Autism as a diagnosis has dramatically increased in recent years. Theories regarding the reasons abound, though an improved ability to diagnose certainly plays a significant role.
However, unanswered questions about autism have created an environment for myths related to autism to flourish.
With so much varying information, and even misinformation, settling on the truth can be a challenge. And yet, as the people of God, we are called to be speakers of truth (Zechariah 8:16). Of course, to speak the truth, we must first know the truth. These five truths provide a foundation for anyone with a desire to grow in their understanding of autism.
1. Autism is a condition related to brain development.
While the medical community continues to explore potential root causes for autism, the symptoms arise from differences in brain development. The CDC defines autism as “a developmental disability caused by differences in the brain.” The Mayo Clinic describes it as “a condition related to brain development that impacts how a person socializes with and perceives others, causing problems in social interaction and communication. The disorder also includes limited and repetitive patterns of behavior.”
These definitions underscore that autism and its effects on a person are a result of a physiological condition of the brain.
This reality can help us extend additional grace and avoid untrue assumptions. Someone experiencing a sensory overload, for example, may exhibit behavior that looks like a tantrum. However, instead of the behavior displaying a moral choice or an issue of will, the physical stimuli has overwhelmed the person’s ability to process the incoming information.
Knowing this invites a level of compassion and understanding. Rather than allowing an incident like this to damage relationships, it can serve as a point of love. “How can we help avoid overstimulating situations?” is a compassionate question that addresses the problem (overstimulation) rather than misidentifying a sin issue when one may not exist.
2. Autism can only be diagnosed by observed behavior.
Because autism cannot be diagnosed through a blood test or other physical exam, it often goes undiagnosed. The family seeking a definitive diagnosis for their child may not get the clear-cut answers they hope for. Additionally, while receiving a diagnosis makes it possible to access services and supports, the concern of being categorized as “other” might keep some parents from seeking a diagnosis for their child.
On the other hand, adults finding help for a child may realize they, too, exhibit characteristics of autism. However, the presence or absence of a diagnosis shouldn’t matter in a church setting; we do not serve a diagnosis, but a servant-hearted God! The church can model acceptance and love proving in word and deed that every person is created in the image of God and has been called into relationship with him through Christ. A church that welcomes and includes people with autism in the life of their church reflects the heart of Christ.
3. No two people with autism are the same.
Autism is known in the medical world as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In the United States, a diagnosis of “ASD” comes in three levels, sometimes referred to as “mild,” “moderate,” and “severe.” These labels do not necessarily indicate the “severity” of the diagnosis, but rather what level of support is required by the individual. Nevertheless, this framework may lead some to assume that this is the “spectrum” in “autism spectrum disorder.”
Instead, “the spectrum” is perhaps better understood as a Pantone color wheel. This provides a far better image to explain the variety, beauty, and nuance possible within the autism spectrum. As author, speaker, and mother, Emily Colson has said, “God has a mission for each of us as unique as he has made each of us.”
4. It’s more important to know the person than the diagnosis.
Because two individuals with the same diagnosis can experience the world in vastly different ways, knowing the diagnosis alone will not adequately represent where an individual may or may not need support. For example, one person may have high language skills, but low social skills. This person may come across as overly talkative, a know-it-all, or someone who speaks at inappropriate times.
The conversation may be too loud, or on topics other people aren’t interested in. On the other hand, someone with low language skills may have high social skills, able to recognize someone else’s emotions before others do.
Meeting an individual’s needs and providing supports to enable someone to be discipled in our churches exhibits biblical faithfulness. Since God has invited people with autism into relationship with himself, he’s invited them to be a part of a church body. Statistics state that about 1 in 36 children will be diagnosed with autism, so making our churches welcoming to people with autism is a mission-critical issue.
And yet, a 2018 study by Clemson University found that among all children with developmental delays (including autism), learning disabilities, anxiety, or conduct disorder, 1 in 4 never attend church. However, when they isolated autism from other diagnoses, they found that 1 in 3 never attend church. This study focused on the presence of children in church, but of course, if a church isn’t willing or able to accept a person with autism, the whole family is affected. The church, in turn, misses out on some of its God-ordained parts.
You can contact a Joni and Friends church training mentor directly at [email protected] or by calling (818) 707-5664. We’d love to walk with you as you seek God’s heart for people with disabilities in your church.