders coming along side and looking for ways to alleviate the stressors…
…then is it any wonder that families are retreating in droves? (By the way, ALL of these are real scenarios that I am personally familiar with.)
Many have stated that they have found much more understanding, encouragement and aid from the institutions of men than from the church of God. (To be heartbreakingly honest, our own family has faced some seasons of seeing that same thing.)
This should not be!
Yet sadly it often is.
Since my own diagnosis, I have had Christians (even pastors and elders) refer to my autism as a farce – claiming that autism is not a “real” medical issue and alluding to others that I’m just “weird”.
Others have said that my autism is nothing more than a form of depression and they’ve informed me that pills are out there that will take care of it.
Some have said, “I don’t know what autism is and really don’t have the time to find out, but I’ll be praying for you.” (Then I never heard from them again.)
I have had some of my Christian acquaintances who were once near, wander off afar because they view autism as a mental illness and the person who lives with it as unstable and perhaps a little “cuckoo!” (Decades ago, people with autism were often misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized – because the medical community had no true scientific answers as to what was really going on. Sadly, that stigma has not completely vanished – though I believe huge strides are being made.)
All of these assumptions come from a lack of knowledge about the disorder. Therefore, a willingness to learn, a laboring to understand – that’s the first step that one needs to take if he wants to make a difference in the life of a struggling spectrum saint.
If you want to serve the person with ASD - then seek to get to know the person with ASD. Understanding will provide the platform necessary to act out missions of mercy to those who so desperately need some mercy.
That said, may I also caution that as you seek to understand the disorder don’t let the disorder be all that you see. While we have the labels of neuro-typical and a-typical, autistic and “normal” – don’t ever lose sight of the fact that people are people in spite of any labels or diagnoses.
All people are made in the image of God and created to be in relationship with Him and with one another. That is a universal truth for all mankind.
That child with autism who never looks you in the eye, the one who can’t speak, the one who fidgets and flails and maybe even foams at the mouth, that little one who you think doesn’t understand a thing – that child is an image bearer of God Almighty and was created to have a connection with the Creator and with His creation. That connection may not look like yours, but don’t be fooled into thinking there’s no connection to be made. Love them and pray for the sovereign and merciful Savior to enable both His love and your love to break through to them!
At the end of the interview I’ll be sharing some links and resources that can provide the church with some helps for serving those in her midst who suffer in this way.
Now, let’s turn to reaching out to the unbeliever with autism. As a caveat, let me stress that I am writing from my own experience as one who exists in the “high-functioning” realm of autism, therefore, some of the issues that I raise may not translate neatly into some of the other spots on the spectrum (Again, I am not the standard bearer, but I believe there are still some universal correlations to be drawn).
Recently, Carly Fleischman, a young and well-known non-verbal autistic, who found her “voice” through the ability to type on an iPad, spoke of her difficulty in believing in God due to the fact that she doesn’t do well with intangible things. She, like many with autism, struggles to believe in a God who asks her to believe in Him “blindly.” (Been there! Done that!)
Before Christ saved me, I was regularly provoked to anger by the large number of Christians whose pat answer to my God questions boiled down to this: “You just gotta believe, Lori. You just need to have blind faith! That’s what God requires!”
Well-meaning as those sentiments may be, I fear they are neither biblical nor beneficial – particularly not to the autistic. Let me seek to explain.
My personal experience as a woman on the spectrum is that I don’t do ANYTHING in life blindly. NOTHING for me “just happens” on a whim. Spontaneity is non-existent (ask my husband).
My mind thinks through EVERYTHING in grand detail, working through every probable scenario of every possible situation that I can conjure up in order that I can be prepared for whatever circumstance I may encounter – those scenarios are often thought through in less than a split second. Due to this, supposedly simple things like going into a new store, or restaurant, or home can be terrifying because of the fact that there is no real way to work through ahead of time what the sounds, sights, or sensations might be in that unknown environment.
Going blindly pains my brain.
