Churches can be hell for autistic people – unwelcoming, uncomfortable, unpleasant places to be. This may not be happy news, but it many cases it is true. It has certainly been true for me at different times throughout my life – both during the period of life when I wasn’t a Christian and since I became one. And this experience is not unique to me; it is something that other autistics have also experienced. I think it’s important to talk about it.
|Image of an ivory church steeple against a bright blue sky with white clouds. Photo credit: juicy ecunemism|
Please be clear: though I may appear to be critical of churches in this post, my intent is not for this to be a “Christianity-bashing” post. Nor is it a post where I am going to concentrate on pointing out hypocrisy one might see in Christians, because believe me, hypocrisy is far from exclusive to Christianity. I’ve been around enough people of different faiths and enough people who don’t believe in a higher power to realize that there are hypocrites of all forms. They are hypocritical Hindus, hypocritical Jews, hypocritical atheists, hypocritical Muslims, hypocritical Christians, hypocritical Buddhists, hypocritical Wiccans, hypocritical agnostics…you get the point.
Right now I’m not going to talk about all the hypocritical things people are doing wrong because we all do wrong. This is bigger than that, and different than that. As a Christian who is also autistic, I think my perspective on this topic can (hopefully) help others to understand (and maybe change things, or at least be more accommodating?). But more importantly, I woke up today (which happens to be not only Holy Week, but specifically the annual commemoration of Good Friday) with a burning desire to write about this, and I know God wanted me to try to address this in my own way. So though I mean to offend no one, I care less about your feelings about this than I do about doing what God wants me to do. I’m here to share my truth – period.
Whether you like me, hate me, agree with me, disagree with me, I know God loves me, and I know that speaking out in the way that I do is what I was made by God to do. I’m not going to stop doing it because people aren’t comfortable with it. How are we ever going to make it right if we shy away from it rather than try to understand and deal with it? I’m not going to hide from what’s real.
So in no particular order, here are several of the reasons that churches can be hell for autistic people.
A lot of church attire is just plain impractical and uncomfortable. Thankfully, I am blessed to attend a church where there is no unspoken dress code. (That isn’t a coinicidence, as this is actually one of the things that I look for in a church, along with solid teaching of the Word, active volunteerism/missions, diversity, inclusivity, strong youth programs, good music, etc.). I am able to come to church comfortably dressed. I literally come to church in jeans and flip flops, and no one cares – because there are others dressed that way right next to people in their “Sunday best” and people whose clothing is somewhat in-between dressy and casual. But though there are an increasing amount of churches that, like mine, embrace the Biblical “come as you are” approach, it is still very standard in many churches for people to have to wear formal clothing (children and adults). This is a problem for autistic people.
Many autistic people have sensory differences that make certain clothing uncomfortable for us to wear. Scratchy dresses, pinchy shoes, irritating suits, itchy tights, tightly pulled fancy hairdos – many of us would rather step barefoot on a pile of Legos than to have to wear that stuff week after week. But for autistics in many churches, one has no choice because to dress otherwise is frowned down upon. There are even some churches that are so focused on appearance that people joke that walking down the aisle of the church is like being in a “fashion show!” While there is absolutely nothing wrong with people wanting to dress up and look nice, why should it be something you feel “forced” to do in a house of God if you don’t want to? It seems contrived and shallow. What does a cute, expensive outfit have anything to do with our spirit? John the Baptist wasn’t a fashion icon and yet he had a strong spiritual connection and impacted others around him positively. Shouldn’t what’s inside be more important anyway? As long as I am clean and not nude, what should it matter what I – or anyone – wears to church?
Unnecessary small talk and touching
I dread going to some churches because they are so darn touchy-feely.
“Touch your neighbor and tell them, ‘God is good.’”
“Go around and have fellowship with the congregation.”
“Greet three people you don’t know and give them a godly hug.”
“Shake the hand of the person next to you.”
“If you are a visitor, please stand and tell us about yourself.”
Why do I have to do all that?
I don’t want to shake your hand. I don’t know where your hands have been; for all I know you went to the restroom and didn’t wash. I don’t want your urine or feces germs on my hands. How do I know you didn’t pick your nose? What if your hands are clean, but they are sweaty and the touch of them is going to gross me out (because of my sensory differences)?
