Autism and the Church

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22 Feb, 2024

By Lyndsay Cameron-Ross

Last weekend I spent my Saturday afternoon with some absolutely brilliant humans, at a workshop and lunch entitled Autism and the Church, with the author and theologian Erin Burnett.

As leaders who organise and facilitate a wide range of gatherings and events in our churches and communities, I found this incredibly insightful and helpful to unpack some of the complexities of autism, and simple accommodations that could make a significant difference to someone’s experience.
It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK and our churches) are diagnosed neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Neurodivergence includes a range of conditions including Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia, and many individuals in our churches, families, workplaces are affected, or know someone who is.
The sessions focused on increasing understanding and awareness of those with neurodivergent conditions, and included some very practical suggestions as to how churches and organisations can create events and services that are mindful of the growing number of people impacted.
‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind …’ But what if your mind works differently?

Autistic people see the world differently. Sadly, many autistic Christians do not feel fully included in their local church. It doesn’t have to be this way – with understanding and support, autistic people can play a vital role in Christian communities.

In this short, insightful and personal book, Erin Burnett draws upon interviews with autistic Christians and her own experience of being on the spectrum to explain what autism is, how autistic people approach spirituality and what aspects of Christianity autistic people often find difficult.

Using a blend of Biblical teaching, scientific research and personal stories, With All Your Mind offers guidance on welcoming autistic people into the body of Christ and suggests ways that churches can be more accommodating.

Some of the challenges in church that were explored through discussion and via an interactive website included:
– socialising time before and after church
– the ‘greet your neighbour’ part of a gathering
– loud musis/ noise and bright lights (particularly fluorescent lighting)
– metaphorical language in sermons and teaching
– sharing the peace/ physical contact
– maintaining attention during long sermons
– having to sit for extended periods of time
Practical adjustments and suggestions included:
–  providing earplugs/ fidget items available in a basket at door
– being aware of lighting (fluorescent lighting can be challenging therefore minimising where possible)
– creating relaxed spaces in more formal gatherings
– providing an order of service so there is a clear outline of what to expect
– having accessible entry and exit routes to gatherings (ie more than one aisle space, exits not at the front of venue)
Erin has a theology degree from Queen’s University Belfast where she researched the intersection between autism and faith, leading to the publication of With All Your Mind: Autism and the Church in 2022. You can find more information on her website here.

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