AUSTISTIC AT CHURCH
I’ve attended church since I was young child. Prior to my diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome (autism) in 2010, I knew that I was different but did not know why. Suddenly the sensory-heavy experiences of church, among other things, made sense. Years later, I am still trying to find the best way to connect with God and other Christians while also being at peace with my authentic Autistic, multiply disabled self.
The majority of those I’ve met in the Autistic community, identify with their neurotype (how a brain is wired) as a form of cultural identity. For this reason I capitalize the ‘A” in the word “Autistic” as it not only explains how my brain is wired but touches every facet of my experiences – how I think and how I move through the world.
Most autistic folks I’ve met are very sensitive to sensory information: this can mean that everything from specific sounds, pitches and frequencies, types of lighting (i.e. fluorescent lighting and/or strobe lights), to tastes and textures of food or clothing, etc., can be physically painful for us (Autistic folks). For me, its a combination of sensitivities: to be more specific, brass instruments, organs, some pitches are physically painful for me to hear. I also avoid the taste and texture of certain foods. I also am very touch-sensitive, which means that – unless we know each other really, really, really well or you are my immediate family, touch can be painful for me.
There’s a joke in the Autistic community, that the “Passing of the Peace” is every Autistic person’s nightmare. This joke is not far off. As a child, fellow church members shaking my hand or trying to hug me without my consent felt awkward, suffocating, and painful. As an adult, while I “pass” fairly well (I appear non-autistic to most folks), I still can’t handle touch. My pastor Jen Stuart has said in church that the Passing of the Peace can be done from a distance if touch is hard for some people. And I appreciate her so, so, so much for these instructions to our church.
So if you’re still reading this and I hope you are, please understand this: Despite how friendly and social I may appear to the average church member, know that it is a carefully choreographed facade- a mask I wear to survive in a world that is not always kind or fair to Autistic people.
Behind that mask, I am trying like hell to navigate my way through a million different colognes, perfumes, hairsprays, gels – that various church-goers wear. I am trying to focus on the voice of the person speaking while I hear every scratch of pencil against paper, laugh/cry from children, the sound of rubber hitting a wooden floor, the hum and clanking of the heaters, the buzz from the hot microphones.
On a good day, I only have to filter through a piano and maybe a guitar, struggling to make sense of the words sung by the worship team or choir. On a bad day, I feel every vibration and note bounce off of my teeth, rumbling deep in my chest, my finger tips and toes curling in frustration. No matter how much I may dislike these instruments, I know others enjoy this music so I try my best to just tough it out.
By the time we get to the Passing of the Peace, I’m already very overwhelmed, so while you might intend a hug or firm handshake to be an act of love or peace? It doesn’t feel like that to me. When enough people infringe upon my space, the combination of this and other sensory- heavy elements of the service wash over me like a tidal wave.
I know you may mean well, but just one more unsolicited hug can cause sensory overload or a meltdown. This doesn’t mean I hate you, dislike you or anything of that nature. For me, being social is like running a marathon – very draining on me both mentally, physically and emotionally.
I live in a world in which my neurotype is a minority. While I am at peace with being Autistic, I don’t know that others are. And for the most part, I’m okay with this. But if we attend church together, and you still persist on getting in my space to ‘share the peace’ with me, even after I have repeatedly asked you NOT to? I end up feeling suffocated, silenced and disrespected. Those of you who know me and adjust your approach accordingly? This is NOT directed to you – you are doing just fine. (Shout-out to Pastor Jen Stuart, Nancy Goodloe, Alyson Schwab, Ariel Bender, Jason White, John Mounsey, Tiffany Beardsley, Jack Keaka Frost, Derek Stuart, Clara Stuart, and to family for being so intuitive, patient and understanding my needs).
For those of us who are Autistic and/or otherwise neurodivergent, church and other social functions can be very hard. My faith is very important to me but so are my access needs and body autonomy. So if I say something is hurtful or harmful to me – even if you mean well – please listen to me! To all who read this post: thank you.
(Welcome guest writer Sue Magrath! She is the author of the book, Healing the Ravaged Soul: Tending the Spiritual Wounds of Child Sexual Abuse. She is a native of Washington State and currently lives in Leavenworth. Her many years of working with survivors of child sexual abuse as a pastoral counselor and spiritual director led her to write this book, sharing a side of abuse that is rarely recognized or discussed.)  Names changed.
One More Time By Sue Magrath
Child sexual abuse is a silent and insidious cancer that eats away at the lives of its victims. It is conducted in secrecy and perpetuated in silence. Victims are often admonished never to speak about what is happening to them, and these warnings are often accompanied by threats of violence if they ever dare to tell someone about the abuse. Unfortunately, this silence comes at a cost. The enormity of what a victim has suffered and the impact of the abuse on their lives grow and thrive in silence and secrecy. When abuse is not spoken about, healing is not possible.
A pastor acquaintance of mine recently told me a touching story of healing that speaks to this issue of silence. Years ago, Claire  was conducting a movie theology group in her congregation. During one gathering, a film that portrayed an abusive marital relationship was being viewed by the group. Gradually, Claire began to notice that the behavior of one of the young women in attendance was becoming more and more agitated. During a break, the pastor drew the young woman, Debra, aside and asked her if she was okay. After much hesitation, Debra finally shared that she had been raped by her grandfather when she was a young girl. Claire listened and validated her distress over the content of the movie, then invited her to come by the church office the next day to talk more about this traumatic event.
Debra did come to Claire’s office and told her story for the first of many times. She shared with Claire that she had never told another soul her narrative of abuse. Debra had kept this secret for many years until the impact of a movie’s portrayal of sexual violence unleashed her own painful story. This began a ritual that went on for several years. Debra would stop by Claire’s office and ask her if she had time to hear the story again. Claire would always respond with, “One more time.” Ultimately, it took forty times before Debra was able to purge herself of her trauma and receive the gift of listening that led to healing. She eventually married, had children, and went on to live a normal and happy life.
The fact that Debra told her story forty times strikes me as a vital part of her healing. The number forty figures prominently in biblical narratives. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, and Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days and nights before beginning his earthly ministry. Certainly, the wilderness experience is an apt metaphor for the bleak and barren aftermath of child sexual abuse. It takes a lot of wandering to find your way after the trauma of abuse. It takes time. The experience may feel like fasting, where there is no sustenance or nourishment for body or soul. And the desert is a lonely place, often with no signposts to tell you where you are or where you’re headed. You can take a lot of wrong turns in the wilderness. And often, something that looks like it might be an oasis turns out to be a mirage. This makes it hard for survivors to trust anything that looks like hope. They might turn away from people who offer help, fearing that it will just be more of the same disappointment or abandonment they’ve suffered in the past. But Debra’s experience with Claire offers hope for something new, something that opens the floodgates of suppressed emotions that hold one back from healing and restoration. It is in the sharing of the story, the breaking of the silence, that healing can happen.
So, if you are a survivor of child sexual abuse, find someone to tell your story to. Tell it again and again, until you don’t need to tell it any more. Let that person’s caring and nurturing spirit help you heal. And if you are someone whose vocation or relationship leads you to walk with those who have painful stories to tell, listen! Listen with compassion. Hold their story gently, offering no advice or platitudes, only your deep sorrow over their suffering and the assurance that they didn’t deserve what happened to them. Be patient, for it might indeed take forty times. And remember that sometimes, when you think you can’t listen any more, you’ll find, with the help of God, that you can do it one more time.