I don’t even brush my teeth blindly. Even in an act that so many may consider habitual, my mind is intricately engaged in every aspect - thinking through each individual step and each particular tooth and dictating the entire process to myself in my mind. I don’t interact with other people apart from this same type of planned processing.
When in a conversation with someone I am regularly directing myself to look them in the eyes, to laugh, or smile, or sigh when apparently appropriate (coping mechanisms that I’ve been able to develop which help me to usually appear pretty “normal”). Returning to the “film” scenario, I continually serve as this “movie of life’s” director, informing myself of every action that must be carried out on the screen and whispering commands in my own mind’s ear continually.
Things don’t just happen blindly for me as a person with autism, they happen with a never ending processing system.
Yet, being a finite and fallible creature, life throws unforeseeable curve balls into the game. Unexpected circumstances do occur. Only an omniscient God is capable of knowing every option of every scenario perfectly, and only an omnipotent God is capable of carrying out His perfect plan. When something in my life does occur without planning or thought, you can count on an internal or possibly even external avalanche crashing down on me – at which time some of the aforementioned internal and external curses of autism will go into extreme effect. In those situations, my autistic mind is painfully jarred into mental whiplash by those things which it was not prepared for and my physical body often endures the fallout. (As a side note, the commonality of this among folks with ASD is one of the reasons that so many of the parent help groups recommend “picture planners” for autistic children. These planners are used by moms and dads to lay out visual pictures of the different things that will occur throughout the day and in the order that they will occur throughout the day so that those children will know precisely what is coming up next in order to not be undone by the unknown.)
So, let’s carry that information over to the “You just need blind faith” mantra. The person with autism does not know what that means!
That phrase comes across as gibberish to us – like the prattling parlance at the Tower of Babel! We don’t comprehend the concept and the closest we come to connecting with acting blindly is the memory of the horrors that physically happen to us when something does comes at us blindly out of left field!
We don’t get “blind faith,” and truth be told, I don’t believe that God means for us to get it.
One of the great blessings that Biblical Christianity has brought to me, as a high-functioning person with autism, is the written testimony that the Christian God is not a God of sightless saints who are told to stumble and stagger in the darkness of the dumb.
He is the God who has created our minds.
He is the God of logic.
He is the God who says to us, as He did to the stubborn Israelites of Isaiah’s day, “Come now, and let us reason together!”
Has God ever told us to believe blindly? I think not! (Interestingly, it seems to me that blind belief may actually be the “belief” of the unbeliever who is putting his faith in nothingness trusting that “somethingness” has somehow arisen from the vast void!) God has not asked us to check our brains at salvation’s door, instead, He has called us to engage our brains through the reading and hearing of His perfect Word. Then, by His illumining Spirit, He renews our minds so that suddenly they come to logical life and are enabled to think the very thoughts of God as those thoughts have been revealed in the pages of Scripture! This is not blindness – this is walking in most marvelous light!
What did Paul do in the midst of the pagan people at the Areopagus? He, engaged their minds, showed them the logical folly of their “unknown god” (an intangible entity), and proclaimed to them a known God who has revealed Himself through Christ (a tangible entity). The text says that he “reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”
What was young Timothy encouraged to do? What are the church’s elders and all of us every day average believers encouraged to do? All are encouraged to know and hold forth this Word of God that “gives understanding to the simple” and wisdom to the foolish. This does not sound like a God who says to us, “Blind faith is what it takes!”
To sensitively evangelize the autistic unbeliever (particularly the Asperger’s type) we need to be aware of the spiritual stumbling block we may be throwing upon their path when we ask them to “blindly” believe. We also must not forget how difficult it is for the person with autism to comprehend the idea of intangible things.
As a former autistic atheist who is now a saved and sealed recipient of grace, I firmly believe that if we hold forth true Biblical Christianity, (God’s gospel, not our cultural deviant version of it) then we will find a bridge of reasoned faith that covers the chasm of blind belief, and we will find that same bridge beautifully bringing us to the intangible God by the very tangible means of the written Word which points us to Jesus, the Living Word. Let us hold this type of faith forth to all who are on the spectrum, regardless of where upon the spectrum they may fall!
