Autism and the Christian Community: Why Awareness Isn’t Enough

In honor of Autism Acceptance Month (often called Autism Awareness Month), Ling Austin ’22 reflects on why autism awareness is not as powerful or as needed as autism acceptance—and how Christ’s teachings can provide neurotypicals with a fuller understanding of what it looks like to accept neurodivergents and others with disabilities. 

Every April, many disability activists, advocates and disability-conscious people acknowledge Autism Acceptance Month. But even among all the blue yard signs, inspirational slogans and puzzle piece paraphernalia, those of us who are autistic can’t help but feel left out, even though this month was supposedly meant for us.

This feeling of being left out is something we, as autistics, experience a lot—especially in Christian communities with a neurotypical majority because our ways of worshipping God and interacting with other believers look different.  For instance, I’m eager to worship. I love to sing, especially classic hymns. The fire of the Lord is kindled in me whenever I hear stories about missionaries going through unspeakable hardship, enduring through faith and God’s love. Guided Bible study is my favorite worship activity, whether it’s in an academic setting in theology courses or in a more familial setting with my grandpa and great aunt. But from the way I behave in a world that overwhelms me on a near-constant basis, I wouldn’t seem to be a very good believer.

I’ve had to excuse myself from church and chapel services due to loud music, and I tend to sit at the back or in the corners of the church hall to avoid large crowds. I’ve had people explain to me their personal theology about autism completely unprompted. I’ve had people tell me that they’ll pray to have my autism cured. I’ve been called everything from demon-possessed to an angel in disguise, from pitiful to inspirational, but very rarely have I been called what I am, which is human.  When I’ve reached out for help about these issues, it seems that people just don’t know what to do to help a person like me in a situation like this, so instead of getting active support, I’m often told to “just ignore it.”

This shouldn’t be the case. As Christians, we should know better than to exclude certain types of people, make them feel uncomfortable or circulate harmful rhetoric about them. According to core doctrine, we are all, as human beings, made in the image of God, even those of us who are considered disabled. We know that we aren’t always intentionally excluded or thought of as defective or inferior. We are aware of and grateful for the kindness and attempts at sensitivity from our neurotypical friends, family, coworkers and authority figures, but kindness and accommodation don’t always amount to the same thing. We are still often excluded from deep spiritual conversations and are avoided when we express our various quirks, so how is it that so many neurotypical Christians, without any ill intent, end up doing more harm than good in terms of autism awareness and understanding? 

There is nothing in the Bible that specifically mentions autism, but there is a good deal about disability in general, and how to treat disabled individuals. According to the Gospel of John, Jesus made it very clear that those born with disabilities are not being punished by God for any sin. When confronted with the question of whether the formerly blind man he healed was blind because of his own sins or the sins of his parents, Jesus replied, “’It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ (John 9:3)”

So, according to Christ himself, just like the neurotypical and the able-bodied, the disabled are intended agents of the goodness of God in the world. Though, because of the added context of the miracle healing, it may be inferred that the purpose of disabled people is to be healed by divine miracles, which has unfortunate implications for the humanity and capability of the disabled.

This is slightly elaborated on in the Apostle Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, when Paul discusses the transience of the mortal world, contrasting it with the eternity of God. “Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16b-18).

Because these words are often addressed to church congregations with a majority of able-bodied and neurotypical Christians, it is easy to understand how, despite the Scriptures encouraging acceptance and care towards the disabled, neurotypical Christians might focus so much on the “momentary troubles” they associate with disability that they miss out on inner renewal and eternal glory experienced by autistics and those with disabilities.

Of course, this isn’t the only response I’ve witnessed. Gordon has a student group led by the school’s Academic Success Center, specifically for autistic and neurodivergent students to connect, make friendships, discuss academic strategies, learn social skills, talk about job opportunities, and even go out for fun activities to get us more accustomed to public and social events. I’ve met some wonderful, understanding friends through Transitions and in other places, too. I’m part of a generation of young people who are learning to be more open about their mental health struggles and learning disabilities, and through connecting with them I’ve slowly begun to feel less and less like someone who belongs on “the outside,” and I realize that, in many fearful and wonderful ways, we are more alike than different.

Still, it’s time to move away from awareness and towards an understanding of autism and autistics—to listen to our voices, understand our struggles and consider our needs. Allow us to stim. If you see us rocking, repeating words, rubbing our skin or doing any kind of self-stimulating behaviors, know that these habits are a vital part of the way our brains process the world. Don’t take offense if we ask you to talk more quietly. There are a lot of us who wear earplugs to dull the noise of the world a little bit. Even so, we can still hear you. We hear pretty much everything, whether we like it or not. Earplugs are our way of accommodating you. Accept that we will talk when we’re ready to. Please see us as whole people who are not defective, nor missing pieces of ourselves. Like everyone else, we are made in God’s image, and he has plans for all of us. We are capable of wonderful things that glorify our Creator.

By Ling Austin ’22, English language and literature