In a nondescript yellow brick building in SE London last weekend, two unassuming pioneers in the fight for autistic people held a workshop considering the question of autism and the church. In this post, I interview both Grant Macaskill (Kirby Laing Professor of NT, University of Aberdeen) and Kirstyn Oliver (Founder of Alma Autism) regarding the workshop, autistic people and the church, and the integration of academia and ministry around the issue of autism.
Grant first addressed the topic of autism in the church from an academic standpoint, highlighting recent scientific advances, while noting some disturbing trends in the church as a whole. Kirstyn outlined practical ways that autistic people, both children and adults, can be ministered to given the sensory and neurological particularities that often accompany autism.
The talks by Grant and Kirstyn creatively and insightfully addressed the specific question of how autism might be addressed both inside and outside of the church. Still, the question that lingered for me concerned the viability of a holistic integration between the academy and the church on this particular issue autism.
With that question in mind, I approached Kirstyn and Grant afterwards to discuss how such an integration of academia and ministry might actually work.
Tavis: Kirstyn, what is Alma Autism and how did the organization come about?
Kirstyn: Alma Autism exists to support and journey with families and churches to assist, include, support and raise awareness of the spiritual needs of autistic people. Alma Autism is based in London offering online support, home visits and reaching out to churches all over the country with talks and seminars.
Whilst doing research for my Masters degree thesis, I learnt about the lack of support autistic people, and their families, have when it comes to talking about and supporting their spiritual needs. This was the beginning of Alma Autism supporting individuals, families and raising awareness in churches and in the community.
The name “Alma Autism” derives from the Portuguese word “alma” which translated means “soul”. The essence of this work is to support the “soul of autism”. Focusing on the fact that every single person, autistic or not, has a soul and spiritual needs. Sometimes spiritual needs are met through a sensory intervention. This is where the slogan comes in “Sense the Soul”.
The Alma Autism Mission is to support autistic people to fulfil their spiritual needs by providing training and workshops in order to expand people’s knowledge about autism; raising general awareness through events and conferences; and helping autistic people and their families, providing information and therapy.
Our values are outlined in our name: A.L.M.A = Acceptance, Love, Meeting Needs, Awareness
Tavis: What is your vision for how churches can address the needs of autistic people and their loved ones?
Kirstyn: The vision is that all churches, not only have awareness and understanding of autism but also provide and make religious concepts accessible, in order to facilitate the fulfilment of spiritual needs of autistic people and their loved ones. Ideally, the church should be supporting autistic people and their families, to address their needs, in their best interest, whether they come to the church building or not.
Tavis: How can the readers of this blog be more proactive in understanding autism and loving autistic people and their loved ones, both those in the church and those outside?
Kirstyn: To receive awareness (by reading, participating in training or workshops, by asking questions, by getting to know people etc.) and to have the willingness to understand and make changes for the best.
Churches always plan ahead for their services, but are they planning ahead for an autistic person in mind? If churches had a mindset that at any time any person (autistic or not) could come through the door, they should be prepared to make that person feel safe and welcome. In order to do this, and to be proactive, the church should have resources and structures in place to help support the social, communicative and sensory needs of autistic people.
In regards to supporting those outside the church, I believe, the church community should understand that a church environment is not always easy for an autistic person and sometimes it ́s not possible for an autistic person to go to that setting. Therefore, the church needs to be proactive in asking that individual how can they best support him/her and how they can help fulfil their spiritual needs, and be aware that not one size fits all.
Tavis: Grant, what work have you done to date on autism, and how does this integrate with your expertise in NT and other disciplines?
I’ve been interested in the question of how we “think biblically” about autism for a long time, but I was only able to work seriously on the question once I moved to the University of Aberdeen. The department here has a well-established research interest in the theology of disability and cognitive diversity, embodied in the work of John Swinton, Brian Brock and our new colleague, Léon van Ommen. Having those conversation partners to hand allowed me to develop my own work with a better awareness of the theological issues that are at stake. All of us have a measure of personal experience with autism in different forms, so we’re not approaching it in simply theoretical terms, but in relation to lived experience.
So far, I have given one public lecture, which we made available online (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvd_pUvFB-0), and which has had nearly 4000 views; that’s a lot for an academic lecture and is indicative of the interest in the topic. I have also published an article on “Autism Spectrum Disorders and the New Testament: Preliminary Reflections” (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23312521.2017.1373613). This was briefly made available for free and ended up having more views than any other article ever published in that journal (over 2.5 thousand). None of this is a comment on the quality of my work, but simply on the level of interest in the topic, which has been a real blind spot in research. I have a monograph due to be released in November with Baylor University Press, entitled, Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community. This goes significantly deeper into the issues, both in the application of biblical material and in the surveying of current research into autism.
