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17 ways to make your church autism-friendly

Church can be a difficult environment for those with additional needs. Katherine Bale, who has autism spectrum disorder, gives her view from the church pew.

I was diagnosed with specific learning differences (SLD) aged 19, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) aged 28, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at 30 years of age. This may seem late but late diagnoses are common in older people, and especially in women. The diagnoses began to make sense of my life up to that point, spiritually as well as every other aspect. Many areas of my life had been quite difficult, but now post-diagnosis I benefit from much more self-awareness and self-compassion.

I grew up in Christian family and attended church and Sunday school throughout my childhood. I came to faith as an independent young adult, supported by a very friendly and supportive local church. However, during several years of illness, I lost all faith because of an inadequate understanding of who God is. I came back to faith again in my 30s. This return was part due to a period of personal study and reflection, but mostly because Jesus did not let me go!

My childhood memories of church are mostly of not knowing what was happening or what I was meant to do. Now as an adult, I still have confusion from being in a busy environment. My current difficulties in church are from many small things that add up to it being a real effort.

Here are some examples of my experience:

Before the service, I’m sitting in my seat at church: one or more people are talking to me; the band is playing; the minister is walking in; there’s lots of moving visuals on the screens; several people are wearing strong perfume; there’s loud noise from the heating system; unpleasant coloured electric light. And I am sitting there unable to filter out sensory information that I don’t need, and feeling increasingly tense. By the time the minister starts, I’m not capable of paying attention and it takes a while to be able to calm down and focus. So, there is a lot of hard work for me to do before I can even start to join in with a worship service.

During the service, I find it difficult to concentrate because of distractions. The distractors are normal things that aren’t bad in themselves, but I am unable to filter them out. This takes a lot of effort and is stressful because I don’t want to miss anything. This is normal for me and many everyday situations are exhausting.

I enjoy the social time following a service, but making the switch from concentration into social interaction is difficult. It takes time to adjust and can leave me feeling on the outside and hoping the friendly person in front of me won’t think I’m not interested and go away before I’ve been able to tune into what they’re saying and find the words to reply.

Here are 17 tips on how churches can become more autism-friendly:

1. Respect individual differences so people can feel welcome however socially awkward.

2. Provide opportunities for sharing ideas and learning in a small group setting.

3. Have a variety of structured and semi-structured social activities so one can feel part of the church without feeling overwhelmed or lost.

4. Help people discover what style of service suits them best (this will be different for different people). I find that liturgical worship facilitates a direct meeting with God. But I find that typical evangelical worship services are more about God and so require several steps of abstraction and interpretation to become a real meeting, this means that I often feel disconnected.

5. Remember spontaneous prayer is not the only way to pray. When I realised this, it allowed me to begin making use of pre-written prayers, physical/gestural methods, and most of all silence in my private prayer time. This has led to a deepening relationship with God that is unimpaired by disability.

6. Make sure lights are in good working order. Fix any intermittent faults, flickering, or strobe effects quickly, because these can make people feel ill.

7. Keep the volume of speakers to the lowest that is audible to all. Sounds that are too loud can be physically painful. If there is an area of the church that is likely to be particularly noisy, near the children’s room or next to a fan, for example, tell visitors and direct them to the best areas.

8. Do not use any room fragrances, air fresheners, or strongly scented cleaning products.

9. Avoid unnecessary use of the projector while someone is speaking, for example showing a logo, picture, or general information. Moving images are very distracting. Only show images or text while it is to be attended to. If the text shown is different from the words being spoken, it is important the speaker pauses to allow reading time.

10. Make it easy to see how to get in to the building, and find where to go once inside. For example, if the door is hidden from the road put up a sign with directions and have clearly identified welcome people at the door to show new people/visitors where to go and what they need.

11. Explain metaphor, imagery, analogy, colloquial, and contracted or stylised phrases when preaching. These descriptive tools help many people to understand, but can be inaccessible to those with ASD and SLD. A very brief explanation of them will allow everyone to benefit from what’s said.

12. Give the point of stories and descriptions clearly using concrete terms; make sure the point is clearly stated, not just implied, but it doesn’t need to be laboured.

13. Recognise that people think in different ways, and some people have communication difficulties. Accommodate these differences, but always assume competence.

14. Be aware that there is a general lack of support for adults with ASD and SLD in the wider community. This can lead to isolation, poverty, mental and physical health problems.

15. Train leaders and teachers to understand ASD and SLD and to be aware of the difficulties and differences people may have, and particularly how to communicate effectively with them. Also encourage people not to assume someone is being awkward, unfriendly, or rude on purpose, and to give them a chance to be included.

16. Allow people to contribute to the church according to their abilities and strengths. With this approach, people with ASD and SLD can become valued members of the congregation instead of difficult people to be accommodated.

17. Enable home groups/small groups/bible study groups. These are a very good way for people with ASD and SLD to get to know people in an easier environment, and to have a valuable involvement with and contribution to the church.

There is a damaging misconception that people with ASD are unlikely to believe in God and cannot relate to God. If people with ASD and SLD are rejecting religion and staying away from churches, it might be due in part to the failure of churches to meet these people’s needs. When the church fails to accommodate specific needs, it creates a barrier to individual to understand the Christian faith and makes it unappealing for them to remain in church.

I know from my own experience that autistic people can and do have genuine relationships with God. He meets us and accepts us as we are, and understands us perfectly. We are reassured of this is Psalm 139:4, "Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely."

Katherine Bale blogs at Thoughts of an Autistic Christian

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