Autism in Personal and Pastoral Reflection
Mario Russo shares a personal and pastoral reflection on caring for those who are neurodivergent in our families, communities, and churches.
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Virginia and I have been married for 16 years. We have lived all over the world, speak several languages, and have two incredible children. From the outside, no one in our family “looks autistic.” But in July 2021 at the age of 38 my wife Virginia was diagnosed as neurodivergent (sometimes referred to as “high functioning autism” or “Aspergers” or “being on the autism spectrum”). Suddenly, a lot of things made sense.
There is a popular saying in the neurodivergent community, “autism runs in packs.” In other words, neurodivergent people tend to have friends who are also neurodivergent. They have a unique ability to “find each other.” So, when Virginia realized that all of her close friends were neurodivergent, and they described similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences that she has had since childhood, she knew it was time to find a competent professional to help her. With the help of her neurodivergent friend network, she was able to find a clinical psychologist to evaluate her. After seven hours of numerous evaluations and tests, the results finally came back. Virginia was definitively on the autism spectrum.
But what does that mean? What does it look like for someone to be “neurodiverse“? Firstly, it does not mean that someone can diagnose themselves, their children, or someone else as being on the spectrum. It’s not as simple as looking up symptoms or behaviors on WebMD and discovering a diagnosis. Diagnosis of neurodivergency only comes from trained professionals like medical doctors and clinical psychologists.
Neurodivergency varies greatly (hence the “spectrum” nomer) and looks different depending on the person. But there are some commonalities that all neurodivergent people share. Most neurodivergent people have difficulty with social communication (like keeping eye contact during conversations and reading body language), learning (difficulty focusing, or problems with executive functioning), unusual responses to sensory input (sensitivity or unusual insensitivity to light, sound, heat, cold, pressure, crowds, and other stimuli), and unusual physical behaviors (such as rocking, expressing tics, blurting things out, and shouting at unexpected times). So, what is life like for neurodivergent people? Well, let’s ask someone.
It’s not as simple as looking up symptoms or behaviors on WebMD and discovering a diagnosis. Diagnosis of neurodivergency only comes from trained professionals like medical doctors and clinical psychologists.
Autism in Personal Reflection
Mario: How would you describe what it is like to live everyday life as a neurodivergent person?
Virginia: It takes a lot of work. Every social interaction takes a tremendous amount of energy. I have to pay closer attention to what other people are saying and what their body language is communicating than neurotypical people do. Simultaneously, I’m having to hold myself back from diverting the conversation to one of my special interests. It’s a lot like having a 4-year-old living in my head. She follows me around all day talking to me about everything. “I’m thirsty. This pillow is too hard. Why are there crumbs under my feet? I don’t want to eat this meal I made. I need to change my t-shirt.” Most days it’s exhausting, but I’m learning strategies to talk to her and help her be quiet. Having supportive family and friends goes a long way in making my life manageable.
Mario: Autism is sometimes touted as a “superpower.” As a person on the autism spectrum, what do you think? Do you see yourself as having a superpower?
Virginia: Yes and no. It is a superpower in the sense that I would not be able to create the art that I make if I wasn’t on the autism spectrum. So, it is a superpower as long as an autistic person can use it in a way that brings themselves and others joy. But it’s also not a superpower because it can make life very difficult all day, every day. My lack of flexibility, feeling like everyone else knows what is expected in social situations, not being able to accomplish ordinary tasks (like making a doctor’s appointment) or stimming (rocking back and forth) in public and realizing that people are staring at me. All of these things are daily reminders of how different I am from most people. All of this has an effect on my family and friends, and that is really hard for me. So, yes, autism is a superpower. But it’s not only a superpower, it has its disadvantages. To say otherwise celebrates the strengths of autism but minimizes the struggles and difficulties that people on the autism spectrum face. So, it is, and it isn’t.
Yes and no…autism is a superpower. But it’s not only a superpower, it has its disadvantages. To say otherwise celebrates the strengths of autism but minimizes the struggles and difficulties that people on the autism spectrum face. So, it is, and it isn’t.
Mario: What do you think is an important thing for neurotypical people to know about people on the autism spectrum?
Virginia: We’re trying our best. If we could make it easier for you, we would. It can be difficult to have us as friends or spouses. But we also have a lot to offer. We can help you see the world in a completely different way. We are master problem solvers and basically walking encyclopedias! How can that not be fun? On the more practical side, I would say, if something goes sideways in a social interaction or conversation with us, you can just tell us. Being direct with us is actually really helpful. We really value honesty in communication. Because we don’t pick up on subtleties in conversations, being straightforward may feel like rudeness to you, but it feels like clarity to us.
Pastoral Perspective on Autism
Whether we view autism as a disability, superpower, or something in between, there are a couple of things that we need to understand and embrace as Christians. Neurodivergence is not mentioned in the Bible. However, the Bible does have a lot to say about how we ought to treat other people.
Neurodivergent people are often feared, rejected, ostracized, pitied, or ignored. I’ve heard a lot of stories in my pastoral career about the treatment of neurodivergent people in the Church. Some of it is good, some of it is bad. But the common theme seems to be that pastors struggle with how to help neurodivergent people, let alone teach others how to be helpful. And church members are made so uncomfortable by neurodivergent people that they would rather just ignore them.
So, what should pastors do? How should church members interact with neurodivergent people? I’m convinced that the solution is simple: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Yes, it may sound cliché, but the implementation of the golden rule would still go a long way in helping us understand and interact with neurodivergent people—both inside and outside the Church.
First, seek to understand: It’s here that I find the prayer of St. Francis so helpful. “Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace… Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.” Seek to understand the neurodivergent people in your church, family, and community. Discover what life is like for them. Be curious about what they have to do to prepare for and experience a church service. Ask them if there are things about the service they struggle with (like loud music, or having to stand close to and/or talk to strangers).
In a place where neurodivergent people don’t seem to fit, we need to build them a place to belong…They are still people who are part of the body of Christ. And they are people who we are called to understand and love.
Second, seek to love. Once you’ve learned about the struggles and difficulties of neurodivergent people, ask them if there are any changes that can be made that would serve them. At one of my former churches, we made free ear plugs available to the elderly and neurodivergent to help them regulate the loud noise. But even more than this, we need to proactively create space for neurodivergent people to feel like they belong. How? Like this:
We had a family visit with a young, non-verbal, neurodivergent boy (about 7 years old) who we will call “Tommy.” Tommy would walk around the auditorium during the service waving hello to different people and trying to sit with them. This was obviously disruptive, his parents felt terrible, and church members didn’t know what to do. Until one Sunday, Tommy was making his usual rounds during the service and found another 7 year old (neurotypical) boy. Tommy waved his usual hello, but this time the boy waved back and invited Tommy to sit with him. And that was the moment everything changed. They became instant friends. Tommy was wandering the auditorium not just to be friendly, but to search for a friend. And when he found one, the wanderings stopped. Now, every Sunday, Tommy knows where to sit, and who to sit with. He found his place with his person.
In a place where neurodivergent people don’t seem to fit, we need to build them a place to belong. Neurodivergent people think, act, and experience the world differently. But they are still people created in the image of God. They are still people who are part of the body of Christ. And they are people who we are called to understand and love.
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About the authors
Mario A. Russo
Kara Virginia Russo
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