“Many churches attempt to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities that does not necessarily mean that people with disabilities are included in the life and community of the church and leadership.” Krysia Waldock
By Ron Sandison
I was excited to interview Krysia Waldock, a PhD student who researches inclusion in religious settings. As a minister with autism, I love to learn ways to develop inclusion in the church and help people who are neurodivergent to feel a sense of belonging and obtain leadership positions. I desire for churches to empower neurodivergent individuals for ministry and leadership. Krysia’s research provides great insight into accomplishing inclusion.
1. How did you learn you were on the autism spectrum and at what age?
I was diagnosed with autism at age three. The support staff at my school did not recognize my autism and thought I was just different and I was diagnosed again with autism at age thirteen. After studying in the university at age twenty-four I learned to accept and celebrate my autism. By understanding my autism I learned how my mind works and decided to pursue academics for a career which matches my strengths.
2. As a child did you experience any sensory issues? And what were they?
As a child I had sensitivity to hearing. I live near a train station and can hear the train coming miles away. My eyes are sensitive to light and I experience visual stress so while working on my computer and papers I wear tinted lens.
3. How did your family and teachers help you develop social skills?
Teachers tried to force me to learn eye contact and I did not like this. I actually learned to socialize by hanging out with other people with autism. This helped me to understand my autism and have friends who accepted me for who I am. I gained confidence by being myself and I enjoy learning languages like German and French. Autism makes me better with languages at the grammar rather than speaking. Learning languages and cultures helps me to better understand people.
4. What was your experience with church like as a child and young adult?
In church as a child and young adult I never felt a sense of belonging. I attended Methodist churches and one Baptist church in the United Kingdom. I found that people in these churches don’t understand differences and the congregants like to stay in their cliques who share their theology and ideas rather than learning from others and celebrating differences.
5. How can religious organizations become more autistic friendly?
Many churches attempt to make accommodations for individuals with disabilities that does not necessarily mean that people with disabilities are included in the life and community of the church and leadership. Through my church experiences and study of sociology I believe religious organizations can become more autistic friendly by raising up leaders with disabilities and turning the responsibilities of ministry over to them as leaders.
6. In your research what did you discover about autistic peoples’ experience in religious services?
In my research I discovered three things.
A. People with autism in religious sesrvices often feel their needs are not taken seriously.
B. They often feel misunderstood which makes them feel uncomfortable.
C. They feel excluded from the group and leadership positions.
For example, the music is too loud in the service and the autistic person explains their sensory issues to the elders and the pastoral staff makes little attempt to accommodate their sensory needs. The person with autism may experience miscommunication by not knowing the social norms of the religious setting and this can make him or her feel uncomfortable.
7. What sparked your interests in autism and the church?
My background and degrees in sociology sparked my interest in researching autistics experiences with religious services and my focus groups at the university. I am studying not only autistics experiences in churches but autistic who are Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and other religions and their experiences in religious settings and how these religious institutions can better serve autistics needs and provide accommodations.
8. Who were some people who encouraged your study and passion for religion and autism?
My friends and members at Inclusive Church have encouraged me in my passions and research. Inclusive Church has given me a sense of belonging. The mission of Inclusive Church is to celebrate and affirm every person and not discriminate and welcome and serves all people.
9. Who are some of your favorite theologians and why?
I enjoy the writings of Dr. John Swinton, a professor of theology at the University of Aberdeen and his emphases on autism and inclusion in the church and mental health.
10. What books would you recommend on ministry for people on the autism spectrum?
I recommend checking out the Canadian Journal of Theology, Mental Health and Disability. This site has many wonderful articles on autism and inclusion through an interfaith theological lens. The articles in this journal are written by authors who have disabilities or mental health issues and they share their life experiences and struggles.
Another great resource for ministry and disability is Dr. Nancy L Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability. Dr. Eisland draws on themes of the disability-rights movement to identify people with disabilities as members of a socially disadvantaged minority group rather than as individuals who need to adjust and she contends that in the Eucharist. Christians encounter the disabled God and may participate in new imaginations of wholeness and new embodiments of justice.
Note from the interviewer, Ron Sandison, a great quote from The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability:
“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.”
11. What is the topic of your PhD? And how did you decide on this subject?
For my PhD, I am exploring the social inclusion and belonging of autistic people who have different belief systems (theistic and non-theistic). My research is funded by the Tizard Centre studentship (2018-2023). Not much information and research has been done on autistic people’s experience in religious setting so I decided I wanted to do an empirical study on this importance topic. My research hopefully will help religious organizations gain a deeper understanding of autism and how they can include them in leadership positions. I think most churches or religious institutes want to be inclusive yet don’t know how to create inclusion.
12. How have you helped churches to improve inclusiveness with people with disabilities?
I help churches and religious organizations improve inclusiveness through research and writing. The two keys to inclusion is listening to neurodivergent people and those with disabilities and provide them with leadership opportunities in which they can make impactful choices and serve.
