Theology on the Spectrum talk

Ready to talk about Autism and the church? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

Okay. This blog is going to be half-done in a sense so that my ministry partner can get it out, so come back later. Tomorrow at `10 AM EST, I will be doing an interview on David Popiden’s show again with my friend Erin Burnett, whose book I reviewed here, on Autism and the church.

The link can be found here.

Please do be watching!

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)

Book Plunge: With All Your Mind

What do I think of Erin Ruth’s booklet? Let’s plunge into the deeper waters and find out.

I really like Erin Ruth’s work. I was introduced to her through a podcast where we both being autistic Christians talked about our experiences. What was so unusual was that the first question showed that we’re also very different. Ruth contended that it was more difficult to be a Christian on the spectrum because you’re so logical. I said that it was odd that I found it the same way in that it’s easier for me to be a Christian because I’m so logical. Emotional arguments don’t really faze me, hence I’ve never really been bothered by the problem of evil.

Now, Ruth has written a booklet called With All Your Mind on being an autistic Christian, and this is from someone in the United Kingdom where Christianity is a minority definitely. This is not so much her experience however as it is recommendations to the church. How can the church better help people who are on the spectrum?

A great problem in many cases is that Christianity is often a very social faith, but autistic people like myself tend to not be social. It’s actually a paradox. We want to be involved with other people, but we want to be in our own world too. The hard reality is people who try to force you to be social often wind up being unintentionally counter-productive.

People who know me know that I hate it when someone who doesn’t know me asks “How are you?” Unfortunately, I work in retail and I get that question often. I have also been “coached” before for not approaching customers in the self check-out and talking to them. In my world, that is absolutely terrifying, something I’m having to work on with people as a once again single man seeking to remarry.

Churches can do this too. Ruth rightly points out that something as simple as giving out earplugs to people who may have sensory issues can be helpful, but I want to also add to please don’t try to be the best friend. It can take time to build up a relationship with a person on the spectrum. I know I’m notorious for saying church greeters often do more harm than good as people on the spectrum want relationships, but I don’t think we want to feel like we’re forced into them either.

Prayer is something she talks about in her book as prayer can be difficult and I’m pleased to see she spoke in ways I have often said. It’s hard enough for us to relate to someone we can’t see. How do we relate to someone we can’t see?

Add in another hurdle being that so much of Christianity is often experiential and emotional today. Many people on the spectrum have a hard time with relating emotionally to situations. When people talk about the feeling of the Holy Spirit or great joy in circumstances, people like myself can be thinking, “What are you talking about?” It’s not that we don’t have feelings, but that we often do not have the strong constant ones and we don’t know how to understand them when we do.

At the same time, this shouldn’t become a burden put on us. Some people will say to read your Bible every day. I do that, but I don’t think it should be a legalistic thing. I had been reading a lot every night, but I realized I wasn’t getting as much out of it because it was becoming more ritualistic, so I switched to reading some of the church fathers in addition to my small nightly reading to give me a small enough portion of Scripture to really think about.

If you want to understand the autistic person, find out what their interests are and engage them on it. Ruth talks about how when she was a child, it was easy to make friends. Just talk about Pokemon. That wasn’t around when I was in elementary school, but video games definitely were, and I quickly became a popular student in school when I showed a natural gift for playing video games well.

Today, that can get me excited to talk to someone as it is easy to relate to a customer I meet at work who is wearing a Legend of Zelda T-shirt for example. Also when I was married, at a Celebrate Recovery meeting once, someone asked my ex about me thinking that I seemed to be off by myself. She was trying to explain matters to him. I was watching this from across the room seated on a couch minding my own business. Then I heard her say, “You could talk about apologetics.”

He proceeded to ask what that was, but he didn’t have to wait long. I had ran up there instantly asking “Did someone say apologetics?” I think this is one reason I like to tease people a lot of times. Humor is a way I relate to people and I have been told before I should consider doing Christian comedy. (And yes, I do think about that.)

The point here is that if you do manage to find an entry way, that’s a great way to open up communication. However, do remember some people on the spectrum are non-verbal. To get back to what I said earlier, if you try to tell us how we should communicate, it can have the opposite effect. Recently, I had a customer say thank you to me for helping him. I gave a nod and then went on my way, or maybe I didn’t as usually after I help someone, I like to disappear. A little bit later I hear a voice and it’s him saying “When someone says thank you, you say ‘you’re welcome.’ ”

Think that inspires me to talk?

Not a bit. It leaves me thinking that there’s a reason I don’t like to talk to people. I am certain the guy meant well, but too many people do not understand the world of the person on the spectrum. The same rules don’t apply and if you think we’re rude, you’re really missing it.

Autistic people can also be spiritual. One way we can do this is love. We do have a capacity to love and form relationships. I have been married before and want to marry again. I know that it is possible. It can be harder, but it is possible to relate.

We can also be sometimes scrupulous in matters, which is why we can tend to fall into legalism. I worry sometimes about spending too much time on other interests and not about God as much as I would like, which really I think shows me how much I care about God that I want to do better with him. There are a number of facets of Christianity that aren’t clearly spelled out in Scripture and this can be difficult for many of us.

Ruth’s book is a welcome guide to many and a beacon of hope for autistic Christians and the people who love them. The church needs to do more to help such people as now it is likely that most every church has at least one autistic person in the congregation. Thankfully, we have been blessed to have people like her help us understand the field.

In Christ,
Nick Peters
(And I affirm the virgin birth)