Welcoming people with autism spectrum disorder and specific learning differences in the church.

There is a popular and damaging misconception that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are unlikely to believe in God and cannot relate to God.

If people with ASD are rejecting religion and staying away from churches, it might be due in part to the failure of churches to meet these people’s needs, and so making it harder for them to understand the faith and making it unappealing to remain in church. This failure can be in a variety of areas including inappropriate teaching, inadequate pastoral care, lack of social inclusion, as well as practical and environmental issues. Many of the issues affecting people with ASD also affect people with specific learning differences (SLD).

I will give a brief description of what ASD and SLD are, followed by suggested ways to increase accessibility and inclusion in the church setting.

Introduction

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong developmental disability. It used to be divided into autism and Asperger’s syndrome, but now it is classified as a single condition.

Autistic traits include: communication difficulties, both verbal and non-verbal; impaired social interactions and relationships; difficulty planning, prioritising, executing, and changing tasks; inflexible and repetitive behaviour and thinking; unusual or intense interests; atypical sensory experience. A lot of people learn to disguise their difficulties, particularly women and girls, so they may not be apparent. People often use their strengths to compensate for their difficulties, e.g. use high intelligence to deduce and memorise a list of social rules to compensate for lack of intuitive awareness of social situations.

Specific learning differences (SLD) include dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). These are lifelong developmental differences that affect information processing in the brain. They can lead to difficulties with: concentrating and paying attention; organisation and prioritising, and holding multiple pieces of information in mind. They are called specific learning differences because these difficulties are in contrast to their average, or above average ability in other areas of functioning. People with SLD can experience some similar difficulties to those with ASD, for example they all may have difficulty filtering out sensory information leading to distraction and distress. People with ASD often also have SLD, and people with an SLD often have more than one.

People who are more severely disabled tend to be identified and their individual needs met. However, there is a large population of people with ASD and SLD who don’t need intensive one-to-one support, but struggle without any help. These people’s difficulties may not be visible, and they may not even be diagnosed (this is common in older people), and so they are likely to go unnoticed and can easily “fall through the gaps”. These people are the focus of this document.

The aim of this document is to suggest small changes through which churches can become more accessible, inclusive, and supportive to people with ASD and SLD. Most importantly, having these changes in place will help people without requiring them to identify themselves as having ASD or SLD as well as helping people without a diagnosis. This will reduce the risk of people with ASD or SLD feeling awkward or embarrassed, and reduce the risk of the church being experienced as patronising. These suggestions could be helpful to many neurotypical people too.

Suggested ways to increase accessibility and inclusion

The following suggestions must be applied thoughtfully and with consideration for the specific needs and resources of a church or event. For example, there may be competing needs such as people with sound sensitivity and deafness in the same group. It is unlikely that any church would to want to use all of the suggestions, and some may be useful at some times but not others. It is important to remember that people with ASD and SLD are people, individuals, and that their differences are a part of who they are and not problems to be solved or cured.

Physical and practical considerations

Lighting

  • Make sure lights are in good working order. Fix any intermittent faults, flickering, or strobe effects quickly, because these can make people feel ill.
  • Use the minimum electric lighting necessary because they can be difficult to tolerate.

Sound

  • Keep the volume of speakers to the lowest that is audible to all. Too loud sounds can be physically painful.
  • Make sure the sound quality is good. Fix any buzzing, feedback, or distortion from speakers.
  • Check for other sources of noise for example buzzing lights, noise from heating and fans etc., and reduce as much as possible.
  • If there is an area of the church that is likely to be particularly noisy, eg near the children’s room, tell new people/visitors and direct them to the best areas.
  • Minimise the echo in halls and meeting rooms used for social functions.

Smell

  • Do not use any room fragrances or air fresheners.
  • Avoid strongly scented cleaning products.
  • Treat mould and damp etc. to prevent odour.
  • Ask people not to wear perfume to church services and events because many competing smells can be challenging.