What does it matter if I tell an absolute stranger ‘God is good’ anyway? They don’t know me, so why should they care what I say? I might not know what I’m talking about. Plus, why doesn’t the pastor/preacher/minister/whoever just tell everyone that themselves instead of asking us to do it…aren’t they there to address the whole room?
I don’t want random people giving me a “godly” hug. First of all, everyone’s intentions aren’t pure and some people try to rub up against you or “cop a feel” of your private areas. Second, it violates my body and my personal space to feel forced to let people touch me – even if they touch briefly and appropriately – without my consent. Hugging is intimate to some people, including me, and not something I necessarily want to share with just anyone. Why can’t I show you my “godly love” in some other non-invasive way?
Public speaking is hard for many people, and being asked to stand up and talk about oneself can be anxiety-inducing. I’d much rather fill out a guest/visitor card or speak privately with someone if I am new than to be put on display. Although many churches have done away with the whole “visitor” spotlight thing, others have not. This can be difficult for many autistics (or even for non-autistics who happen to be more introverted.)
Some churches are very heavy on socializing. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, as the church can be a great place to make friends and build meaningful relationships. But for some of us there seems to be pressure to socialize a certain way in order to be accepted at church and that can be extremely challenging. If I come to a Bible study, a community service project, a prayer meeting, or a training, then I came to study, to serve, to pray, to train. I didn’t come to spend a quarter or more of the time on ice breakers, vacuous conversation, and all that. I realize that some socialization is going to be a part of these types of things, that many people feel more at ease if socializing is included, and that I should expect it to be something that will happen. But it becomes a bit overwhelming sometimes.
The types of socialization opportunities that are available in many churches are often not very autistic-friendly. Like lunches or dinners at restaurants that may be loud and intimidating, and/or where the food might be something we don’t like because of our sensory differences. (Plus the primary socialization at restaurants is talking to one another/small talk, something autistics can struggle with.) Or small group or church fellowship meetings at someone’s home where one might feel out of place and shy. Or sports activities where we might feel uncoordinated and awkward. Plus, a lot of church outings at certain churches assume that everyone has disposable income to pay for the entry fee to the rock-climbing gym or whatever the venue is, high-priced fancy restaurant meals, and other activities that might be costly when many autistics are struggling financially, or they assume that people have transportation to get to and from these places when many autistics may not drive, or may not drive far.
Jargon, buzzwords, traditions, rules
I remember being asked to visit a classmate’s church with her when I was in middle school. I couldn’t think of a polite, valid reason to decline, so I agreed to attend. I knew I was supposed to dress nicely and bring a Bible, so I did that. My mother gave me a small purse that we placed lip gloss, Kleenex, and money inside and she gave me a reassuring hug as she dropped me off. I went inside and someone guided me to the youth area.
I found my friend’s class, but because I was a few minutes late to service there wasn’t a seat near her, so I had to sit at another table (she did come over and greet me, though). The youth leader, who was on a stage, prayed briefly out loud and I stood up and bowed my head like everyone else was doing. Then some kids joined him on stage where there were various instruments set up. They began to play the instruments and sing some songs. I had never heard any of the songs before (though everyone else around me seemed to know them), but I was able to follow along because there were words on a big screen in the room. I liked the music. So far, so good, I thought.
After the songs we all sat down. Another youth leader, who was female-presenting, got up on stage and began to speak (I didn’t know it was called a sermon). She was funny and used a lot of real life examples that made sense. She also shared different Bible verses that related to what she was saying. Though I no longer recall what the topic was, I know it was something relevant to our age group and that I thought she made some good points. I didn’t recognize most of the names of some of the people in the Bible that she brought up, but I was able to figure out enough of what was going on through context clues. I remember thinking that this church thing wasn’t as weird as I thought and being happy that I had agreed to visit.
|Image is of a cross on a small hill at sunset. Photo credit: sojo.net|
Then, as the speaker wrapped up, we stood to sing another song. It was a slower one (the other songs had been fast-paced), and they dimmed the lights (maybe for emphasis?) and asked people to raise their hands. I didn’t understand why, but I raised mine as requested even though doing so felt strange. The whole demeanor of the room began to take on a different atmosphere. It seemed somber and a little eerie. People had their eyes closed. Some people were crying silently, though I couldn’t figure out what they were suddenly so sad about.