Let us hold forth true and tangible Biblical Christianity to the most severely affected (“lower-functioning”) person with autism.
“But are they not so disabled that their ability to understand any of these things is sufficiently stifled? Because of their significant inability to understand, are they not doomed to eternal death because of the mental malady?”
No! Remember, that total depravity puts us all on equal ground. One suffering sinner is no more deaf and dead to these things than ALL of mankind is. It is just as impossible for the “smartest” neuro-typical to believe as it is for the most silent autistic. Praise Christ that the same omnipotent and sovereign grace that has plucked the one from the pits of peril is able to pluck the other. Does not this very scenario show the beauty of God’s unconditional election and make it shine so gloriously bright? Oh, most surely our salvation “does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.”
Speak of Christ to that one whom you think can in no way comprehend and trust in Christ. And pray the Spirit of God, that same Spirit who opened your own spiritually deaf ears, will open theirs!
Let us hold forth true and tangible Biblical Christianity to the “mid and high-functioning” person with autism.
“But are they not paralyzed in their attempt to take hold of what an intangible God is like due to their daily battle to even touch the tangible things of this life?”
Fear not! Remember that the intangible God tangibly speaks in His Word to us. He tangibly tells us all that we need to know of His character, of His cross, and of His Kingdom that is to come.
There is a touch stone, there is an anchor, and there is a hook to hang your hope on in the pages of the God-breathed Bible! Not only that, but this tangible Word points to a tangible Jesus –a supernatural God who entered history, came in the natural flesh and walked the paths of our planet.
No other religion truly grants these things. All others offer nebulous notions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and other forms of Eastern spirituality) or unfulfilled oaths (Judaism and Islam - due to their tying to the Old Testament while denying the One who was the promise of it).
Tangibly tell of Christ to that one who seems so paralyzed in grasping an intangible God and pray that just as Jesus once made the physically lame to walk freely, so He will enable these spiritually lame to soar!
Let us hold forth true and tangible Biblical Christianity to the “highest-functioning” Aspie or Savant.
“But is not the amazingly high-functioning autistic bludgeoned by the blind faith farce?”
Don’t buy the lie! Like Augustine encourage them to “take up and read.” Encourage them to carry their query straight to the gate of the God that they so deeply doubt. Encourage them to pour over the pages of that tangible Word, dissect it, outline it, contextually examine it - letting the blessings of that autistic brain maneuver all over the manuscript. While doing so encourage them to pray – and if they are unable to pray (for prayer is often so horribly hard for us) may we pray for them.
Pray that the Holy Spirit would let them see the logic on fire that burns brightly upon every revealed theological theme and propitiatory promise.
If you are the pastor, the parent, the sibling, or the friend of a person with autism who is struggling with faith issues, I encourage you to recognize the referenced road blocks that are often strewn on your loved one’s path.
Please don’t ask them to blindly skip on their merry little way into the intangible fields of faith. Remember that Romans tells us that true, saving faith comes from tangibly “hearing the Word of Christ.” Therefore, saturate your home and your conversation in that Word, pleading with the Spirit to do His work in the seeming hard and hopeless heart of the one you love.
Be patient with them in their wrestlings – even as God has been so patient with you. Don’t simply assume that the fast flowing fire hydrant of continual questions is a sign of stubbornness, rebellion, or argumentativeness – those questions may simply be the autistic mind doing what it does, processing life – this time spiritual life.
Don’t feel like you have to have all of the answers – simply point the questioner consistently to the Omniscient One who does!
Avoid emotionally manipulative ploys to “get” a religious response. Emotional altar call evangelism often sends us into melt-down mode because understanding emotion is hard for us and therefore, the more our emotions are “played” with (even out of sincere motives) the more confused we become and the less likely we are to return to the topics that initiated that emotional moment.
Basically, the bottom line is that if we will reach out to unbelievers who live with autism in the same way that God has shown in His Word to reach out to all unbelievers, I believe we will see fruit.
Does not much of the impotency in our evangelism ultimately stem from the fact that we have devised our own man-made methods, proudly thinking that they will be more successful than the Savior’s?