Do you know the autistic folks in your church? Perhaps you’ve assumed that you don’t know anyone on the autism spectrum, but according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 5 million autistic people in the U.S. — just over 2 percent of the adult population. If this seems like an insignificant portion of the population, consider these similar demographics: The U.S. has around 4.7 million people with doctoral degrees and just under 2 percent of the population has a B negative blood type. Autistic folks are more common than you realize!
Despite the undeniable presence of autistic people like myself, the church often fails to make meaningful efforts to accommodate us. In my experience, congregations tend to project a message that everyone should bypass their own needs and conform to every congregation’s preferences, schedules, and means of access. For example, pastors in my life have told me that I should commit to attending every church function in person, even when my social battery is running dangerously low and I’m nearing burnout. Instead of understanding my need to replenish my energy, I’m told to “put God first” and ignore my body’s signals to rest. This is problematic because conversations around accessibility should center the folks who need it, not further marginalize us.
Autism is a spectrum — a marvelous color wheel of uniquely radiant and vivid expressions! Each autistic person has their own preferences and relationships to the language associated with the autistic community and the larger Disabled community. I identify as Disabled, and I capitalize the word to highlight the solidarity of our community and our ongoing movement to create equity and justice. I also exclusively use identity-first language (i.e., “autistic person” instead of “person with autism”) because autism isn’t something I have; it’s who I am.
For Disabled folks, accessibility is not a matter of convenience; it’s a basic requirement to honor our human dignity. Thus, the church cannot view accessibility as optional. Jesus didn’t treat Disabled folks like an inconvenience. Jesus didn’t warn people suffering with leprosy to keep their distance from him or scold the bleeding woman for touching him; far from it! Jesus drew near to those who wanted him. The church should work to meet the needs of the community just as Jesus did during his life and ministry.
Our communities of faith must be accessible in the ways that God themself is accessible. But how can congregations create accessibility for autistic folks?
Stop asking autistic folks to engage in the church in allistic (i.e., non-autistic) ways. Allowing autistic folks to engage in the life of the community however they feel comfortable and without judgment is the most important thing your church can do. For example, don’t ask us to speak, make eye contact, touch someone else, or participate in an activity that we would prefer to just observe. Let us simply exist with you and don’t make us feel like we’re doing something wrong in those moments. Accept us exactly as we are and resist the ableist urge to get us to conform to allistic ways of being.
Learn the language of the autistic community and sit at the feet of autistic educators. In the age of the internet, it’s easy to discover autistic creators online and learn from them. It is critical to listen to autistic folks first, not people with professional or personal proximity to the autistic community. Always defer to folks who are actually autistic (many of us use the hashtag #ActuallyAutistic on social media). We are the ones who determine what is harmful and what is helpful. Remember that autistic folks have different preferences on language, and if autistic people in your community give you feedback on the language you’re using, then listen, learn, and apologize when necessary.
Unfortunately, media sources and allistic people with proximity to autistic folks still use outdated and offensive language. But this doesn’t mean that language is okay for you to adopt. Prioritize removing ableist language from your vocabulary as well as sermons, liturgies, songs, and church literature, and replace it with inclusive language. For example, instead of saying someone is “mentally challenged,” simply say, “They are autistic.” And rather than asking what “special needs” I have as an autistic person, ask what support and accommodation I would find helpful. Avoid using labels like “high functioning” or “low functioning” when describing an autistic person; also avoid the term “Asperger’s syndrome,” which was removed from psychiatric diagnostic manuals and was named for a doctor who collaborated with Nazi euthanasia programs.
Additionally, avoid the “inspirational Disabled person” trope in sermon illustrations or implying that anyone — even a biblical character — needs to “overcome” their disability. Even better, invite autistic folks into your pulpit to teach the whole community what autistic representation and justice for Disabled people looks like.
Make virtual services and events a permanent option at your church. Autistic folks tend to run out of social energy more quickly than allistic folks, which makes it difficult to consistently be present for in-person services and events. Having virtual services and events allows autistic folks the option to participate in the life of the community even when they don’t have the energy (or other necessary means, such as transportation) to be there in person. This benefits autistic folks and the entire Disabled community who deserve the dignity of staying involved in our congregations without having to compromise our wellbeing.
Tell us about the social expectations of church activities and provide accommodations generously and preemptively whenever possible. Many autistic folks find it helpful to know the social expectations of a situation in advance. Let us know what to expect at an event or service by keeping detailed info on your church’s website, newsletter, social media, and other forms of communication. This info can include a brief description of the components of the service or event, what accommodations will be available, and what you’re expecting people in attendance to do. Will I need to sit or stand at this event? Will I be asked to share an opinion on something in front of a group, or read aloud from the Bible, or pray with someone one-on-one? These expectations are good to outline ahead of time and make note of any options, alternatives, and accommodations that will be offered.
Whenever possible, be mindful of common accommodations, and make them available without folks having to ask. Does your church take communion by dipping the bread into the wine? Autistic folks might prefer an alternative, so consider providing self-serve communion elements on a nearby table. Do you encourage folks to hug or shake hands when you pass the peace? Perhaps you could ask folks to wave at their neighbors instead of touching them.
Explain the meaning behind rituals and liturgies. Autistic folks often have special interests (also called deep interests). Chances are, if autistic folks are in your church, spirituality and religion may be among their special interests: Why do we say certain words when we take communion? Why are different colors associated with periods of the liturgical year? Where does the practice of baptism come from? Explain the theological depth behind these traditions and practices. The autistic folks in your pews want to know!
Listen to autistic folks, and always defer to the wisdom of their voices. The church has a lot to learn from autistic Christians, so the community of faith needs to recognize that we are whole, creative, capable people. Keep in mind that these tips offer ways to begin creating accessibility, and you will need to explore the fullness of this work in your congregation’s unique context. As you explore what it looks like to make your church accessible, remember that autistic folks should always be centered in conversations about us and the issues surrounding our community. We should never be asked to “overcome our disability.” Instead, the church should be partnering with the autistic community to overcome ableism while striving to accommodate, value, and celebrate our presence in every congregation. Love us because of the way God made us, not despite it.