The lyrics of this new song that they were softly singing confused me, as they reminded me of some of the R&B love songs that I liked to listen to at night on a (secular) radio program called “Slow Jamz.” To me, the lyrics seemed to be referring to Jesus like He was somebody’s boyfriend and to me that was just nasty. I looked around, but no one else seemed confused. I spotted my classmate across the room and she had still had one of her arms high up in the air. (I had already put both of my arms down at my sides because I had gotten tired from holding them up so long; I admired her stamina.)
The whole place was getting weirder and weirder, and with the lights still dimmed the bright stage lights were hurting my head. I decided to escape to the restroom for a while. I didn’t have to actually use the restroom, but I figured that maybe when I returned the people would be acting normal again. I went to the restroom and killed some time by playing/stimming with my hair for a while before I headed back to the youth room. I tried to open the door and one of the older kids pushed against it roughly. Perplexed, I opened it again and the guy standing by the door whispered, “You have to wait until worship is over before you come back in; I’ll open the door so you’ll know when. Just stay in the hall for now.” I didn’t understand what he meant and it felt pretty odd that I had to stand in the hallway all by myself just because some people were in there singing. It seemed like forever until the song that they were singing when I walked up was finally over and I was to able re-enter.
I felt very conspicuous as I made my way to my seat, although probably no one was paying attention to me because there was a video on the screen of the week’s announcements and the kids were watching that. Before I reached my chair, though, a girl about my age walked over to me. She was holding a turquoise velvet bag with a wooden handle. (Cool purse! I thought.) She gestured for me to come closer to her and than began to speak. “You missed offering while you were out,” she said. “Do you want to go ahead and give it to me?”
What in the world was she talking about?
“Offering?” I repeated.
“Yes,” she said in a slightly exasperated tone. “Do – you – have – an – offering?” She said the words in a sarcastic, spaced out manner that annoyed me. What was with her attitude? And what the heck was an “offering” anyway?
She stood there with barely veiled frustration and something made me look into the bag that she was holding. I saw a bundle of cash and several coins inside it. Realizing it wasn’t her purse that she was holding, I figured out what “offering” meant. Relieved, I said (a little louder than I’d intended), “Oh! You mean money! Yes, I have some.” I dashed over to my seat, grabbed my purse, and went back to where the girl was waiting. “How much do I need to pay?” I asked.
The girl started laughing. “Pay?” she snickered. “You don’t pay at church!”
I was even more confused. If you don’t pay, why had my mother told me to be sure I brought money along to give the church? And if you don’t pay, then why had all the other people obviously put money in the bag she was holding? This whole thing was getting on my nerves – especially this rude girl, who was still laughing at me even though people were trying to hear the video and she was probably disturbing them. I gave her a piercing glare and went back to my seat. “I’ll just keep my money then,” I thought to myself. And I mentally dared someone to try to follow me out when I left accusing me of leaving without paying. Heck, I’d tried to pay; it wasn’t my fault it didn’t work.
I was looking forward to the video being over so they could dismiss us from church and I could get out of this place. I made a mental note to say no if I was ever asked to visit anybody’s church again.
I’m sharing this story of mine, which is 100% true, to illustrate how churches forget that everybody isn’t familiar with all their customs, rules, and terminology. Everyone doesn’t know who is “allowed” to take communion and who isn’t. Everyone doesn’t know what a “rhema word” is nor what “fruit of the spirit” is. Everyone doesn’t know who “Jehovah-Nissi” is or what “tithes and offerings” are, or that you may not be allowed to walk during worship songs. Especially autistic people, who tend not to “grasp” these types of nuances. That doesn’t make us bad people. That means churches need to do a better job of making things understandable and accessible for all people – us included.
There are some “seeker friendly” churches that work hard to help people understand what’s going on in church so visitors/new people/people who are different in some way feel less out of place. I harbor no resentment toward that little girl; kids can sometimes be impolite to one another. She doesn’t necessarily exemplify what her church was/is like. But there are many such examples, tons of which are even more egregious, that demonstrate that churches often cater to their insular crowd – the regular churchgoers – and aren’t as well-versed in making people from the outside feel welcome even if the church wants to be a welcoming place. If people feel uncomfortable there, why would they want to come again? I certainly didn’t want to.
