White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

Neurodiversity in the Church

Published Tuesday, November 17, 2020 By Kimberly Olivar

While Douglas’s article, “Supporting Diversity and Inclusion Means Teaching Kids about Those with Disabilities,” by Cathi Douglas,  focuses on children, it shows more broadly that congregation members of all ages benefit from conversations on diversity and disabilities in the church—not only are they better able to love and welcome every member of the Body of Christ (not just those who are able to sit still), but they’re reminded of their own frailty and dependence on the Lord.

There is a need in churches for disability ministry for neurodiverse people and a lack of resources available for many congregations, the greatest of which is the absence of volunteers. It’s not that people are unwilling to welcome individuals with cognitive disabilities, but that they don’t know how to say, “Please, bring your family members with special needs to disrupt our services.  We don’t mind.” As someone who has a sister with autism, I’ve learned that the secret of inclusion is simply saying hi.  When a congregation comes to know a person in the neurodiverse spectrum, the constant movement, occasional groaning, and potential outbursts become just another part of human involvement in the service.  Congregations generally don’t mind much when an infant or child bursts out screaming—why should a person with special needs get attention from a distracted congregation?  Perhaps one reason these disruptions make people uncomfortable is because they’re unaccustomed to them. When we build relationships with people who have special needs, these eccentricities blend into the coughing, muttering, and inevitable movement and noise of the social environment.

Neurodiverse people who are baptized children of God ought to be offered the chance to partake of the same gifts as you and I.  Inclusion is their birthright. Our God loves the meek.  Recently I saw a church marquee that said, “God can’t use you if you don’t walk.” Obviously, this was a challenge to the indifferent Christian, but I still wonder, from their perspective, who can walk, and what ‘walking’ means. The Apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians how the message of Christ crucified is foolishness to our understanding (1:18-20).  God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and the weak things to shame the strong (1:27).  He chose the lowly things and the despised things and made us one body with many parts (1:28; 12:12-26).  Yet, we forget to consider the infant, the shut-in, and the otherwise needy person as equal parts of the same body as the rest of us.  Neurodiverse people were baptized by the same spirit into the one body (12:13).  Although they may appear weaker in our foolishness, they are indispensable and possess unique gifts (12:22).  Just like you and I, people with disabilities have a vocation.

In the Heidelberg Disputation, Martin Luther suggests theses that would pave the way for a theology of disability. That same theological perspective—a theology of the cross which emphasizes Christ’s work over human ability—should inform how we view the place of neurodiverse people in the church and inspire a priority for inclusion. Although no one intends to exclude people with disabilities, we excommunicate them by not welcoming them to worship alongside us.

There is a greater need to educate congregations and communities on how to love and interact with a neurodiverse community so that we can worship together. This isn’t anyone’s fault in particular; many people have just never been exposed to people with cognitive disabilities. Congregations do their best to serve the elderly and the physically handicapped because these communities are more familiar and tend to require fewer awkward conversation.  Families of people with special needs are used to awkward conversations (trust me, I’ve had more than my share, and most of them are from my sister with autism).  People fear serving individuals with special needs simply because it is difficult to identify what the need is and how they can help. They are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and accidentally causing offense. Once conversations happen, action can be taken for inclusion.

A common buzzphrase today is ‘safe space’—an environment that promotes productive conversation and care, not censorship.  Churches ought to be safe spaces for people with special needs.  Avoiding these conversations in a congregation doesn’t eliminate the need; it creates an unhealthy and unnecessary stigma that stifles better understanding and greater empathy.  There are probably more individuals in your congregation who are closely related to someone with special needs than what is immediately apparent.  Not only do these members of the universal church miss the opportunity to worship with the body, but often times, their families and caregivers will miss church services in order to care for them, not because they are unable to participate in worship, but simply because they are not welcome.  Because neurodiverse people tend to love routine, church is a perfect social environment for them because the general routine doesn’t change, despite various worship styles.  Congregation members don’t need to be neurologists to make people with special needs feel welcome, they just need to be present and accept the possibility that disruptions might occur.  Special-needs ministry materials and Bible studies are available for those who have the facilities and resources to house such things; however, every congregation has people who can potentially become peer-buddies for individuals with special needs. We, the laity, ought to take it upon ourselves to start an awkward conversation and offer friendship. Congregation members should never be afraid to serve their neighbor. The whole body benefits from diversity and inclusion.

My local Lutheran is church small body with several members who have special needs or are directly related to people with special needs. I regularly volunteer in the children’s church where we integrate neurotypical and neurodiverse youth into one service. This is partly done because there are so few of us, but also because a ministry of inclusion means that we intend to worship together.  One day we had a new friend with us and came up with a plan to have the pastor’s son work one-on-one with him until he is comfortable with our routine. Because the children’s room is one door removed from the main sanctuary, our friend entered the main sanctuary during the sermon screaming and making “weird” noises (as one child called them). Later, the pastor’s wife commented on this event to me, pointing out that, “It’s not problem, the pastor has a microphone. We can hear him no matter what.”  After our friend came back in and was walked out through a different door to be given a quiet space, one boy asked me, “Why is that weird guy making weird noises? It’s kind of crazy.” I had to figure out how to explain autism to a six-year-old without creating a social division, so I spoke to him privately and said, “Do you ever feel wiggly and silly? Our friend kind of feels like that all the time. He’s my friend. Can you be his friend too?”

Neurodiverse people desire to be involved. I recently read a wonderful autibiography (“autistic autobiography,” an emerging genre of literature) called The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism by Naoki Higashida.  The book is made up of the author’s answers to a series of questions people ask about autism.  One of them asks why autistic people prefer to be alone.  His response is that they don’t, it’s just easier.  I know the same is true for my twenty two-year-old sister—in a room full of people she knows, she socializes with just about everyone (usually offering to give every woman a manicure, which she does on the spot); in a new place full of strangers, she sits and “stims” (self-stimulatory behavior: usually rocking back and forth, groaning, and looking at her hands directly in front of her face) because the environment is too overwhelming.  It’s the same in a new congregation.  People with special needs are not incompetent and are more aware of their surroundings than they’re given credit for.

We don’t necessarily need a specific ministry with particular funding to welcome and include neurodiverse people; we just we need to start some awkward conversations and welcome them as Christ welcomes us.  Neurodiverse people play a precious role in the church, not to be patronized, but to be loved.  Their place in God’s kingdom reveals to us the beautiful upside-down, backward, illogical love God has for his people.  We need them among us, worshipping alongside us and learning with us, so that the body of Christ can be built up.

Kimberly Olivar is a graduate of Concordia University, Irvine. She currently studies disabilities in literature at California State University, Fullerton.

This article was originally published by Modern Reformation on November 29, 2019.

[1] Neurodiversity is a word typically used to replace “disability,” especially in regard to neurological differences. It recognizes all human variation as equally valid instead of placed in a dichotomy of normal and abnormal.

  • Kimberly Olivar