Autism: rethink your attitudes
Caroline Henthorne, an autistic Christian, considers how churches can become more inclusive
Imagine that just for today you are God. Your aim for the day is to stop autistic people having difficult lives. What do you do?
The solution you think will work shows what you think is at the root of the issue and what assumptions you have about autistic people. If you think autistic people are broken, you will try to fix them. If you think autistic people are excluded, you will try to include them.
Churches need to change their attitudes. Getting the attitudes right is at the heart of all effective inclusion. Here are some assumptions I have faced as an autistic Christian – and have had to challenge in church. My responses show what I think is at the root of the issue.
“God made us all different in our own way.”
Yes, but God didn’t make us all excluded in our own way.
“In a way, we’re all disabled.”
We all face limits. Human beings can’t fly, but we do not all face exclusion. We are not all disabled anymore than we are all black or all lesbians.
“Everyone is broken somehow, and God uses our brokenness.”
We all have aspects of our lives which are a work in progress, but there is nothing spiritually beneficial about struggles with greed or alcohol. God could use us just as well if we sorted ourselves out. Autistic people may have many number of weaknesses but we aren’t bravely struggling with autism. Autism is not a sin or a character fault.
“The strong need the weak.”
That’s like saying that women exist so men can learn to be gallant. Women no longer tolerate being called the weaker sex, so why should disabled people put up with being called weaker? It takes a lot of guts to be disabled in our society.
“God doesn’t see you as autistic and you will be normal in heaven.”
Would you ever say: “God doesn’t see you as left-handed and you will be right-handed in heaven”? If God can’t love me the way I am, it isn’t me that is loved.
“Disability is a result of the fall.”
Disabled people are not broken people, we are fully human. It is prejudice that fractures someone’s humanity.
“The struggles in life help us grow in faith.”
If you think my exclusion from society is doing me good, it could do you good too. Why not join me in being disabled? It could be very easily arranged.
“Everyone has their share of struggles and feels left out sometimes.”
The everyday trials of life are not equivalent to the exclusion faced by autistic people.
“God is using your autism to bless people.”
God is using all of who I am to bless people but that is not an excuse for you ignoring my support needs.
“God is testing you.”
What’s the prize if I pass? Coping with more exclusion later in life as a geriatric autistic person?
“Autistic people can’t really understand faith, they don’t understand abstraction.”
In that case, God made some people he can’t relate to.
“Autistic people’s behaviour is so odd, it’s demonic.”
Anything you don’t understand must be evil?
“If you weren’t disabled you might think you didn’t need God.”
So God plays power games with disabled people because our talents threaten him? Or because being able to fully contribute to society would be too good for my self-esteem?
“I don’t want to label you, so let’s talk about your needs without using the word ‘autistic’”.
Would you talk about feminism without using the word “woman”? I have a communication disability, language games don’t help. (And the embarrassment of talking about disability is yours.)
“Autistic people deserve our compassion.”
Autistic people deserve our respect.
All these things I have heard in church. The thing I want to hear is: “The church should stand with autistic people, as they raise their voice and demand civil rights.
Caroline Henthorne is researching autism and disability theology. She contributed a chapter on autism and church to Lives With Autism edited by Steve Mee (M&K Publishing, 2014, £25)
This article was published in the March 2016 edition of Reform.