Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Autism & Following Jesus

Months ago, I was surfing on the Internet. I came upon a popular website that is about autism and is maintained by an autistic person. At that time, he had posted an article concerning autism in the context of religion. It was titled, "Why I Will Never Embrace Religion." In this article, he stated, "I will never embrace religion because it tells me that my autistic traits, especially preferring things to people, fear of them and preferring to be alone, are bad. That is, I am bad. So I can't embrace it because I would reject my autism." While many parents, professionals and much of the public see autism as a bad thing that needs to be eliminated, many in the autism community see autism as a positive difference to be embraced as "neurodiversity."

The Bible, of course, does not know anything of autism as autism is a man-made diagnosis. But the condition has probably been around since ancient times and was just known as other things. In ancient times, such people's traits may have gotten them called "feeble-minded," "mute," and even "demon-possessed." In more modern times before the diagnosis was coined as a spectrum, such people were probably known as "mentally retarded," "emotionally disturbed," "lazy," delinquent," or "underachievers." Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects certain parts of the brain and affect the way a person sees the world, people and self. It ranges from "severe" classic autism to "mild" Asperger's Syndrome. Autism shows up differently in every people who is autistic. If you filled a room with no one but autistic people, no one's autism would resemble anyone else's. What effect does following Jesus have on those who live with autism, whether parenting autistic children and/or being autistic?

Autism causes difficulties in the social and communication arena. Half of the Ten Commandments involve relationships. Relationships, to work well, involve effective communication skills and good social skills. As Christians, we are called to do many things which involve social skills and socializing. We are called to "be in the world but not of it." To do that we are to spend time with people, both fellow Christians and non-Christians. We are called to communicate in our families and churches, and to share our faith. All this will involve more or less the willingness and ability to use social communication skills. About Jesus, we are told that he was "a friend of tax collectors and sinners." He was usually surrounded with people and when He was, he was always busy healing them, teaching them and caring for them. We are called to live as He lived on Earth, to walk as He walked. Is the life of a follower of Jesus really against autism and does it prohibit finding identity in one's autism?

Yes, it is true that we are called to do as Christians are socially relational in nature. What does this look like for an autistic person who dislikes social small talk and cannot carry a conversation unless the topic is about a special passion or interest? What does following Christ look like for a person with social anxiety? It indeed makes following Jesus in relationships more challenging than it is for typical people. Many autistic people feel far more comfortable and are far better at self-expression through writing than through face-to-face interaction. For example, such a person may be more comfortable and better at making quality Gospel tracts or writing Christ-centered notes than at approaching people and talking with them about their lives and their spiritual need. Such a person may gravitate to ministries that call for communicating with people via writing or computer, rather than in person. In the cases of severe autism where the person cannot speak, these preferences in prayer, worship and ministry are even more likely as spoken communication is unavailable. God, being all-knowing, is not limited from communicating with His own even if they cannot speak. I read somewhere of the mom of an autistic boy who would cry herself to sleep, wondering how he would ever be able to communicate with God without being able to talk. But God's grace and power are not limited by the ability to speak or by social communication. I'm sure that He wants those of us the autism community to work to modify the traits of autism in our children or in ourselves.

Yes, in some ways autism aggravates our inherent sinful natures. It can be said that, depending on the extent of an autistic person's impairment, he or she has reduced responsibility for behavior. But this is no excuse for parents of autistic children, and autistic people themselves, to decline to pursue God and make Him priority. Matters like autistic meltdowns and sensory-based social and behavior problems might not be sin in themselves; if no effort is made to do anything about them, this neglect is wrong. The "acceptance" people in the autism community have it right in that God loves and values each of us, including autistic people. But the "cure" people in the autism community get it right when they say that we are responsible to change undesirable autistic behaviors as much as possible. Focusing on Christ would unite both warring factions in the autism community.

I only wish that the web owner who wrote that article about "Why I'll Never Embrace Religion," will know that the God of the Bible is not limited by social communication or even the ability to speak, in being able to relate to us and to use our lives.

Want a practical way to show support for autistic people, especially those in the Body of Christ? Please sign this autism petition.
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