Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

With 1 in 68 people on the autism spectrum, most churches will encounter a number of people of various ages and backgrounds who are autistic. I am autistic and a Christian, and my faith is a very important part of my life. As a child, I had little use of language and was very “typically autistic.” But as an adult, I learned to use language, and now I teach churches worldwide about autism.

I work with leaders from the Church of England, and I wrote their national autism guidelines at the request of the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard, who realized what gifts autistic people bring to God and community. Sometimes, complex gifts. Sometimes, simple ones. But the things that help autistic people in churches also help many others. Our research has found that in England congregation numbers rise four times faster when a church becomes autism friendly.

Here are 10 low-cost, easy steps your church can take to become more autism friendly:

1. Check the lights in each room, especially fluorescent ones. Are any of them flickering? Please replace them, or switch them off if you can. The world inside buildings is often exhausting for us. Our heightened senses mean that the world is often beautiful, amazing, fascinating — but we may need some time out to recover from sensory overload. Seeing people clearly in that kind of environment is really difficult, too.

2. Consider your noise levels. Is there unexpected loud noise in today’s service/meeting? Can it be changed easily? If not, can you warn us first? Also, keep in mind that hard or reflective surfaces can cause a lot of echoing that makes it hard for us to hear, especially in a crowd. Our brains cannot filter out the other voices. Carpeting can help a lot, as can a quiet space to recover.

3. Orient us to the building. Do we know what it looks like, and what the layout is like? Is there information on a simple website or blog, perhaps? Autistic people benefit from some information to help orient them to their surroundings.

4. We are very literal, and because of different brain wiring, many of us think more visually rather than just in words. We need people to say what they mean and be truthful. Metaphors and expressions can be very confusing — and of course the Bible is full of these, so explanations really help. It’s easy to think we are being rude or sarcastic if we take instructions literally. We’re not. And keeping instructions short and simple helps all of us. Additionally, some of us may use sign language or assistive communication (e.g. picture stories on an iPad). Make teams aware of this. We are often happy to show others how it works.

5. Will there be physical events like shaking hands during the service? Water being splashed about? We may find this physically painful or scary. Please warn us what will happen and ask if it’s okay to make physical contact with us.

6. Provide a rest area — somewhere quiet to go if we need to. Because we are coping with far more incoming information than most people, we need to pace ourselves to avoid exhaustion. Don’t worry if we need to wander outside for a while (if it’s safe to do so). Routine and predictability are also vital — needing to know what to expect is very much a part of autism; it’s not us being over-demanding or controlling for some malicious reason.

7. Understand that socializing is different for us. Be aware that we find it difficult and exhausting, as we cannot “see” your body language or hear your tone of voice that well. Our body language can be different from yours, and we may find eye contact overwhelming and look away. It is important for communities to realize we are not being rude or evasive. We would not expect eye contact from people who are blind, and it should not be expected from autistic people. Assume our good intentions!

8. Be clear and accurate. If you say you’ll do something, please do it. If you need to change arrangements, just let us know. Think about the order of service — will there be really clear instructions for us, such as where to sit and when to stand?

9. Offer support. Perhaps find a quiet, caring person to be aware of us, someone ready to lend a little assistance if we ask for it. Brief them well, and please respect our confidentiality and privacy. Offer support to parents and caregivers, too. They will often welcome the chance to relax for a while and worship in good ways, knowing their loved one is safe with people who understand autism’s needs.

10. Please ask what else will help. Think about offering good autism training to your teams. You can start with a basic explanation of what autism is and isn’t — it is a brain design difference, present before birth. It is not a mental health condition. Some have intellectual or other disabilities as well, but they are not part of autism itself. It is not a lack of empathy.

Is autism preparedness worth it? Always. As 1 Corinthians 12:18-26 says, “God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be . . . . [I]f one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”

Image: Galway Cathedral lit up in blue for World Autism Day. Via Shutterstock

Ann Memmott
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  • Leo Staley

    This sounds like generally good advice for churches, period. My personal experience with individuals with Autism has actually been quite negative, but I don’t hold that against them. I can’t go and generalize my experience about those 3 people over to everybody with autism. I’ve bookmarked this article. Thanks for writing it.

