April is National Autism Awareness Month. This article was written by Russell Threet. Threet has been serving as Senior Pastor at FBC Mena since September of 2015.
I do not claim to be an expert on autism. I am not even an expert on the individual that lives in my home who is autistic. What I do see as a father and a pastor is a great need for Christian parents and churches to be better equipped to try to have spiritual conversations with those in their lives that might be affected by autism. This is no simple task and it is something that needs a great deal of thought, research, and prayer. What I want to offer are some basics about having spiritual (and other) conversations with people who are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). There is no one size fits all approach to autism because it is so diverse in the way it impacts people, but hopefully this will be a start for someone who is grasping for help and finding no resources to help. I know that there are people at different places on the autism spectrum for which some of these principles may not be as applicable. However, it is my prayer that this will be somewhere to start.
1. Watch your words.
Language is important in all communication, but even more with those with ASD. Speaking in words that are clear and concrete can be very helpful when discussing spiritual truths. For example, do not use phrases that rely on abstract concepts (e.g. ask Jesus into your heart). While an autistic person might have the mental capabilities to understand that you do not really mean that Jesus somehow climbs into your physical heart, they could still be heavily distracted by that imagery in their mind. You might continue talking about the deep truths of the Gospel but they could be stifling a chuckle because they are picturing Jesus hanging out of your chest trying to climb in your heart. Explain what these spiritual truths look like. I might explain how Jesus “in me” means that He is now the one who is in charge of my entire life and I now live differently because of how He has changed me.
2. You are not perfect, but you can be persistent.
When trying to communicate with those with ASD you must understand that there are going to be some situations. Some will be funny. Some will be confusing. Some will be downright sad. Do not let this dissuade you. Keep communicating. Keep trying. You may be frustrated by the 10 year-old boy who is always talking about Mario instead of Jesus in your Sunday School class while he draws and scribbles on your perfect worksheet. Keep trying. Keep teaching those Gospel truths. Keep asking questions even if he or she does not answer. The people that make the most impact in the lives of special needs families are not the smartest or the ones that have read the most articles on autism. They are the ones who continue to engage in spite of seeing little visible fruit. You may not know if truths are being accepted, rejected, or ignored, but continue in faith. Knowing the entire family and learning preferences, tendencies, interests, and best practices can be a great help in helping you to persevere in caring for and communicating with these beautiful individuals. Sometimes, you just need a way into their world and it will open up avenues of relationship and communication you never thought possible.
3. Simplify when possible, but do not oversimplify.
Speaking clearly and simply was mentioned before. Yet, if we are not careful we can try to oversimplify things that are just not simple. When speaking of the realities of salvation, sanctification, the work of the Spirit, and other doctrinal truth we must never allow our desire to be understood to diminish the truth being presented. In all spiritual conversations, whether with neurotypical people or those with ASD, we must hold fast to the truth that it is a work of the Holy Spirit to bring understanding and response. Just because someone has ASD and does not always reciprocate in communication does not mean that they do not or cannot understand what you are sharing. Even if you have an idea that someone’s cognitive abilities are extremely limited, still share the truth as clearly as you can. The Holy Spirit will do as He pleases (John 3:8).
4. Check your environment.
If there is one concept that I believe has been of the highest importance for my family’s autism journey it would be this one. People all over the autism spectrum are very often troubled by environmental factors. Environments with loud noise or even varied noises can be a huge impediment to communication. Things like lighting, smells, and temperature are also possible environmental issues to consider. We are all distracted at times by what is going on around us but many people with ASD struggle in ways we do not understand. As I type this a train passed by, I could hear one of my associate pastors coughing in the next room, my computer is humming, and traffic is going by on the road behind my office. With the way my brain works I naturally allow those other sounds to fade to the background as I focus on what I am doing. I would do the same if someone was in front of me talking.
However, for those with ASD, many times they are impacted by all areas of input (sound, sight, smell, touch, and possibly taste) in a way that does not allow them to be pushed to the background. Perhaps while talking to someone they are taking in the conversation being had, the smell of someone’s cologne nearby (that they do not like very much), the tag in their shirt that is scratching them, as well as the other conversation going on nearby. Yet, they are not always able to discern what is the most important area of input at a given moment. All of these things are flowing through their brain and being processed with the same level of importance. Can you see now why sometimes it is hard for them to communicate? They are not simply distracted, but are instead giving their full focus to multiple streams of input all at once. This is why it is important when you are trying to have spiritual conversations to be aware of the environment so that you make it less stressful for both parties. They may be more at ease and you will be less frustrated by lack of reciprocation in the conversation.
5. Dignity is paramount.
I know that you are reading this because you want to minister more effectively to people with ASD. However, even with the best of intentions we can come off as condescending. It is easy to do. As mentioned several times, those with ASD may have all different types of difficulties, aptitudes, and cognitive problems. When communicating, make sure that you are not treating them in a childish manner even if it becomes necessary to speak in more simplistic language. Some ASD people are not just intelligent, but are hyper-intelligent, particularly when dealing with a subject of interest. While some will not understand they are being condescended to, others will, and so will those that love and care for them. Speak in age appropriate ways and give whatever control and autonomy that you can when talking with them as friends or acquaintances.
Autism is not something that completely defines a person but it does contribute to many different parts of someone’s individual makeup. Please do not let these general tips or helps be something that allows you to paint all people with ASD with a broad brush. Take the time to build relationships with individuals and families that are living with autism. Just as it is true with anyone else, trust and deep communication are something that is earned. Your love, sincerity, and perseverance could make a great difference in the life of a family. More than that, God could use it to impact someone’s eternity.