By Ron Sandison
As a theologian with autism, I enjoyed reading Summer Kinard’s book Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability.
Kinnard shares her insight on Orthodox theology and empowering people with disabilities for full participation in the life of the Church. On June 8th I will be presenting at the Institute of Theology and Disabilities on Developing a Theology of Autism & Disabilities Through the Lens of St. Augustine. Theology is one of my special interests so I was excited to interview Summer Kinard a well-known theologian and historian in the autism and disability community.
1. What lead to your diagnosis with autism as an adult and what impact has this had on your call to ministry?
I had recognized myself as autistic for many years, ever since my children began to be diagnosed. I was hesitant to seek a diagnosis during the years that Congress debated allowing insurers to go back to un-insuring people with pre-existing conditions. I also worried that a system that had a harder time recognizing autistic traits in girls and women might not be able to help me. After a friend found a psychiatrist who was familiar with autistic women, I signed up to start the months-long diagnostic process. I already knew I was autistic, but through diagnosis I found out more of what that means to what helps me thrive. For instance, I learned that I am hardwired to dive deep in learning, that I love pioneering rather than going with a crowd because of my autistic biochemical reward and aversion systems, and that some of the things I used to get in trouble for as a child (like running off) were fundamental to my happiness.
As I’ve integrated my newfound self-understanding, I have found that I have far more capacity to volunteer, because I have made time and space in my life for the things I need as an autistic person. I hike a few times a week now, and that has enabled me to be able to bear the extra social load needed to become the Christian Education Director at my local church. I hired a neurotypical social media manager for my Christian publishing company, and now I can spend my time exercising my deep empathy to bring author’s messages to light. I also realized that my autistic pattern of deep seeking, then returning to enlighten the crowd is exactly what my parish needed to get back in touch with their roots in an embodied way. I love the hours of deep reading, and I love to systematize all that I learn into presentations that will put the whole group in touch with encouraging traditions in ways that will stick with them. As I saw my autistic gifts, I found ways to use them in leadership instead of fearing that they would lead to ostracization. An info dump monologue might have been off-putting when I was younger and didn’t know how to find my place in the world, but an information rich multi-media, hands-on presentation that incorporates the whole room, the menu, and all the senses is a perfect application of autistic strengths.
2. How has autism given you a unique perspective on theology and the Church?
I don’t want to sound presumptuous about neurotypical attention, but I get the impression that most of them are less comfortable with things they don’t understand, with hyperfocus, and with awe. They tend to want to reduce fleeting experiences of awe or beauty into a moral imperative. They won’t sit with a seed till it becomes a tree, so they seem to miss most of the good stuff or have to work really hard to pay attention to things they can’t use for a particular purpose (including feeling like they know what they’re doing).
It’s not that autistic people are morally more humble; it’s that our capacity for seeking seems to be so strong that we’ll wait on God and enjoy the wait. We’ll read the Gospel over and over and over again, asking God to show us more, to teach us more about what it means. I think a lot of the great teachers of the Church have been autistic, because they enjoyed God more and more the more they deep dived into scripture and prayer. Neurotypicals often get bored with repetition, but autistic people tend to get deeper each time around.
3. As a visual learner I love icons. My favorite icon having autism is St. George and the Dragon; this icon reminds me of all the dragons I had to defeat and overcome like my struggles with social interaction as a child and employment and relationships as an adult. What icon is your favorite and why?
I love that! My favorite is a tossup between Christ with Mary Magdalene the Myrrh-bearer right after the Resurrection, and Christ the Bridegroom.
4. What icon would you recommend to individuals with autism who struggle in their faith and why?
The icon of the Mother of God with Christ Emmanuel known as “the Directress” or “Hodegetria.” Here you have a woman holding her child who alone can see God the Father. She holds Christ and points the viewer to him. He looks off away from her, to the Father at whose right hand he sits. We don’t see the Father, but the little Christ does, and Mary points us to him. She was his teacher. She was his ark. There’s no end to layers of meaning in the icon.
But specifically for autistic Christians who might struggle with the mystery of faith, with the parts we can’t see, this icon shows us that we don’t have to know everything before we are drawn in, held near, loved. Mary loved Christ though she couldn’t see what he did. We are loveable even when others can’t see the way we do. And here’s the thing: Christ can see us, too. Christ can see us and reach us and show us himself through our senses, because he became incarnate in order to meet us here where we are.
