An Autism-Friendly Church Isn't One-Size Fits All
by Rev. Anna Haugen
I'm a pastor and autistic. In my spare time I go around giving presentations to people about autism. When people learn this, they often want tips for their own congregation: what can they do to make it welcoming to autistics? They're looking for something simple: maybe a quiet room, or stim toys in the pews. Some physical change they can make to the building that will make the space more autistic-friendly. Or maybe even a change to the service itself—something small, that will make a big difference.
Problem is, there's no one thing—or even two, or five, or ten—that they can change about their worship space that will have the effect they want.
There is no tip I can give that will be the magic bullet that will fix things and supernaturally make it an autistic-friendly space. Or rather, I can tell them what I, personally, would need, but every autistic is different. Autism is a spectrum, and by that I don't mean a straight line from neurotypical to autistic. No, the autistic spectrum is more like a color wheel in all its variations. The same underlying neurological issues manifest in many different ways.
One of those underlying issues is problems in sensory processing. Some of our senses are more acute than most people experience, and we have extreme difficulty filtering out unpleasant or unwanted or overwhelming input. Sometimes our senses are less acute than most peoples, and we desperately crave sensory input. But which senses are overstimulated and which are understimulated are different for each autistic, and can change quickly depending on our energy level and mood and many other factors.
And different types of input with the same sense can impact us very differently. For example, most of the time my sense of smell is pretty normal; it's a lot less likely to give me trouble than any other. But gas and oil smells are incredibly unpleasant, and drive me nuts, and the more tired I am the worse it gets.
Every autistic is different.
My most sensitive sense is usually hearing; on the one hand, it means I get a lot of pleasure out of music, which I wouldn't give up for anything. On the other hand, it means that cacophonous sounds (like a gymnasium in a basketball game) can be extremely difficult for me to bear. And in church, if the piano is out of tune or there's a problem with the sound system, it will be extremely difficult for me to get anything out of the worship service because enduring the sounds will take up most of my attention.
On the other hand, my baby brother (who is also autistic) is completely different. Sound has never been much of an issue for him. (The good part of that: he can handle noisy rooms better than I can. The bad part: he is not musical.) The sound system, the intonation of the musical instruments and voices—he's not going to notice one way or the other. The sense that gives him trouble in worship is proprioception, the ability of the body to sense where it is and what it's doing, so he needs to be up and moving a lot. He often gets up and paces in the back of the sanctuary, where he can still participate but he doesn’t have to sit still. For him, there needs to be a space to pace.
Then there's my dad, who is also autistic. (Autism, by the way, is mostly genetic.) He's got good ears, and in some ways, they are more sensitive than mine and in some ways they are less sensitive, but his eyes are also a lot more sensitive than mine are. He wears sunglasses outside even on cloudy days.
We're all three related, but we all three have different needs. That's why there is no one tip or trick I can give anyone for how to adjust their worship to make it friendlier for autistics.
Do you know what you have to do to figure out what, if any, adjustments you need to make?
You have to talk to the autistic people you are trying to attract. (What a shockingly novel concept!)
You have to ask them what they need. You have to work with them. (And not just say, "Oh, that doesn't make sense to me . . . so you can't possibly mean it when you say you need ____.") You have to build a relationship. We have to know that if we have needs that differ from other people, you aren't going to ignore us or tell us we're wrong or mock us. Most of all, we have to know that you're not going to treat us like freaks for being different. (We get quite enough of that, and believe me, we can tell.) If we have a relationship, any details that need to be worked out can be taken care of. If we don't have a relationship, no amount of tweaking the worship space or the service will make a difference.
But then, isn't that the same as with every group that gets ignored by the church? If your mostly-white church is in a Latina/o neighborhood, you don't get your neighbors to come to church by putting up flyers saying you have a Spanish bulletin available. If it's going to happen, it happens because you go out into the neighborhood and make friends and build relationships.
If the church women's group laments that there are no younger women in it, young women aren't going to join just because you change the time the group meets! If your group has relationships with them, if you care about them and they care about you, that's when mutual ministry begins.
With every single group of "outsiders", the only form of outreach that works is building authentic relationships.
God did not put us on this earth to be lone wolves. God did not put us on this earth to only talk to people who are just like us. God created us for relationships, with God and with our fellow human beings. This is why Jesus sums up all the law and the prophets in this way: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Want to know how to change your church (or yourself) to be more "autism friendly"?
Start by being friends with autistics.