Welcoming Autistic People to Religious Gatherings
April 03, 2023
By: Krysia Waldock
Although religious gatherings can provide a sense of meaning to life and belonging, gatherings may be inaccessible or present barriers that exclude autistic attendees. Organizers of religious gatherings need to be acutely aware of how they may inadvertently create these barriers that exclude people.
Whether you’re a member of a religious organization, assist in running one, or support an autistic person to attend a religious gathering, it is important to consider how inclusive your religious organization is both generally for everyone, and specifically for autistic people from a variety of backgrounds. Based on my research in the field of autistic people’s inclusion in religious organizations and my experiences as an autistic person, these are my top recommendations for religious organizations to consider:
Often staff and members of religious organizations do not recognize religious gatherings as social and sensory spaces, much like other social settings and gatherings. There sometimes is a divide between information they see as relevant to religious settings and settings they perceive as non-religious. Information for non-religious settings and ideas used more widely, such as autism-friendly cinema screenings, can offer ideas that can be applied to religious gatherings.
Within religious organizations where doctrine is central to members’ actions, it is important to consider how doctrine influences followers’ behaviors and beliefs. Because autistic people may behave differently, they may be perceived as wrong, needing help, eccentric, or weird. Lacking understanding of what it means to be autistic, organizations or groups may use other frameworks to make sense of autistic people. Some of these ideas can be harmful to autistic people. Autistic people certainly can face difficulties in a non-autistic world, but they are as wonderfully made as non-autistic people.
Members and staff of religious organizations should also consider their expectations:
Reflecting on those expectations can help them understand how they perceive autistic people’s behaviors and how they react to people who are in distress or overwhelmed. Understanding how their beliefs inform how they view and interact with other people is vital to examine what they may expect from autistic people in religious gatherings, compared to what autistic people may need.
This is perhaps the most important tip. Ann Memmott’s Welcoming and Including Autistic People in our Churches and Communities (2021) is a good resource for those who want to welcome autistic people into their gatherings. Although this source centers on Christianity specifically, how autistic people process the world and communicate are clearly explained in relation to religious practices. Autistic people who attend religious organizations may also be sources of information for staff and other members.
For example, I have found colleagues at Inclusive Church helpful for me to understand myself as an autistic person. In addition, many of my colleagues are also autistic or have other disabilities, and have been kind enough to share their knowledge with me. Talking with autistic people to understand their needs can be quite helpful if non-autistic people are open to these sorts of conversations.
Sometimes autistic people are overwhelmed or distressed at things non-autistic people can tolerate. For example, I am highly sensitive to sound and cannot sit in the main part of the church my parents attend during worship, as the volume is too high, and I can hear every sound echo and bounce off the high ceiling. I also find the complexity of multiple instruments very difficult.
I would also stress the importance of resources that frame autistic people’s experiences with the double empathy problem and monotropism. The double empathy problem is a theory relevant to autistic experience whereby autistic and non-autistic people may struggle to understand each other. Monotropism posits that autistic brains focus on a smaller number of interests and input at any one time than non-autistic brains.
These are both ideas that frame autistic people not as broken neurotypicals but as wonderfully made, while appreciating the difficulties of being autistic in a non-autistic world and other support needs autistic people may have. Humanizing perspectives of autistic people is vital for authentic and true inclusion to take place and a key part of being “autism friendly.”
Everyone who is a part of a religious organization, including members and attendees, has a role to play in making the organization autism-friendly, even if they are not knowledgeable about autistic people. Being inclusive and being autism-friendly are group efforts. Considering how their actions may affect autistic people (and others) and challenging barriers and negative attitudes are things everyone can do. Being an ally is important.
Being patient is important. Culture change takes time.
If you are a member of a religious organization, these top tips provide a good starting place for considering what inclusivity and autism friendly might mean for your organization or gathering. Autistic people of a variety of ages are likely to attend your religious organization at some point. It is likely that some autistic people have attended your organization or gathering previously. Recognizing this, along with the recommendations above, are important steps towards becoming an autism-friendly organization.
Krysia Waldock (she/they; name pronounced kri-shah) is an autistic and disabled PhD candidate at the University of Kent (Canterbury, UK) exploring autistic people’s experiences of inclusion and belonging in religious and humanist groups. Their work focuses on autistic people as a neuro-minority and the multiple stories and journeys autistic people take through religious and humanist gathering spaces. They are also a research assistant at the Institute of Cyber Security for Society (also University of Kent) and a member of the disability planning conference team with Inclusive Church at St Martins in the Fields, London (UK).