5. Who are some of your favorite Church Fathers and what lessons have you gleamed from them?
I love St. Augustine, St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, St. Macarius, St. Maximus, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Nektarios, St. John Chrysostom, and the Cappadocians (St. Gregory the Theologian [Nazianzen to the West], St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great). I also love the women who reared, befriended, and helped those men. I love many women saints whose teachings and examples are sometimes more felt than remembered in these dark days, but whose prayers and wisdom I experience in prayer: St. Hilda, St. Brigid, St. Mary Magdalene and the other Myrrh-Bearing Women, St. Phoebe, St. Olympias, St. Macrina, St. Maria of Paris, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Perpetua, St. Anastasia, and so many others! I have an extensive background in patristic studies, so I can’t make a short list of insights. I will say that they have changed my way of thinking and seeing fundamentally, though.
6. What inspired you to attend seminary and study church history and theology?
I had an unquenchable thirst for God. I wanted roots and to understand. I had an ear that God had opened, and I wanted to hear.
7. As a theologian with autism what did you enjoy most studying at Duke University Divinity School?
At the time I would have said my seminars on particular time periods or teachers (Cappadocians, Augustine, Origenist Controversy, Virtues), but while I still love what I learned in those courses, it has been the broader comparative historical seminars that I took with Dr. Susan Keefe (Memory eternal!) on Baptism and Eucharist that incorporated architecture and showed local customs and traditions in their physical contexts that has provided the most wisdom. It’s because I saw how the Kingdom of God took root all over the world in the first ten centuries that I can recognize its growth now.
The way the early church taught with space, particularly the way their baptistries were inset with reliquaries or shaped like wombs or filled with mosaic symbols of immortality or surrounded by paintings of Christ making the world, showed me the need for concrete learning. The Reformation destroyed more than the holy icons, monasteries, holy books, holy carvings, and beauty of the Church. It also made people forget that the spoken traditions of the Church and the architectural and art of the Church and the prayers of the Church were always of a piece with and the context for understanding the scriptures of the Church.
I also loved my courses with Dr. Willie Jennings, who taught me the double conversation in writing for the public in the main text and for scholars in the footnotes. That’s the skill that makes my book, Of Such is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability, so valuable for researchers as well as for laypeople.
8. How can seminaries encourage students with autism and disabilities to attend and feel welcome?
Expect that neurodivergent students are going to dive deeper and therefore take longer on assignments. Be proactive in helping neurodiverse students get over the anxiety spikes they go through when they have to do the social thinking of communicating to you what they have learned. This might mean allowing them to take an oral exam one on one, for instance. It might mean that testing in a room with fewer people to distract them (or a room without fluorescent lights) could help them convey what they’ve learned much better.
9. What challenges did you experience in seminary?
My main problem was that I didn’t know to expect that my body will never be able to keep up with my brain. The sensory shut downs and sensory disintegration and autistic hypoglycemia that would set in as I tried to write papers and presentations often left me scrabbling to meet deadlines, bewildered by sudden bouts of shutdown with symptoms like extreme digestive distress, shaking and chills, and inability to speak or sleep.
I was freaking brilliant, but I had no way to gauge how long it would take me to write down the truths that were obvious to me after my weeks of deep learning. I was great on timed tests but had a hard time finishing presentation write ups, book reports, and papers on time—Even though I had NOT procrastinated! It just took me longer because everything was connected to my brain (a wonderful strength for a teacher to have!), and I was not only bringing in the harvest, but sorting sevenfold harvests for every one paper.
Because I needed to know so much before I was comfortable writing about it, I was doing way more work. But if you aren’t punctual in academia, lots of people treat you like you’re lazy or dumb or not good at planning. I wasn’t any of those things. I was working harder and was brilliant and had done my best to plan, but like most autistics, I have pockets of time agnosia, that is, parts of life where I can’t judge how much time has passed or how much I should allot to a project. When I’m writing, I have absolutely no sense of time whatsoever. I can write books and papers just fine, but an hour FEELS like a minute. That means that my estimations of how long I need to finish an assignment, which are colored by FEELINGS, are almost always inaccurate. I might feel that a book will take three weeks to type up at a rate of 5-8 hours a week, when it will in fact take six months to type up at a rate of 20 hours a week.
10. How can churches become more accessible for people with disabilities?
This one is tough to summarize, because I have written a book on it, and it’s my ongoing work. The first thing is to welcome people as they are. Tell them you’re glad they are there, and work on yourself with God until you mean it. Don’t have Bible study in an inaccessible room. That means not only can people with mobility challenges get there and feel comfortable, but autistic people will need to have non-flourescent lighting, and hard of hearing people will need written support, line of sight, and good seating. If you do Zoom meetings, turn on captions.