Visual displays/projector

  • Do not have unnecessary visuals, for example pictures behind song words.
  • Do not have unnecessary moving images, particularly while someone is talking, for example rotating images and dynamic transitions between slides. This is extremely distracting.
  • Avoid unnecessary use of the projector while someone is speaking, for example showing a logo, picture, or general information. Only show images or text while it is to be attended to. If the text shown is different from the words being spoken, it is important the speaker pauses to allow reading time.

Welcome team

  • Make it easy to see how to get in to the building, and find where to go once inside. For example, if the door is hidden from the road put up a sign with directions.
  • Have clearly identified welcome people at the door.
  • Show new people/visitors where to go and what they need, e.g. give books marked at the relevant section.
  • Make information available explaining why certain things are done during a service. For example, why people stand to sing and bow head to pray, why there is a pulpit etc. This would be particularly helpful to newcomers with no church background.
  • If it’s a communion service explain the procedure for that church, either verbally or with a handout.
  • Make visitors and new people feel wanted and welcome.

Rooms

  • Provide a quiet room if possible where people can take a break. Having a place to escape to for a few minutes when it’s noisy or busy, eg during coffee after a service or at an event, makes socialising much easier to manage. For many people, knowing there is a place to go for breaks will make the difference between deciding whether or not to attend an event.
  • Where possible make alternative rooms available to facilitate socialising and discussions. People can find the busyness and noise of a large hall full of people distracting and overwhelming, making it very difficult to be able to talk or join in.

Preaching and speaking

  • Explain metaphor, imagery, analogy, colloquial, and contracted or stylised phrases. These descriptive tools help many people to understand, but can be inaccessible to those with ASD and SLD. A very brief explanation of them will allow everyone to benefit from what’s said.
  • Use concrete terms and try to avoid using vague undefined concepts; always relate concepts to the purpose of the talk and to the circumstances of the intended audience. Define terms that can have different meanings and implications so it is clear how they are being used. Precise use of words is important for people with ASD and SLD because they don’t always pick up on non-verbal communication (e.g. expression and tone of voice).
  • Give the point of stories and descriptions clearly; make sure the point is clearly stated, not just implied, but it doesn’t need to be laboured.
  • Repeat key statements and phrases. This has the dual benefit of highlighting important information, and giving people whose attention has wandered another chance to hear.

Education

  • Teach the central facts of the faith clearly, beginning with the basics before moving on so that everyone has a good foundation. Do not assume people who grew up in church understand the faith, but also be careful not to patronise anyone. Help people to meet Jesus, keep it simple but be aware that different people will find different modes or routes more useful and accessible (for example emotional, logical, historical).
  • When moving onto more complex subjects do it in an orderly way that builds on what has already been taught. Consistency is very important – errors and contradictions are likely to be noticed by people with ASD and may be off putting.
  • Make use of a variety of sources of information to show that Christianity is rational and reasonable, e.g. historical and philosophical evidence. Different people will find different sources and approaches useful.
  • Give historical context to the New Testament to make it more meaningful and easier to understand and remember (for example relate it back to Old Testament and Judaism, describe the culture of the time, and relate it forward to the early church).
  • Apply teaching to real situations to make it relevant, and to help integrate it into everyday life.
  • If possible offer a forum for people to ask questions in a non-judgemental environment. This could be in the context of a bible study/home group, a dedicated meeting for questions, a mentor system, or a number of internet based options.
  • In group discussions try to allow opportunity for everyone to speak. People with ASD or SLD may need a longer thinking time to process what has been said, and they can have difficulty judging when it is their turn to speak. This means they are often excluded from group discussions (or may unintentionally dominate the conversation in an effort to join in). Try to give opportunity for everyone to speak, and allow natural pauses in conversation to avoid rushing people. Be aware that some people may prefer reading to talking, and some people may not be comfortable in groups.
  • Teach people how to pray and take care to validate non-verbal expressions of faith and prayer. For many people with ASD verbal prayer is like praying in a second language. In addition to spontaneous verbal prayer, teach set/pre-written prayers and teach how to use them fully. Teach non-verbal prayer for example meditative prayer, use of visual aids such as icons, and physical gestures as prayer. Make it clear that no one method is better than another.
  • Teach the faith in a way that engages the whole person; encourage integrating non-verbal with verbal, physical with emotional and intellectual. Find ways to link up “head” and “heart” without subordinating one to the other. Teaching about the sacraments may be a starting point for this integration because they involve the body and the senses, the emotions, and the intellect.
  • Teach the structure and content of services and the meanings behind what is done so that people can fully engage and participate meaningfully.

