Autism Spectrum Disorder affects how a person sees and interacts with the world around them. It is a relatively hidden disability, only noticeable through a wide range of characteristics. Around 1 in 100 people will have a diagnosis, so it is likely there will be someone in your church, whether you notice it or not. So, what do we need to know about it and what can we do in church to support them?
Autism, and related conditions such as Asperger's, have had a tricky history in order to gain the understanding we have now. Often characterised by strengths with numbers and memory, but weaknesses in social skills, the media have shown a very one sided (and sometimes negative) view of Autism. Most people's introduction to this spectrum of disorders is Rain Man:
In this 1988 Oscar winning film, Dustin Hoffman (Raymond Babbitt) plays a long lost older brother to Tom Cruise's character Charlie, who displays signs of Autism and Savant Syndrome. As they travel across the country, they are slowed down by Raymond's routines and the distress caused when Charlie wants to keep going. It is then revealed that he has a good memory and a huge capacity for numbers. Charlie uses this to his advantage and wins big in Vegas. The film ends with Charlie changing his mind about Raymond and promising to visit the institution Raymond lived in.
For many people, this is one of the main references they can think of when you mention Autism, perpetuated by Good Will Hunting (Matt Damon and Robin Williams) which came out about 10 years later, with many drawing links between Damon's mathematical genius and autistic traits with numbers. Around this time, controversy around vaccines causing Autism filled newspaper headlines as a prominent journal released a small piece of research making this claim.
Despite the research being highly criticised and more research disproving it altogether, ASD is viewed negatively, surrounded by myths and misconceptions.
When talking about having different types of abilities and learning difficulties, it can be said that a person may be more 'neuro-diverse'. We are all on this scale as we all have different strengths and weaknesses. I have difficulties reading off white paper, but that doesn't mean I am any less capable of reading than someone can. We all have our own unique ways of thinking, which is the same as anyone diagnosed under the Autism Spectrum, they will all have different traits that make them unique.
There are three main areas where those diagnosed with ASD may experience more neuro-diversity.
Social: This is split into communication and interaction
- Communication: They may not always understand what we say and how we say it. This means that they may not get jokes, our tone of voice or notice when the conversation changes. They are also quite literal people and therefore can take things literally. Some may use language but it is limited to what they know, some may use little verbal language or prefer to use BSL or other. In some cases, people with autism enjoy being around conversation without taking part in it.
- Interaction: Body language may make them appear distant, awkward or stand off-ish in groups as they may not always know how to hold themselves. They may also stay away from crowds and seek alone time as navigating social interactions can take lots of time and energy.
Routine: Changes can be difficult for people with ASD. They may have rigid patterns of behaviour and interactions as it helps them feel safe and make sense of what's around them.
Interests: If they find something they enjoy, they can become highly focused on that topic, and can start at a young age. They may be able to hold sustained conversation about this topic, and spend lots of time investing in that interest. It could be anything from art, music, numbers, trains etc.
So, what can churches do to support any individual with ASD?
A useful framework is S P E L L
Structure: keeping a structure and routine can help everyone know what is happening and reduce anxiety. If changes are going to happen, having plenty of advance notice can help them prepare as sudden changes can raise anxiety levels.
Positive: Try and build on their strengths and abilities. Keep expectations realistic, individuals may be really good at some things, but need more help with others. This takes time as they may avoid new experiences, but positive reinforcement & structure can help lower anxiety.
Empathy: Try and see the world from their point of view. This can help develop communication with them and understand what will cause any anxiety or feelings of being unsafe. It can help by talking to them slightly side on so they don't have to make eye contact, but you can both see each other's body language.
Low arousal: try and keep environments calm and with as few distractions as possible. Some can be sensitive to lighting, smells, patterns which can hinder processing what's going on. However some stimulants can help as a comfort. This may not be possible in all churches, but it is worth having a quieter room or space for anyone to use if they need.
Links: create links with others that know about ASD or have it. Being part of their community can help raise awareness of the condition and learn more about the individual.
Finally, keep things simple and straightforward. This is better than miscommunication and can makes things easier for everyone.
ASD can often have co-morbid diagnoses with mental health difficulties and other health difficulties, so these may explain some of their habits and vice versa. Even just implementing a few things suggested can help support them in more ways than expected, and benefit more people that are on the neuro-typical / neuro-diverse scale.
For more information on ASD, have a look at The National Autistic Society.