The question of how the disciplines integrate around the issue, and how this might draw upon my expertise, is a really interesting one. Because autism was not known as such in the ancient world, there are no passages that speak directly about the condition or to how we think about it. Asking what it means to think biblically about autism, then, involves reflecting more carefully on our hermeneutics (our principles of interpretation) and on how we line up the work of interpretation with wider theological questions. I think the reason that almost nothing has been done on the Bible and autism is that most biblical scholars see their work principally as an activity in historical retrieval—recovering what the author meant in their own time. This is true of biblical scholars who consider the Bible to be normative, perhaps especially so: what we consider to norm us is what we identify with the single meaning of the text, as the author understood it. We tend to do this kind of work in very localised ways, focusing on specific texts, books or authors, and reading their work largely in isolation from the wider canon. That doesn’t get us anywhere with thinking about autism, and actually can be very counter-productive or damaging. Our reading needs to be theologically sensitive and self-aware, if it is to help us think “Christianly” about autism. That’s not to say that I ignore the historical-critical issues—I don’t—but rather that I feel compelled to deal with these in a theological framework. In the forthcoming book, I argue more extensively for a hermeneutics based on the regula fidei of the early church.
Tavis: How do you envision academic-level research on autism having a ground-level impact on the Church?
Grant: For us even to speak about ground-level impact, we need to think about how to open the lines of communication. I think there needs to be a multi-pronged approach, aware of the various barriers to the sharing of knowledge and to understanding. I wrote the forthcoming book as a piece of research, but with an awareness that its relevance as research would extend to those outside biblical studies, including researchers in other disciplines, pastors and the wider public. So, I made an effort to minimise any barriers, giving transliterations of biblical languages, rather than representing them in their native alphabets, and avoiding technical discussions unless genuinely necessary. Even then, though, we need more events like the London workshop, where we just talk to each other, as people with shared interests.
In terms of the actual impact, I think there are a number of changes that it might help to bring about. People with autism, or parents/carers of children with autism, often feel alienated within churches. They feel misunderstood or misrepresented, in ways that vary according to the particular characteristics of the condition that they experience. Churches are social and sensory spaces, and that can be difficult for people who experience social and sensory interaction differently. The problem is intensified, or certainly not helped, when the Bible is read in ways that simply justify the “normal” social expectations of the church; I gave the example at the workshop of people reading Hebrews 10:25 and saying that all Christians ought to want to be at as many social gatherings of the church as possible, which is tough for those who find attending any such gatherings rewarding, but exhausting. So, people with autism, or their families, can feel doubly alienated: within the church and from the Bible. One of the key impacts that I hope the work will accomplish is to help overcome that alienation, partly by showing churches some of the ways that the Bible can frame and affirm diversity and difference, challenging the social standards by which we (often unwittingly) judge this, while also summoning us to accommodate the needs of those for whom the condition might be genuinely disabling at points.
In addition, I hope the work will help to resource churches as they seek to use the Bible in the pastoral care and support of those with autism, which often co-occurs with other conditions, such as depression and anxiety or eating disorders. Thinking about these pastoral challenges has prompted me to read some of the biblical material in new ways, not (I hope) imposing a creative new meaning on it, but seeing things I had never seen before about how the texts might be related to the challenges of autism. For pastors, parents and for people with autism themselves, I hope this will be helpful.
There is also another side to this. The points above will be relevant to churches that want to be good environments and communities for those with autism, but who may not know where to begin to think biblically about it. There are other churches, though, that think they know how to apply the Bible to autism, but their approaches are unhelpful or even damaging. Once you start digging into these, and thinking about where they may go wrong, you are quickly confronted by the issue of hermeneutics again: it’s not just a matter of how you read the biblical text immediately in front of you, but how you think about what it means to interpret the whole of the Bible responsibly, and to think “Christianly” as a result. The impact there will not just be about changing church level practice, but about helping churches and advocacy groups to see how they might move the discussion forward by recognizing the hermeneutical assumptions that are at work, and how they are generative of misunderstanding.
Tavis: You spoke about some of the unhelpful ways that autism is often addressed in the church; can you elucidate some of those for us, and their alternatives?
Grant: Some of these are fairly innocuous, on one level, but can have quite serious effects. The expectation, for example, that everyone will have the same experience of (and desire for) social interaction and the construction of “fellowship” around this can leave people with autism exhausted or alienated, depending on their level of participation. That’s the approach that makes no effort to accommodate autism.