    • Rhonda Witmer Good

      I don’t know what your experiences have been , Leo, but I can assure you that most people with autism could tell you that they have had a lot more than 3 negative experiences with neuro-typical people. I have a 12 year old son with autism, so I struggle a bit when people are critical of people with autism. They are expected to adapt 24/7 in order to “fit in” with society. And yet, one of the main struggles for a brain affected by autism is to learn to adapt! As a mother who has worked incredibly hard trying to help my son understand social appropriateness, common courtesies, etc., sometimes I just sit and cry because of how difficult life is for him. He so desperately wants to fit in and be like everyone else, and yet, so many times he still does the very things that make him look strange – even though we have talked about it 5000 times! Sometimes it is the 5001st time when it finally clicks and sticks as a learned life skill. Thanks for your statement that you don’t hold it against the people with autism. That makes me feel better. 🙂

      • Leo Staley

        Well those are only my long term experiences which were negative. I have had some other, more peripheral, experiences with autistics, and in general, I find them to be … -Don’t take this the wrong way- confused. It’s like they’re constantly bothered by several unrelated questions, and it comes off as confusion to me. I get the impression from them, just like I imagine people would get from me, if I missed every 4th word everyone said. Perhaps those questions they’re asking are, “okay, what are they saying?” and “Is my response here correct?”

        My first experience was a long time ago, and was probably negative because of me, and the fact that I was too young to understand people who were different.. Eventually I grew up, and learned (as I continue to) to be kind, empathetic, and patient with everyone, because that’s just the best way.

        My next most recent, I tried with all my heart to be generous and kind and so forth, but it turned out that in addition to having autism, he was actually just a deeply unkind, selfish person. I recognize that sometimes it’s easy to mistake symptoms of autism for emotional coldness, which is why I put up with it for so long; I figured some of these things he was doing were simply not his fault. A number of incidents over the years finally convinced me. Just as neuro-typical people can be both bad and good, so can autistics. I think it actually helped me humanize them in a way that I had previously doing, unaware. I had been seeing them as so different as to not be capable of moral choices. This person certainly was. Being a bad person is usually my last resort that I ever go to for explaining a person’s behavior, but it was unavoidable.

        My third major experience was… Well, actually, a recent discussion with a mutual friend overwhelmingly persuaded me that she actually didn’t have autism at all, but rather had narcisistic personality disorder, and perhaps anti-social personality disorder; but she went around saying she had Aspergers/Autism, as a way to publicly justify her behavior and manipulate people. My friend and I realized that she would fake some symptoms of autism, but do it inconsistently, and that she was much more socially manipulative than most neuro-typical people, let alone an autistic person! It actually makes me angry to know what she’s doing to the reputation of autistics, just because she can.

        Sum total, most of the people I’ve met with Autism have been perfectly nice people, confused about the way everyone else is acting. Those two relationships (I now don’t count the 3rd) comprised about 80% of the total time I’ve spent around Autistic individuals though. The human mind really really loves to generalize, so I’ve got to fight that instinct. It’s both intellectually cheap, and inter-personally unfair.

        • Rhonda Witmer Good

          Your last two sentences are very profound. Thanks! An autism specialist once said, “If you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism.” In other words, just because you know one person, doesn’t mean you know what all other people with autism are like. But one thing that came through in each of your experiences is the self-focused tendency that is very common in people with autism. That is part of what makes it so difficult for them to socialize well. They have trouble reading social cues. My son is very fortunate to have had fabulous teachers, principals and counselors who have worked hard with my husband and me to help our son learn coping skills and social skills while at the same time allowing him space to hang out and relax his brain. Unfortunately, it sounds as though the people with whom you have interacted may not have had that much support. Or, it could be that they are older and were growing up before there was so much research and education on autism. I know it could be easy to be cynical because it seems so many people claim their child has autism. But I thank you for continuing to “check” your thoughts and attitudes. You are doing a huge favor to all people with autism.