Fire, brimstone, and manipulation
There’s no tactful way to address this part; all I can do is say what I think/feel/have experienced. I know all churches are different from one another and that many do a good job at helping people to live a purposeful life, to help make a difference in the lives of others, and to make positive changes in our world. While there is a lot of negative publicity about Christians these days, some which is rightfully deserved as many “Christian” people’s unChristlike words and deeds reflect poorly on other followers of Christianity, there are still many, many genuine Christians out there who are trying to live their lives in an impactful way that honors Christ. (More about that later.) However, even among well-intended Christians you can find numerous examples of actions and behaviors that are pretty unfriendly to autistic people.
Many of us autistics are literal. That does not mean that we aren’t capable of profound thought; we are. But we are often likely to take things at “face value” rather than decoding all the seemingly nonsensical hidden meanings. At the same time, though, we’re also analytical and we like to ponder elements of an issue that others may not have immediately considered. Pattern recognition is a strength for many of us. Because of this, the way a lot of churches communicate/operate/work isn’t amenable to how we think.
More frankly stated: the scare tactics, manipulation, and peer pressure tactics employed by some (not all) churches don’t “fly” with autistics. Those things set off our finely attuned internal “bull crap” meter.
What do I mean? I’ll explain.
“You must accept Jesus right now or you might get in a car accident tomorrow and lose your chance to go to Heaven.”
“You’ve done so many things wrong. But you can make up for all of that right now if you decide to become born-again.”
“If you don’t believe in God, you will break your (insert relative here)’s heart.”
Directed to someone in a resource limited setting or country, or someone from a non-Western, non-White Christian background: “Everything you’ve ever believed/been raised with/been taught all of your life is wrong. Sinful. Your entire culture is sinful. It’s witchcraft/idolatry/paganism/satan’s work. If you become a Christian, you can become part of this program (paid for by Western dollars, run by Western people, and laden with Western ideals) that can help your children go to a good school, help you learn a trade, help you with food and living expenses…”
Things like that. But wrapped up in much more eloquent, emotive, persuasive language. Often peddled to people when they are at the lowest periods of their lives. Hoping they get caught up in the moment and agree.
I’m not discounting that sometimes people do, of their own volition, make sincere, life-changing decisions when they are in the metaphorical valley of their lives. But there are many vulnerable people who are preyed upon by churches and/or other Christians who are determined to “save them” by any means necessary. (There are even “evangelistic dating” practices, though I assume churches don’t endorse nor approve of that; that’s probably something people tend to do on their own and try to pass off as the church’s idea.)
No matter how sophisticated a manner in which it is done, manipulation is wrong. It’s deceitful. The “end” does not justify the means in matters of people’s hearts and lives. People shouldn’t have to be frightened, coerced, or bullied into believing anything. It should be their choice, period. We, as Christians, can provide information, clarification, support, all of that to someone if they are open to us doing so. But no power trips or mind games should be used on anyone. Such a thing is despicable and should have no place in the body of Christ. Plus, conversions that occur under such circumstances aren’t truly consensual, so they’re probably not going to be lasting if they are even authentic conversions to begin with!
Lovey-dovey feely stuff
Another area where churches “lose” autistic people is with all the flowers and rainbows…all the emotional, pseudo-connection, “just have faith” stuff. For many autistics, we feel deeply, but we feel differently. A lot of the things that make sense to neurotypical Christians doesn’t make sense to us. I, for example, am not the type of person who is moved by group think and by surface level emotions. It has to be real for me; it has to be deep. And it has to make sense to me too. That doesn’t come easily. Churches often fail to do that.
I remember as a young adult researching religions (out of curiosity) and being majorly turned off by many of the Christian church websites as well as various Christian “informational” websites. I was looking for something to pique my interests by appealing to my intellect; when it came to Christianity, it seemed that the pickings were slim with regard to anything that required intelligent thinking. (I’m not trying to be insulting; I’m just being real.)
In contrast, the material I read from atheists/freethinkers, however, though often a bit on the angry side (and sometimes both petty and overtly anti-Christian), was written in a manner that stimulated my mind. It had substance. It had facts; it had credible references; it drew logical conclusions. Even if half the time it seemed to be little more than a “this is why I hate Christians and they’re so foolish and ignorant with their fairy tale thinking” bashing fest, the other half of the time they were making compelling arguments for why they didn’t believe in God. They didn’t skimp on the intellectual in favor of the emotional like the Christian material did.
