Autism and the Church

autism and church

‘If you’ve met one autistic person . . . you’ve met one autistic person.’

Excerpted From

On the Spectrum

By Daniel Bowman

Coffee hour after the service. Strangers smile wide, pump my hand, ask classic small­talk questions that should be simple but aren’t for me:

“How are you?”

I don’t know, and I’m not sure if they want a real answer. I tend to take things literally, overthink these exchanges. Would they like me to be real—would it reflect better on who we are as a body of believers if I get honest? Because frankly, I’m often not okay.

Or should I pretend everything’s fine like most people do with strangers? If it were me visiting a church, I’d be put off if I got an inauthentic vibe. Then again, I’d be put off if it seemed like they were trying too hard. (I once visited a church where people spoke in the worst evangelical clichés, then thanked one another for being “so transparent.”)

I feel the sweat on my forehead; I slurp my coffee too quickly, burning my tongue.

The pastor suddenly issues a call to fill the front of the sanctuary, after I’ve carefully selected the exact seat I need (near the middle, on the aisle): “Don’t be shy, everyone move up— yes, that means you! Plenty of good seats up here!” There’s unwanted direct eye contact. I’m frozen with fear.

We’re doing “popcorn prayer” in my small group, and although they say you can “pray as you feel led,” the expectation is very clear: everyone in the group will pray. I’m the only one who hasn’t offered up a petition because my selective mutism has decided to kick in; or my senses are overloaded from the worship band’s volume and intensity; or I’m practicing in my head what to say but I’m nervous and know the words won’t come out right; or I’m afraid that my concerns—the confessions and petitions I want to offer up—are so markedly different from those I’ve just heard that I’d better keep it simple.

Anyone got a sick grandma? That’s an easy one. Please toss me a softball and mention your sick grandma.

Someone behind me touches me with no warning and begins praying into my ear. Their breath tingles my skin, which I’d crawl out of if I could. Others lay their hands on my highly sensitive neck, shoulders, and head, startling me, making me cringe . . . making me wish I’d stayed home this morning.

My first experience in a community of belief took place in upstate New York, where I was baptized, confirmed, and communed in the Catholic Church. The journey into Protestant faith has been circuitous, including worship in Baptist, Presbyterian, Free Methodist, Vineyard, and various nondenominational traditions. My wife and I have always tried to find a church that suited us in terms of our growing understanding of God and our family needs. Sometimes that meant no church at all. Plus we moved around a lot, so we landed in many different settings. 

The vignettes above occurred in good churches, formative houses of worship for me. Before I had an autism diagnosis, of course, I couldn’t put my finger on why those scenarios— “popcorn prayer” or other instances of unrehearsed spontaneity, being asked to move seats—made me so uncomfortable. I assumed I was just painfully introverted, shy, fretful, perhaps just temperamentally unsuited for church. I followed Jesus but never quite felt at home in a congregation. Not many others seemed to clam up when the pastor said, out of the blue, “Now turn to your neighbor and look him in the eye and say, ‘God loves you!’ Now give him a hug!” 

Why couldn’t I just roll with it?

Did I lack trust in God? Did I lack the Holy Spirit? Was I not fit as a member of the body of Christ?

I wrestled with these issues, and the shame they brought, for years. Only in recent years did I begin working through them with a better knowledge of who God made me to be, and what I need to thrive.

Like most people on the spectrum, I need some structure and predictability. Surprises are challenging. Unwanted physical exchanges can be difficult. I often can’t sustain eye contact, and shouldn’t have to. Some weeks, I’m overloaded and simply cannot participate in activities that fall in the category of fellowship; therefore, my church attendance is spotty. Among the many things church is, it’s a complex, multilayered social environment, a gauntlet of unspoken rules and expectations requiring vigilant navigation. If it’s already been a long week, I may need a Sabbath that includes much more rest and time away from all people—including staying home from church.

“I would never have known; you don’t look autistic.”

“Are you sure you have autism? You just need to learn to relax—smile, life’s not that bad. God is in control!”

“My nephew has autism and you’re not like him at all. You’re really high­functioning.”

“I think you mean ‘a person with autism.’ Saying ‘autistic’ is offensive.”

“It’s inspiring that you’re overcoming your autism. You can beat this! You can do all things through Christ.”

“Well, I guess we’re all a little autistic, right?”

Now that some people in my faith circles know I’m autistic, it can be frustrating to communicate the nuances of what that means. People often say things that are hurtful or reductive, or simply betray a lack of understanding. The comments above are not hypothetical, or anomalous—I’ve heard them all. I sometimes feel like I’ve been dubbed Ambassador of the Autistic Community, that I’m supposed to model healthy autism and the integration of autism and faith, gently teaching anyone who’s interested. That’s a lot of pressure when my emotional energy is consistently near­drained. And yet I still feel traces of shame for not being up to the task.

Since my diagnosis, I know I don’t have to feel ashamed anymore. And that’s perhaps the key takeaway I’d like to offer to fellow Christ followers: as you live and worship alongside your autistic neighbors, you can help free us from the shame we’ve carried. No one expects you to walk on eggshells or get everything right. Just aim for greater knowledge and empathy. Listening to our stories—including reading books like this—is a great start.

These days my family and I attend an Episcopal church. We have friends there, which helps put me at ease. And the Episcopal rites feature marvelous predictability through liturgy, tradition, and a year­round calendar of meaningful and structured holy days. I know what to expect, and I find richness in it, whether it’s responsive Scripture reading; the Book of Common Prayer; the sung liturgy (a call and response led by our priest); or the taste of the cold steel chalice and the tang of warm red wine on my lips as I kneel at the communion rail. It all works for me.

This is not to say there will always be a direct relationship between autism and “high church” settings. The aphorism from autistic circles bears repeating in the context of faith: “If you’ve met one autistic person . . . you’ve met one autistic person.” While we share a constellation of traits to various degrees, people on the spectrum are unique individuals who land in many denominations and churches.

Ministers and congregants: you may not know it, but we’re in your church.

I pray that your minds and hearts are open to us. For we too are fearfully and wonderfully—if a little differently—made.

Excerpted from On the Spectrum by Daniel Bowman Jr., ©2021. Used by permission of Baker Publishing

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