This article brings out several valid points concerning churches and children with autism, presented from the point of view of an adult having no personal-internal experience of autism. Understanding what might actually be happening requires going much deeper, and with the awareness that each individual is unique. You can’t assume — you must enquire, by whatever means that might be available, of the individual.
Autistic children are sometimes characterized as tending to be “uninterested” in God, church, or worship. The truth is more complicated. Churches can be very unfriendly places to people with sensory issues, although such people may be able to adapt, given the opportunity and perhaps some needed support. You don’t have to be on the autistic spectrum for this to be an issue. For many with sensory issues, however, the adaption can be to simply stay away, and if there is no other opportunity for them to learn then the outcome should not be surprising.
The sensory issues are understood to some extent, and some churches are at least trying to accommodate to one degree or another. There is another dimension, however, that I never have seen discussed, anywhere. Autistic people — children or adults, and anywhere on the spectrum — tend to perceive the world differently. And while individuals vary widely, many are able to discern inconsistent behaviors that most people would not usually notice, particularly discrepancies between words and actions (and don’t assume that someone that is non-verbal is unable to understand words — individuals vary widely).
As it happens, churches are full of people whose actions don’t precisely mirror their words. It is a reflection of the society around us and, more importantly, the fact that we are people. People on the spectrum aren’t any better or worse about this themselves, but they may be fine tuned, neurologically, to detect such differences. And a chorus of people saying one thing while doing something else can be deafening, if you happen to be tuned into it.
What to do about it? It depends on the individual. So get to know the individual well. Set aside your opinions about what the other person should be like (this can be hard with your own children). And acknowledge and respond to what you learn about yourself in the process. Then you may find yourself in a better place to see what to do next. In the end, this isn’t really different from what we are called upon to do with everyone. Unfortunately, we talk about it a lot more than we do it.
[A note about where my information comes from: I have been studying these issues formally through reading and direct observation since early 2001. That was when I finally connected my personal experiences with those of people on the autistic spectrum. I actually began researching while in college, in 1969, when there was nothing to read about, and I could not understand what I was experiencing. It has been a long, long journey.]