When I read many of the writings of Islamic scholars I also felt like my brain was being engaged. I found an abundance of Muslim reading material that sounded like it was designed for an adult audience that could think for itself rather than the Christian stuff which seemed like it was targeted to a naïve fifth grader instead of an intelligent adult audience with the ability to reason. I much preferred reading those to the writings than that of the Christians websites I had found.
That was years ago. I’ve since happily discovered that there are a plethora of Christian theologians who DO produce thought-provoking, evidence informed, well-written material that I find intellectually fulfilling. But these were not readily available online when I was exploring these things as I didn’t know these people’s names. They weren’t affiliated with popular churches or with well-known Christian leaders. The people who were the more “public” faces of Christianity didn’t/don’t produce the type of information these lesser-known, more obscure Christian scholars do. Rather, they seem to almost require you to “check” your brain at the door and “just believe.” I wasn’t feeling that – and neither do many others.
Disturbing words and imagery: singing about loving blood and death; devils, etc
This one seems simple, but is a big one. As I mentioned, autistics can be literal; as a result, some of the words, songs, and imagery that is moving and heartwarming for others is very much the opposite for us. I can remember feeling nauseated listening to people pour out their hearts about “the blood” and how precious it is, how they want it to wash over them, how they want to drink it in, how great it is to be covered by it, etc. Now, years later, having become a Christian and exploring this concept from various viewpoints, I *get* what they mean. They are expressing gratitude for the symbolism and the sacrificial love of Christ. But the manner in which it was being expressed didn’t convey that to me at the time. The intended message was lost in the imagery of “blood” that was conjured up. And I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling uncomfortable with all of the repeated references to “loving blood.”
Even though I know the underlying meaning behind it, saying how much you “love the blood” still to this day sounds disgusting to me. It sounds like something that belongs in a vampire novel. Or a documentary about cannibalism. I’m sorry, but I love God; I don’t love “blood.”
I don’t. I don’t love blood. And neither would you if the thought of blood triggered for you some of the things it triggers for me – like the blood dripping from my viciously torn hymen after my innocence was stolen from me as a child; or the blood covering my father’s broken body after being assaulted by racist cops who sought to punish him for being a “nigger who didn’t know his place.” Or the 10+ vials of blood my sweet child has to give up every three months at the lab for the rest of their life due to their medical condition. I’m sorry, but I don’t love blood, and I’m not singing about blood. I’ll sing about God all day long. I’ll sing God’s praises in other ways, I’ll try to be a good witness for Christ in my actions, and I’ll gladly tell people how much God means to me. But I’ll respectfully refrain if asked/expected to revere blood when I know that I don’t.
I also don’t think autistics are moved by churches and Christian people who are basically stating that they can’t wait until they die. I *know* the message is that they are explaining their love for Heaven. But don’t we live right here, right now? It’s okay to be joyfully expectant for one’s future, but I think some people/churches take it too far and imply that the life we have now isn’t worth caring about. I disagree with that. We can look forward to the future while still living in, and appreciating, the here and now. Jesus himself stated that He came to give us “life more abundantly,” right? So isn’t it a little disrespectful to be so Heaven-focused that we fail to show some love and gratitude for this life, earthly or not? I believe that it is.
And the devil talk. Sigh. Some churches are too heavy into “demonology” and need to spend more time focusing on “Christology.” satan this, satan that. What about God? Why spend so much time talking about satan when we could be growing as Christians and focusing on God? I’ve heard sermons about satan that would make best selling sci-fi stories…all the speculation on how he “enters” people’s hearts and minds and “tricks” them, and his never-ending costume changes and body shifting. Double sigh. Exorcisms and the like. Seriously?
Aren’t there enough things that we have to work on in this life and in this world, legitimate things that need our full attention than to be conjuring up all of this demon imagery that is better left for horror films? It’s kind of pathetic IMHO. Wouldn’t our time/energy be better spent finding real-life ways to apply God’s teachings to make lasting change? All this talk of “the enemy” and not enough talk about God seems pretty imbalanced to me.
