By Ron Sandison
In November, I became the first licensed Assemblies of God minister diagnosed with Autism in their hundred year history. Out of 38,000 credited ministers, I am the only one
diagnosed with Autism. I speak at 25 churches a year on Autism and faith. Since 2015, I have spoken live to 250,000 people on the topic of Autism and mental health.
In the U.S., only 5% of Christian families who have a child with Autism attend church. When I graduated from Oral Roberts University in 2002 with my Master of Divinity, I struggled with finding a fulltime ministry position. For four years, I worked at two churches as an intern of ministry and youth pastor.
Dr. Lamar Hardwick, a pastor and author with Autism, shares,
“God’s image is reflected in all his creation and the church should seek to bring attention to the very image of God that is seen in the lives of those who live with disabilities. I believe that what the disability and autism community needs most from the church in order to feel welcomed and valued is a church that intentionally includes them in being image bearers of God.”
As a young minister with Autism, my social awkwardness and sensory issues caused me to struggle in conversation with congregants. I had difficulty with eye contact and would often make unfiltered comments that caused people to view me as lacking empathy.
My early experience in the church was like Nancy Eiesland, author of The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, writes,
“The history of the church’s interaction with the disabled is at best an ambiguous one. Rather than being a structure for empowerment, the church has more often supported the societal structures and attitudes that have treated people with disabilities as objects of pity or paternalism. For many disabled persons the church has been a “city on a hill”—physically inaccessible and socially inhospitable.”
I found some churches socially inhospitable toward Autism and unaccepting of my Autistic quirks. In my struggles with minister, I’ve learned five ways churches can become more inclusive toward people with Autism and other disabilities.
1. Provide education to the congregation on Autism and the challenges families with a child or children on the spectrum experiences in attending service. This education will help people understand autism and the challenges we on the spectrum and our families experience, while promoting inclusion. Churches can offer education opportunities by having people with autism share their journey and struggles during a Sunday morning or Wednesday night service or hosting an autism conference. Inclusion should begin with the lead pastor and ministry team sharing from the pulpit about autism and teaching from the Bible the importance of inclusion.
2. Teach the leadership team and congregants to accept autistic quirks and unusual behavior. Warning Autism and other disabilities will produce messiness in your peaceful church. My co-worker, Robert, shared with me a humorous story about his fifteen-year-old cousin, Mark, who has Asperger’s, attending his Grandfather’s funeral.
Mark, who is Protestant and has sensory smell issues, had never been to a Catholic Church. As the pallbearers carried his grandfather’s casket, the priest conducting the funeral announced, “Please, bow your heads and close your eyes for a moment of silence in reverence for the departed.” The altar boys followed, waving the thurible as the aroma of incense quickly filled the sanctuary. In the midst of the silence, Mark screamed, “Who the HELL would bring incense to a funeral. What the –!” Well, you can imagine the rest.
Dr. Stanley Hauerwas, a professor at Duke Divinity School, shares, “Only when we learn how to be with those different from us can we learn to accept the love that each of us needs to sustain a community capable of worshipping God.” St. Leonard Anglican in Toronto posted a sign in front of the church that is good motto for Autism inclusion in religious services, “Embrace the odd for they shall shape the universe.”
3. For churches to have inclusion they need to equip leadership to work with children who are preverbal or have higher needs on the spectrum. These children may cause disruption or manifest outburst and may need special accommodations. Leadership should teach children in the congregation about autism so they will have compassion on their peers who have unique needs. Inclusion is important because children with Autism are members of Christ’s Body and important to God.
Dr. Steve Grevich, founder of Family Center by Falls, blogged:
Cultivating a culture of inclusion greatly reduces the pushback from church members and attendees when accommodations need to be made. Adults who value the imperative of including everyone with gifts and talents to contribute to the mission of the church can use the questions kids ask when peers are treated differently as “teachable moments.”
4. Provide accommodations for sensory issues & other needs. Church leadership should be sensitive to sensory issues. For many individuals with Autism like myself, senses
provide unreliable information, causing great discomfort and anxiety.
William Stillman describes ASD’s hyper sensory issues and writes:
Sensory sensitivities are the uncomfortable, painful, or upsetting sensation you receive in reaction to sensory stimuli that are beyond your tolerance threshold. These sensations relate to your five senses either singularly or in combination. For example, perhaps the scent of a certain food odor or strong perfume makes you feel nauseated or headachy, or you may have an aversion to both the sight and sound of a large crowd.
Many children with autism have difficulty sitting still during the service. A church can accommodate these children by providing an area for them to pace. Other children are sensitive to touch and experience great anxiety when the pastor says, “Greet the person next to you.” Be sensitive to the children with autism sensory issues. A church with a culture of accommodation believes that every person can participate in worship regardless of disability or neurodivergent and adjusts to meet their needs.
5. Finally, develop a buddy program to encourage social interaction and inclusion. When I was in middle school, Pastor Steve, the supervisor of Sunday school programs, assigned a college-age youth worker, Brian, to be my buddy. Brian would sit next to me in Sunday school and explain the topics the teacher was discussing. He also asked me questions to make sure I understood the lessons. Brain loved sports and was a former track runner. When I attended youth group events and retreats, Brian encouraged me to develop friendships and to participate in the activities. At least twice a month, Brian planned some fun events for us. We played basketball Wednesday nights and went to movies. Brian’s faith in Christ and loving actions helped me understand the meaning of being a disciple of Christ and he was influential in my becoming a minister.
The apostle Paul said it best, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). Inclusion churches attract people with Autism and disability by making them feel a sense of belonging, providing accommodations, and equipping them for ministry to build
up the Body of Christ.
Video of me speaking on Autism and faith at a church:
Ron Sandison works full time in the medical field and is a professor of theology at Destiny School of Ministry. He is an advisory board member of Autism Society Faith Initiative of Autism Society of America. Sandison has a Master of Divinity from Oral Roberts University and is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Autism: Practical Advice. Biblical Wisdom, published by Charisma House and Thought, Choice, Action. Ron has memorized over 10,000 Scriptures including 22 complete books of the New Testament and over 5,000 quotes. Ron’s third book Views from the Spectrum was released in May 2021.
Ron frequently guest speaks at colleges, conferences, autism centers, and churches. Ron and his wife, Kristen, reside in Rochester Hills, MI, with a baby daughter, Makayla Marie born on March 20, 2016.
You can contact Ron at his website www.spectruminclusion.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org