Pastoral Care

  • Recognise that people think in different ways, and some people have communication difficulties. Accommodate these differences, but always assume competence and do not pathologise anyone.
  • Be inclusive, offer the same care to people with difficulties and differences as to everyone else. Some people may have difficulty explaining themselves so have patience and check you have understood properly. Never single out individuals for different treatment unless they ask.
  • Do not treat someone as a project or a problem to be solved. Just love them, help them, and support them with friendship.
  • Be aware that there is a general lack of support for adults with ASD and SLD in the wider community. This can lead to isolation, poverty, mental and physical health problems.

Social and community

The following suggestions presuppose a strong sense of community and a welcoming culture. If these are not well developed in a church they would need to be worked on before the following suggestions could be applied.

  • Give basic education for the church community about ASD and SLD. Explain differences in thinking, communication, and sensory experience. Encourage people not to assume someone is being awkward, unfriendly, or rude on purpose, and to give them a chance to be included.
  • Train leaders and teachers, e.g. Sunday school teachers, deacons, pastoral care team, to understand ASD and SLD and to be aware of the difficulties and differences people may have, and particularly how to communicate effectively with them.
  • Encourage people to contribute to the church according to their abilities and strengths. With this approach, people with ASD and SLD can become valued members of the congregation instead of difficult people to be accommodated.
  • Make efforts to foster community within the church and to include people with ASD and SLD. Offer a variety of social activities that will appeal to different people. These can be indoors or out, for small groups or the whole church. For many people with ASD and SLD structured activities are much easier to join in with than unstructured social time (which relies heavily on communication skills).
  • If possible offer an “escape room” at social events, a quiet place where people can go for a break from the effort of socialising and being in a busy environment. Some people with ASD or SLD would feel more confident and comfortable going to a social event if they know there is a quiet place where they can go for short breaks.
  • Encourage home groups/small groups/bible study groups. These are a very good way for people with ASD and SLD to get to know people in an easier environment, and to have a valuable involvement with and contribution to the church.
  • As far as possible keep the timing, duration, and structure of similar events consistent so people know what to expect. Unexpected changes to the regular schedule can be challenging or distressing, and can put people off attending in the future.
  • Be aware that some people may not want to join in any social activities, and that it is ok.

Recommended reading

  • Kim, C. Musings of an aspie: One women’s thoughts about life on the

            spectrum. https://musingsofanaspie.com

 A blog written by a woman who was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in middle age. She gives beautiful first person descriptions of being autistic, discusses issues related to autism, and ways of dealing with the challenges.

  • Grant, D. (2010). That’s the Way I Think: Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and ADHD

Explained. Oxon: Routledge.

Clear descriptions of specific learning differences. It includes explanations of what they are, features they have in common, features that make them distinct, and descriptions of the experience of them.

  • Attwood, T. (2015). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. London:

Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

A thorough, and somewhat academic, description of Asperger’s syndrome.

  • Higashida, N., & Mitchell, D. (2014). The Reason I Jump: one boy’s voice

from the silence of autism. London: Sceptre.

A first-person account of being autistic, written for non-autistic people.

 

  • Note for USA – avoid using or referencing the charity “autism speaks”. It is very unpopular with the adult autistic community, and any mention could alienate people.