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Autism and the Church—what does this mean?
April is Autism Awareness Month, so there have been all kinds of posts on social media and elsewhere on this topic. There was a time not so very long ago when the term autism brought to mind a child or adult who was not aware of the “real” world; who had bizarre, uncontrollable behaviors; who was nonverbal; who could not participate in society in any meaningful way. My goodness, how times have changed! And along with the times, our language and understanding have changed. We’ve come a long way since Rain Man (1988) being our only collective experience with autism. There was a time when having autism might have meant that you were excluded from church. I pray those days are past.
Even though the term was first used in 1908, it wasn’t until 1991 that autism became its own special education category. It wasn’t until 2013 that the DSM-5 put all categories of the condition into one umbrella term of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Our understanding of autism spectrum disorders has changed dramatically over just the last quarter century. I suspect it will continue to change as our ability to study the brain and behavior improves.
What does this mean for us in the education ministries of churches and schools? First and foremost, we must always consider individual people and children first, not their label, whatever that may be. We are about the business of sharing the Good News of Jesus with His people—all His people. What this changing language of autism means for us is that perhaps now we can be better equipped to share that Gospel message. It should never be used to exclude anyone, but always to help us include and welcome and share the Good News.
What does this mean for you if you find yourself with a student with the label autism spectrum disorder somehow attached? It means that now you’ve met one person with autism. The next person you meet with autism will be a unique person too. The saying in special education goes, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.”
The word spectrum has been employed because there is an incredibly broad possibility of characteristics among people who have autism. However, there are some common characteristics among those who are identified as being on that spectrum. Typically those characteristics include these major categories:
- Challenges with social interactions
- Delays or impairment in language and communication
- Restricted and/or repetitive behaviors
A whole host of other related but not defining issues are not on this list. These include sensory sensitivity issues, gastrointestinal issues, learning issues, anxiety, sleep issues, and self-regulation issues.
But what does this mean? While all these lists seem like a lot—and may even be overwhelming—they don’t actually tell us much, do they? Not until you meet and get to know a person can you begin to understand what that individual faces in regard to strengths and challenges. It’s like a puzzle, really.
Social interactions may include things like eye contact, sharing, taking turns in conversation, and play. The area of language and communication covers so much territory; all the way from being nonverbal to not being able to understand idioms and social language. Restricted or repetitive behaviors are a bit like having tunnel vision for people with autism. It’s a strong force that pulls them to an object or movement, often involuntarily. I think how many of us use these types of behaviors to sooth ourselves, but because we’re able to hide them in socially acceptable behaviors (e.g., hair twirling, nail biting, foot tapping, pacing), they aren’t as noticeable as say, hand flapping or spinning. We often talk of these issues as deficits, but we neglect to notice the vast and varied strengths that people with autism might possess.
There are catalogs full of books on the topic of autism. I couldn’t begin to compete with that here. What I would like to emphasize is that people with autism are part of the Body of Christ, each with their own important role. We are called as people of God to serve our neighbors. That means getting to know our neighbors individually and how to serve them most effectively. If our neighbor has autism, then we need to learn about that person and how autism impacts that person’s life and how we can best serve that person. How can we be the hands and feet of Jesus for a person with autism and his or her family?
Over the course of the next several blog posts, I am going to explore this very question as it relates to children with autism in our Lutheran schools, in our other educational ministries, and in divine worship. It might take me past April and Autism Awareness Month, but I think that’s okay. While April is a great month to start, we care for all children every month, so I believe we are called to be aware of people with autism every month.
Coming next: Children with autism in our Lutheran schools
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