Terry Mattingly: Creating more inclusive worship for those with autism

Many modern churches may be weak when it comes to architecture and sacred art, but they almost always have concert-level lighting, sound and multimedia technology.

But in a few sanctuaries linked to ancient traditions, worship leaders are trying something different. In some Eucharistic services, they are offering worshippers with autism an atmosphere that is more calm and less intense.

“If you look at many church services from the point of view of highly sensitive people — especially autistic children — there is too much noise, too many lights,” said Father Matthew Schneider, known to online Catholics as @AutisticPriest. “We can turn down the lights. We can turn down the volume. We can do a few things to accept these families and let them feel more comfortable.”

For neurodivergent people, it actually helps that ancient rites are built on repeated gestures, prayers and music that becomes familiar. Schneider experienced this phenomenon in seminary but grasped its importance when he was diagnosed as autistic several years after his ordination.

“If you do something over and over, then I know what’s coming. I have time to take that in. I know what is happening and why,” said Schneider, who currently teaches theology at Belmont Abbey College near Charlotte, North Carolina.

“If you throw me a curveball, it may take me some time to get over the shock. That’s just a reality for autistic people. … If I’m familiar with a service — stand up, kneel down, look right, look left — that can become comfortable.”

Religious leaders will have to face these issues after seeing waves of stunning statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other groups studying neurodiversity trends. For example, in 2000, 1 in 150 children were somewhere on the autism spectrum. That number was 1 in 36 in recent CDC data. And 26.7% of autistic children now display “profound” symptoms.

Boys remain four times likelier to receive an autism diagnosis than girls, but autism rates for girls are rising. Among children of color, autism numbers are now believed to have passed those of white children. Also, gender-diverse people — transgender, nonbinary or genderqueer — are three to six times likelier to be diagnosed with autism.

Clergy and laity need to start asking:

  • How many people in our congregation have a child with autism? Have we unknowingly pushed some people away?
  • Are any of our services or education programs ready for children with “profound” autism symptoms, those with IQs below 50 or with aggressive behaviors, including self-injury?
  • Have we seen people lose their faith, or have seen their children lose faith, because of the mental and spiritual pain caused by autism and other mental health challenges?

  • Can our congregation afford to offer day care ministries that include children with autism and, someday, even adults?

  • What can religious educators do, since most of their schools cannot afford to hire autism specialists and, for doctrinal reasons, cannot qualify for government programs funding this kind of care? What happens to believers who want their children with autism to attend faith-based schools?
  • Are clergy ready to lead funerals for those who are accidentally killed by actions linked to their autism symptoms, to deliver sermons facing these modern twists on ancient questions about pain and suffering in daily life?

It’s important, said Schneider, that some congregations are beginning to use child-friendly booklets and missals that, with step-by-step illustrations, guide children with autism through services and the classes preparing them for Holy Communion. For example, Loyola Press now offers worship books for special-needs children. The Eastern Orthodox artist and educator Summer Kinard — the mother of five autistic children — has created books, music, videos and “church bag” strategies for children on the spectrum.

Religious leaders need to “stop looking at autism from the outside” and try to imagine what people with autism are seeing and hearing in worship, said Schneider. Do children consistently have problems at specific times, such as during announcements? Does some music calm them, while other music seems to cause distress?

“We have to remember that God created each person as unique,” said Schneider. “There will be beauty in their lives, as well as pain. … Can we see the patterns? Can we see joy, as well as suffering? Can we imagine what other people are experiencing and then try to help them?”

Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi. Send comments to [email protected].