At the end of February, Buccleuch were delighted to hold a seminar ‘Autism, The Church and The Bible’. It was a an amazingly popular event and our hall was packed with people from different churches all over Edinburgh and beyond. Below is a summary of the day, written by Jocelyn Hammer.
On 29th February, I had the privilege of helping lead a well-attended seminar on autism with Professor Grant Macaskill of Aberdeen University, held in Buccleuch Free Church in Edinburgh. It was a great opportunity to spend a couple of hours exploring what is an important and pertinent topic. This article is a whistle-stop tour, to give you the main points, and whet your appetites for further action and discussion. The first half of the seminar involved looking at autism as a condition and how it affects us, and the second half looked more closely at what the Bible has to say about autism. Then we spent some time discussing what it all might mean practically for churches and individuals.
In common with other conditions, autism has only been identified as a condition in the last half century, but individuals have had autistic traits for millennia. As it has become more of a recognised condition within society, autism has increasingly been portrayed in the media. However, Grant was quick to rebut “Rainman”-style portrayals of autism, which usually describe individuals with amazing abilities but very poor social interactions. He spoke about the autism spectrum, and demonstrated that it is like a multi-coloured spectrum of different abilities and capabilities, rather than a linear grey-scale spectrum ranging from high-functioning to low-functioning. Grant outlined differences in systematising, social interactions and sensory issues. A fuller description of autism
spectrum conditions can be found in this document from Autism Europe.
Grant pointed out that church could be both reassuring for the autistic person, because of the repetitive nature of most services, and very difficult, due to the social and sensory elements. He challenged us to imagine finding certain smells painful, and to think of the tea and coffee and crowds after a service as potentially overwhelming to an autistic person. He reminded us that a meltdown differs radically from a tantrum because it is a person’s reaction to being overwhelmed in some way.
He moved on to talk about how mental health issues are common in autistic people, and stressed the importance of good pastoral care and support from within the congregation. After an enlightening interview with an autistic Christian, Grant talked about how we can approach autism biblically. He focused on the image of the body of Christ as found in 1 Corinthians 12: 12-26. Using these verses he highlighted the dangers of buying into societal norms. He illustrated this using the idea of a congregation praying for people for a church plant, suggesting that a friendly enthusiastic family might be seen by society as a better answer from God than an autistic person. He challenged this, saying that autistic people, and others with additional support needs, should be seen as gifts, irrespective of their productivity. He spoke further about accommodating the needs of others in the context of autism, thinking about the effects that our choices might have on others.
For the last part of the seminar there was a time of discussion in groups, thinking about practical accommodation issues using questions such as:
- Think of a typical church event and identify things which might be stressful for autistic adults. Is there anything that would help?
- One spouse in a marriage has recently been diagnosed with autism. What issues do you think the couple would face and how could you support them?
There were many good practical suggestions such as encouraging late arrivals to avoid crowds, and having quiet spaces available. However, the advice we heard most was simply to get to know the autistic person and their family. This is the best way to find out what they might need and what
would help them best.
The seminar highlighted the need for a new way of looking at autism in particular and disability in The seminar highlighted the need for a new way of looking at autism in particular and disability in general. This new way looks at individuals as God sees them, and not as society sees them. Each general. This new way looks at individuals as God sees them, and not as society sees them. Each person is made in God’s image and is valuable to Him and to the church. It gave us a chance to s made in God’s image and is valuable to Him and to the church. It gave us a chance to learn about autism in a biblical framework, but also to think practically about the implications for learn about autism in a biblical framework, but also to think practically about the implications for our congregations. Presbyteries which are interested in learning more about congregations. Presbyteries which are interested in learning more about autism can contact Professor Grant Macaskill at Aberdeen University.