Yes, one should “know one’s opponent” just as in tactical warfare, in athletics, or any other type of competition. But…if you are so obsessed with defense that you fail to strategically build your offense, you have erred in your preparation and you will eventually be worse off for it. I prefer to think about and learn about Jesus. satan – metaphorical, literal, or otherwise – is not going to be my focus.
And autistic people aren’t likely to react favorably to taking anything about Christianity seriously when a church spends the majority of its time making seemingly incessant references to an invisible bogeyman and blaming him for all their troubles rather than taking any personal responsibility in life and rather than talking about what they’re supposed to be about – God.
Women and discrimination/misogyny
Did you know that there are still some churches where women cannot be ordained as deacons?
Did you know that there are still some churches where women cannot teach or preach – unless she’s working in Women’s Ministry or Children’s Ministry?
Did you know there are still some churches where women and girls aren’t allowed to wear pants?
Did you know that there are some churches where wives are blamed for their husbands’ affairs or porn addictions – because they apparently weren’t “satisfying” their men’s needs?
Have you ever taken an informal count of how many women are enrolled in seminary versus men? How women get treated in seminary by male classmates and male professors? How many female theology professors there are compared to men? Ever wonder why?
And yes, I’m talking about 2016.
Silence implies consent. I refuse to be quiet. I am bringing everything into the light.
Churches – especially southern American churches – have a gender equality problem. It’s not everywhere, and it’s not everyone. But it’s there. This isn’t how it is supposed to be. But it is this way.
Misogynist mindsets are interwoven into society as a whole, not just the church. It isn’t easy to be a woman anywhere, regardless of religion. But the reluctance of many Christians – and churches – to address it only allows it to continue to fester.
Laughingly enough, (some) churches often talk about how “oppressed” Muslim women are and express (condescending) sympathy for them. Maybe those churches need to take the “wooden plank” out of their own eyes before worrying about the splinter in their neighbors’ eyes, just like Bible says…
(OT: as this post is getting very long and I am getting very tired, I am going to try to condense a few of my remaining points. Those that I don’t get to will be addressed in a second post.)
Too still and quiet
There are some churches that strongly value a quiet sanctuary where there is also little movement. As a result, many autistic people (children and adults) don’t feel comfortable in those settings because our flapping, stimming, humming, etc. are perceived as disruptive and/or distracting. The stares and loud “Shhh!” stage whispers are humiliating and demoralizing. As a result, many autistic people choose to just stay away. And who can blame them? Why should they come when they are treated as if they are unwelcome in the house of the Lord?
Or…too loud and bright
Some churches have very loud, vibrant worship music, complete with booming speakers, bass drums, screeching electrical guitars, and enthusiastic singers crooning loudly into the microphone. There also may be track lighting, several projection screens, and other aesthetic effects in a church. While this can be invigorating for autistics who crave certain types of powerful sensory input, for many autistics such an environment can feel like an assault on one’s senses. For some, wearing noise cancelling headphones helps, but for others that isn’t a solution. The loud, bright environment of many churches is aversive to many autistics.
Bible studies that are too much like school
Raise your hand if your school experience was enjoyable. Is yours raised? Mine ain’t, and many an autistics’ hand isn’t either. Though I enjoyed some aspects of school, others were very hard for me – and that is something a lot of autistics can identify with. School isn’t exactly the most welcoming place for a lot of us, so why would we willingly subject ourselves to a school-like setting on our weekends? Many Sunday School or Bible Study settings – for children and adults – are designed in a manner very much like school (Sunday School even has “school” in its very name!).
Uncomfortable seating, following a specific curriculum, reading aloud, walking in an “orderly fashion” (i.e. in lines), raising one’s hand to speak, didactic lectures, forced socializing…these are some of the school-like elements that can be found in many Bible study classes around the globe. Some (neurotypical) people learn like that and enjoy that type of learning environment, but for a lot of autistic people, a religious setting that mimics school is not a pleasant way for us to gain spiritual understanding. It might be yet another place where we are painfully aware of how very different we are, and how negatively some people perceive that difference.
That’s all for now. I will address the seven remaining points that I have in a separate post that I hope to write soon. Thank you for taking the time to read, and please feel free to share if you like.
Until next time, I hope you’ll permit me to say, “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” or if not that, “Have a wonderful rest of your day and take care. :)”