Sunday, March 2, 2014

Our Call As Christians To Support, Not Cure Autistic People



Over the past two decades, there have been major thrusts to cure what so many believe is a new disease. This supposed disease has been blamed on vaccinations. It still has no known cause. A whole movement, especially of parents of children who are believed to be afflicted with this dread disease, has sprung up. It is strong. It has gained limited attention of some in the media and of some in the government, at least in the US. Yet there are a growing number of us who question this supposed disease and what it actually is, and what those affected by it truly need.

Autistic People & the Church

When many of us Christians think of autism, we may think of nonverbal people, especially children, who have meltdowns. This is the picture of autism that many people first think of when they think of autism. But though this is an accurate picture of a good number of autistic adults and children, it's far from the complete picture. You can put a group of any 25 autistic people in a room. Each person's autism looks different from any other person's autism. As it's often said, "If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism. I know that there are Christian congregations doing more to welcome and accept people with autism just as many are improving about welcoming people with other disabilities. The Christian community, for decades, have embraced people diagnosed with ADHD, which has traits that are like autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Yet it is only recently that the Church has begun embracing autistic people. Why?

My Own Experience

Let me share something of my own experience with the Church. When I was in my 20s, I remember a singles group that operated through a local church. One evening, we were playing ping-pong. When I took a few minutes to take a bathroom break, I overheard the guy a had a crush on at the time, say to someone, "You are sure better at playing this than Lisa." I was crushed! The people in the group were nice to me, but I never felt socially accepted. In one other congregation, in particular, I felt excluded and unwelcome. I had sought to get involved in the life of that particular fellowship, more than I remember ever doing. A few times, people would discuss me as though I could not hear them. Once, a member said to my spouse, "Are you sure she can handle her daughter?" Again, the members were nice to me, but never did I feel that I was "one of them." Granted, maybe some of this was my undiagnosed autism coming through as being not interested in them, or preferring to keep to myself. Yet this local church, like so many others according to my research, was not equipped to relate to or welcome people with disabilities, in general. I would get frustrated at the sheer lack of Christian books about disabilities. I found one two addressed to parishes about how to welcome people with disabilities and only one addressed to persons with disabilities themselves. Church, we can do better!

Parenting On the Spectrum & Finally Diagnosed On the Spectrum

Autism is unique among disabilities because it's so complex and the diagnosis of the autism spectrum has existed in only the past two decades or so. Actually, autism is a broad spectrum, with people with all levels of function. They range from those with classic, full-scale autism, who cannot speak and who need basic care, all the way to highly-functional Asperger's individuals who are often very successful. Therefore, pastors, church staff and members have no doubt felt themselves to be too busy or to have other priorities, to educate themselves about this condition. First of all, autism is a neurological condition that affects how the autistic person sees and relates to the world, to others, and to himself. How did I get aware of these things? This dis not happen until my own daughter was diagnosed with an ASD; before that, all I knew of autism was severely autistic, nonverbal classmates I encountered in special class settings, and saw in "The Rain Man." Months later, I identified myself as "possibly autistic" as I pondered all my differences growing up and now. It has been only recently that I've finally been confirmed as having an ASD, and after years of trying to find a qualified, affordable professional to check me out for an ASD. So I see two sides of autism, parenting a child on the autism spectrum and being diagnosed, as an adult, on the autism spectrum.

What Can Local Churches Do?

There are things every pastor, church staffer, and member can do, to be part of the solution. Number one, educate yourselves; I will give resources below where that can be done. You can find many others in a Google search. You can also educate yourselves about other disabilities. We make time for the things that matter to us. Welcoming all people into the Church should matter to us as it does to God. If you yourself have a relative with a disability or have a disability yourself, you may have to take the lead to educate those in your local church. Also, you can sign my autism petition, which I run on Change.org and on SignOn.org. I will include both links below, and I hope you will take time to sign it, showing support by calling on the US government to fund autism services for all, regardless of the ability to pay.

What are you doing to make all people feel welcome in your local congregation?

Please Sign My Autism Petition at Change.org.

Please Sign My Autism Petition at SignOn.org.

Autism Society--United States

National Autism Society--United Kingdom

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