If you ask people to draw, provide clay for blind members to sculpt instead. Speaking of clay, bring it into your church life. Model Magic is an amazing focus-builder, and it’s allergen-free (unlike Playdoh). Using clay can be part of direct hands-on learning if you use it for sculpting or as part of a lesson related to clay/pottery, it can be used to sculpt props that go with many different stories, or it can be a helpful focus builder for people who need to do something quiet with their hands in order to pay attention. The goal in ministry that reaches all people is to engage attention rather than to dictate behavior.
Once you have someone’s attention, you can communicate and learn. Also, don’t be afraid to meet sensory needs at church. Put rocking chairs in the Narthex. Provide a quiet room that’s not the Cry Room, for people who need to step away. Make it clear that quiet fidgets and weighted blankets and movement breaks are all normal and acceptable at your church. Provide a visual schedule for your services. (I have Western and Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Episcopal visual schedules on my website as free printables.) We provide church bags at my church that include a magnetic notepad, silicone stretchy strings, Model Magic clay in a silicone Stasher pocket, a laminated booklet with scripture-based clay activities, and a laminated Visual schedule. These help families feel welcome. The visual schedules are also in each row of pews, which really helps visitors, too. Welcome should be accessible, which means it should use best practices for everyone who shows up.
11. I love your concept of viewing people with disabilities as angels. How can we view people with disabilities as angels and what impact will this have on how we share the love of Christ?
That idea is quite old and didn’t start with me. I don’t really think of people with disabilities as angels, though I have found that a lot of neurotypicals love that idea. I think of everyone I meet as brought there by Christ, so I don’t feel the need to add a layer of mystery to that universal love. It seems to me from experience that people who need to think of others as angels in order to welcome them are probably on the beginning of their journey or just in need of encouragement. So I’m not against the idea. Plus hospitality to angels is a major tradition in scripture and saint stories. To me personally, I see someone and try to love them. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re an angel or a meth head or a weirdo. I know the love of God, and when I’m at my best, I want everyone else to know that love, too. It’s easier to see God’s love when I cooperate with it and add my little pitcher of kindness to the ocean of God’s love around us. The splash and ripples of my little pitcher of love pouring out will make people see the ocean.
12. What are three ways Sunday school teachers can convey biblical truths to individuals with autism?
Well, don’t think of it like that. Because it’s boring. No one wants to have truths conveyed to them. They want to enter into life. Make the tradition living, and act out the story. Sequence it visually as you go using resources like the Bible Illustration Project’s images of parables. Use gross motor games that build all of the people in the room into a group. There’s tons about this on my site, and I’m beginning to publish resources, too. This year I will release several elements of curricula as part of my Accessible Church School project with Park End Books. Keep an eye out.
13. How does your ministry empower churches to be more inclusive?
My work helps everyone learn better by engaging attention and building relationships across differences in abilities, age, and maturity. We use my methods at my church in monthly Holy Heritage Days where I bring hands-on learning to the whole parish as we delve into some aspect of the tradition of faith. Having a welcoming priest has made this work possible, and we have been able to incorporate best practices into the services as well. It’s pretty amazing to see a priest make a parish at home with God by how he uses space, and my work builds on that, bringing it to classrooms and helping people take it home.
14. What ministries are you currently serving and what is the topic of your next book?
I’m currently the Church School Director at my Western Rite Antiochian Orthodox Church parish. I’m releasing two or three church school resources soon, and my next big book is Our Autistic Home, where I share tips and patterns of life that make our seven autistic family members thrive. That one is one I’m so excited about! There will be chapters on faith and learning, but they aren’t going to focus specifically on Christianity, since it’s for a general audience.
15. Is there anything else you would like to share?
When I was growing up, my grandmother was one of those people who would take in all sorts. She was universally kind. Whenever I would go to her for advice, at some point in any conversation she would tell me, “You have to love people as they are. You have to love them just as they are.” That love is the energy that motivates me to do this work. God became human so we could know Him and become like Him. We can become humane and compassionate towards one another in order to know each other, because that’s how we know God, too. That’s how we love God.
Summer Kinard’s BIO
Summer Kinard, an Orthodox Christian, the mother of five autistic children, a tea lover, classically trained soprano, senior editor at Park End Books, and author of inspiring novels and curricula for active learners. She received her Master of Divinity (summa cum laude, 2003) and Master of Theology (2005, early church history and theology) degrees from Duke University Divinity School, where she sat her Master of Theology exam in 2nd through 5th Century theological anthropologies. Summer taught in churches for decades and currently spends most of her instruction time leading therapeutic homeschool. She is the author of Of Such Is the Kingdom: A Practical Theology of Disability.
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 ofAmerica. 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