13. What do you like best in studying and your college experience?
My favorite part of the university experience is networking and making new connections and interesting conversations with my professors and peers on the topics I am researching. At the university my voice is heard and I like choosing the topic I will pursue in my studies.
14. What advice would you give to a young adult who wants to study at the University?
My advice to young adults who want to study at the university is be yourself and study a subject that follows your passions and interests. With studying at a university it is ok to take a break for a year, if you feel totally burnout so your mind and physical health can be refreshed and your passion recharged.
16. Share a humorous story from your life.
A funny story was my dad’s birthday. My dad Colin was never impressed with his common name so on his birthday we gave him a bunch of gifts that had his name Colin on them. He absolutely loved the Colin the Caterpillar Cake and kept smiling. My dad had a new appreciation for his name that day.
17. What are some of your future goals in academics and career?
I plan to continue my academic study and do independent research on neurodiversity while teaching at a university. My research interests include: autistic people and other marginalized groups, spirituality, inclusion and belonging, belief system communities, emancipatory disability theology, cyber security education and education policy & social policy linked to cyber security education.
Krysia Waldock (she/they; pronounced kri-shah) is an autistic and disabled qualitative social researcher and PhD Candidate at the University of Kent. Their PhD (in IDD) explores autistic people’s experiences of inclusion and belonging in religious and humanist groups from a critical autism studies perspective. They are also currently a research assistant for the Institute of Cyber Security for Society and a member of the Inclusive Church disability conference planning team, based at St Martin’s in the Fields in London (UK). Their research interests include: autistic people and other marginalized groups, spirituality, inclusion, belonging, inclusive and participatory research, qualitative and creative research methods, and cyber security educational policy.
A list of Krysia’s published articles and other works can be found here: http://linktr.ee/krysia.waldock and Krysia can be followed at @krysiawally on Twitter.
Read Krysia Waldock’s paper “An Autistic Reflection on Online 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. He 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
I am probably overloading this medium here.
But I have to ask this question (it is half past midnight).
What about Actually Autistics who are conservative? Then their journey in the church would have to be over quickly. (I like to tell a story. It is mine.)
Therefore, I ask myself whether many people who have a biblical-reformatory view do not find themselves better off in conservative churches – if their correct faith, oriented towards the respective Scriptures, seems more important to them than liberation from structures. In other words, if an orthodoxy in doctrine and an orthopraxy in worship seem more important to them than the experience of participation, liberation and empowerment. I went to church because I wanted to believe, confess and live as it is written. I was extremely disturbed when, for example, crumbly bread and orange juice were used for the Lord’s Supper or when churches prepared to marry homosexuals – biblical evidence for this was mostly constructed. As a Christian, I tolerate living together in various forms, but why should the church bless something that is not blessed but cursed in the basic document of my faith? I cannot go back on the testimony of the prophets and apostles.
I find this aspect, that as an autistic person I have translated and studied my Jewish Bible and the New Testament Scriptures, but in my church these basic documents were only used as a basis for nice stories, mocked and disregarded again and again.
Yet it is part of the essence of autistic thinking to penetrate, explore and present things “as they are”: if 22 people have the task of kicking a ball, preferably into a box with a net, and there are certain rules for this, then an autistic person will abide by them and will generally rub his eye (or freak out) if the people now set about digging holes on the pitch and pushing the ball into them with wooden sticks. After all, that is what another club is for … symbolically speaking: As a clear-thinking person, you feel like you are in the wrong film when football is supposed to be played but people are organising something completely different. I found it terrible and hypocritical not to be allowed to say so without being labelled backward or conservative. Because if I do not want to play football, then I should join another club or found one.
I could never understand that as an autistic person and did not want to be in such a church that did not play by the rules, no, I COULD NOT be in such a church. This led to me having an M.Th. and taking an exam to serve in the church, but then leaving it.
It was a long, arduous journey away from the structure that includes Morning Prayer, Communion, Confession, Complet, Cycle of the Year and much more it had given me. I think the loss of this structure and the end of feeling safe with ONE who stepped on my side, who took my side and who never left me alone, not even in my guilt, that was hard, traumatising perhaps. It was undoubtedly a break in my life biography: the world that welcomed me was cold. It was real, it got by without the nice stories of the civil servants who run the religion, and it gave the lie to the religion that was written. For in the true reality of life, it is ultimately the survival of the one who fights alone that counts. No God, no angels, no heal-it-all blessings.
I was recently in my alma mater on my day off, browsing or flipping through Wehr, Menge and Gesenius, theological journals, it smelled like that time. It triggered me so much that after only a few hours I was as exhausted and slumped as after a whole working day of stress.
It is already night when I wrote these lines. I first read about the impressive work. Still, I don’t know why I am writing this. I do not know you, you do not know me. And God is far away (if he exists). I also don’t know why everything is so present, even still the shir hashirim behind me on the shelf or my master’s thesis.
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