Today is Autism Awareness Day. Many people of faith are wondering how they can welcome, engage, and serve with persons with autism. Here are 7 tips, from my faithful autistic family to yours.
- Keep the format and ESPECIALLY the social routine for entering the learning time/space consistent and predictable. For instance, my Sunday school class always includes the children leaving their parents at the door, walking all the way across the room to the prayer area, and having the option of placing flowers or a felt candle in the prayer area. That routine eases the anxiety of children on the spectrum, because they don’t have to wonder what to do when they get to class. They have a built-in routine to participate. Another example is venerating holy icons and lighting candles, as we do in the Orthodox Church. When you come in the door, there’s a set pattern of things to do each time. In your church, the pattern might be to pick up a bulletin, sit, and look up and bookmark that week’s hymns. Some churches stand at the beginning of the service and bow their heads as a cross goes by. Whatever your pattern, pay attention to it, emphasize it, and help people enter into it no matter when they get to the service.
- Teach deeply. If you want to encourage broad scriptural knowledge, give out or recommend a Bible reading app that follows your church’s reading patterns. Give out children’s Bibles. Send home children’s bulletins with scriptures. But when it comes to classroom teaching, repeat the lesson at least three times in a row and add a deeper layer each time. Familiarity breeds familiarity and calm when it comes to learning about God. In my lesson plans, I like to teach each holiday or lesson from several different angles, but with the prior weeks’ hands-on illustrations available throughout the series. This gives concrete thinkers and people who might have a different way of processing language time to take in and understand a lesson. The challenge is, of course, that you can’t cop out and teach a morality-only lesson. You have to teach the living faith.
- Show your work. Faith without works isn’t just dead. It’s invisible. If you tell children to be kind to people who are hurt, show how. This can be as simple as acting out the Good Samaritan story and allowing kids to put bandages on dolls or volunteers, or it can be a planned event of showing compassion. Preferably make it possible for persons on the spectrum to act out their faith in ways that they can plan or prepare for in advance. If this sounds off-putting, remember that we actually say that we’re supposed to prepare to do good works and share God’s love. This is just doing so.
- Stop sending letters to God. If you want someone who’s autistic to believe, stop pretending that God is far away and generally disinterested in human life. No one on the spectrum wants your Deistic god. Sometimes people err on the side of assuming God’s out of earshot in order to protect themselves from the pain of suffering. They think that suffering means God has left the building. But God is always, always in the midst of suffering. God is always with us, alongside us to help and to turn the suffering into something life-giving, even when it’s incredibly hard to see. When one of my autistic children is very afraid of a spiritual possibility like cursed mummies or creepy spirits, I coax him to look away from the fearful idea and toward the love of God. I hold his hand and tell him that God is always next to him. That means you can’t always see God, but you can see me, and I love you. Hold my hand and know that God is holding our hands.
- You cannot be faithful alone. This is a hard idea for Americans to swallow, because we have been poisoned by the fantasy of the rugged individual. Our culture pretends that there is strength in doing whatever one desires without regard to others. This belies the reality of lived human experience. All of us, autists or neurotypicals, are social creatures who thrive in relationships with others. We rely on others for our lives, livelihoods, and well-being. The scripture is more to the point when it advises, “If you do not love your brother whom you have seen, how can you love God, whom you have not seen?” If you routinely abandon communities or community members or demonize others or spend more time blaming and judging than teaching about the universal and impartial love of God, you need to stop and consider that you are telling your concrete-thinking friends and students and community members that the faith doesn’t matter. They won’t see God in you at all, and that will mean that many of them won’t believe there is a God. You have to sacrifice your fear of looking weak to your desire to look like God. Start loving one another so that other people will know the love of God.
- Teach to the goal, not to the detours. Spend your time teaching about virtue rather than ranting about vice. Spend your time showing examples of God’s love rather than engaging in fights for human power. Autistic persons are prone to anxiety because they have to work harder to sort out an overabundance of stimuli. They see far, far more than you do. Always. This means they see more spiritually, too. They don’t need to hear a rant that equates a politician or a sitcom or a behavior pattern with demons and evil. That will only confuse them, because you will be drawing their extremely acute attention and focus to something that will not better them if they study it. Instead, tell examples of human virtue and godly grace. Hold up holy images, examples of holy people, of kindness, love, the good of creation, the care that God gives to us and asks us to give to others. Then you will be feeding your deep-rooting autists with living water.
- Metaphors work because they’re tangible. If you ever talk to me in person, you’ll hear me use metaphors for emotional and intellectual and social work and situations. I do this because I have a lifelong habit of translating my thinking, which is primarily based in images and music, into speech, which can get pretty abstract. If you can use hands-on examples and pictures and symbols in your teaching, do so. Also use metaphors to anchor abstract ideas to a tangible reality. Our faith was taught this way for centuries. Jesus’ parables are examples of this way of teaching, but you can faithfully use other metaphors. For instance, when one of my children gets frustrated with learning a new idea about how to sort feelings or predict the social effect of an action, I calm him by saying that he’s only learning skills just like when he first learned to build Legos. He doesn’t need to be afraid. For some skill sets, he’s on the first bag of 5 in a giant set, and he has to put the tricky pieces that don’t make sense yet together. But they will. That metaphor is calming because we know that we will eventually understand what we’re building. If you teach to the goal, metaphors are a great way to pave the path to godliness and love.
Find more resources on faith and special needs in Special Needs Resources.
Don’t forget to follow my blog. This month, I will be sharing free resources, including a special printable on How to Make Your Home Autism Accessible.
I’m speaking on “Concrete Thinking as a Model for Evangelism” this June at the Third Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference. This is my favorite writer’s conference, and I’m honored to get to lead a presentation this year. If you’re a Catholic or Orthodox Christian or want to attend an edifying conference steeped in historical Christian tradition, please consider registering. We’d love to see you there!