Others, though, take autism seriously, but approach it as something that should be healed, or as something that should be regarded as a kind of brokenness or deficiency, best dealt with by moving it to another space to allow the “main worship” to proceed as normal. These approaches are often well-intentioned, but basically approach autism as a problem, often defined in theological terms in relation to the image of God, and often plotted onto a narrative in which one day—whether now or after the resurrection—the autistic person will be healed and therefore made whole. The autistic person is seen as “abnormal,” within the presumed normality of the wider church community. There are a number of assumptions being made there, and a lack of sensitivity to the relationship of autism to identity, i.e., to how the autistic person is shaped by their condition and how that might carry through into the resurrect life. Those within the autistic community typically dislike the popular, and politically correct, language of “persons with autism” precisely because it makes it sound as if the autism is detachable from the person. It is not; it defines who they are. My own work begins with the recognition that each person in the church, including the one with autism, is identified as a gift given to the body of Christ for blessing. We must not ignore the challenges that each gift can bring, but recognizing the ways that Paul, for example, maps the vocabulary of grace and gift onto an account of the gospel that rejects normal standards of social impressiveness allows us to speak about the necessity of seeing the body of Christ in worship as a diverse and “mutually needful” thing. That has a really significant bearing for how we worship, and how we evaluate the performative elements of worship. Partly, this involves bringing a discussion of autism to bear on concepts of Christian life. Some of these treat healing disproportionately, failing to recognize how rarely healing occurs within the Bible and to allow that proportion to shape how we might think about it; others assimilate the gospel to the worldly standards of success that it actually holds to account. Autism, as a lifelong developmental condition, doesn’t fit easily within either.
At the same time, we need to avoid an approach that romanticizes autism or that wrongly prioritizes one’s identification as autistic over one’s identification “in Christ.” There is a real danger that, in seeking to develop more positive accounts of autistic identity within the church, we lose sight of the need for the autistic person to be challenged by the gospel, as much as anyone else is.
Tavis: The workshop in London seems like a good model for collaboration between researchers and advocates. How would you both describe the ideal partnership between an academic and a minister, for example, or a postgraduate studying a social issue and an advocate working in schools? In other words, how should the research affect the work, and how should the work affect the research?
Kirstyn: Being up to date in this current world is a challenge. Everything changes so quickly, be it in research or new technology, or the latest trends. Research does help support in the field of work, but it shouldn ́t be fixed to it. Advocates and workers in the field need to constantly keep up with the changes and this should then be fed back to researchers.
For example, it is important that churches get trained in autism and read research and learn from it to gain knowledge, however, if that ́s all they did, they would not be able to fully support an autistic person. Because, that person has approached them from an ever changing world. Additionally, that person contributes with their own baggage and experience. Research and work in the field should go hand in hand, and both should continuously be updating throughout.
Grant: In my view, the principal reason that Biblical Studies continues to exist as a viable academic discipline is because the Bible is still regarded as sacred scripture by faith communities (and not just Christian ones, by the way). That keeps it alive and important at a time when other disciplines focused on ancient texts are under threat at the university level because they don’t necessarily create much business. I’m not saying that is the only academic justification for the study of the Bible, or that it should exclusively shape what we do, but that the ongoing existence of faith communities maintains the public and social value of scripture research today. Our research ought to reflect this context, but it often doesn’t, especially not among Christian academics, whose research often simply treats the Bible as a historical artefact. Interestingly, I don’t see the same problem to the same extent with Jewish scholarship, which often moves more easily from historical study to faithful praxis (as, for example, in Michael Fishbane’s Sacred Attunement, University of Chicago Press, 2008). So, academics and ministers, or parents, or advocates should be in conversation and the academic should see themselves as having a distinctive responsibility to share their learning with others, and even to allow their research agenda to be driven by the needs of the church, or of whichever faith communities they are involved with. Importantly, too, I think we need to see non-academics as equal partners in the conversation, with a different contribution to make to it. The suspicion of “experts” that we have seen at a popular and political level in recent years reflects a failure of academics to show proper respect to the intelligence of non-academic conversation partners, in many cases at least. As biblical scholars, we often see ourselves as the custodians of the true meaning of these texts, but that is often to limit the significance of the word “meaning” to just one of its senses, the historical one.
It takes work to make these conversations happen, though, and sometimes financial investment. The workshop in London was amazing, but it was a lot of work to organize (and wouldn’t have happened without Kirstyn’s efforts) and was made possible only by a grant from the University of Aberdeen to support my work. This is an important point in relation to philanthropy: sometimes the really important bridges that transform lives and shape future research can only be built through financial support, whether given to churches, academics or advocacy groups.