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The Case for Autism Inclusion in Parish Communities

I’m going to make an assumption about you.

If you serve the Church (whether Vocation, vocation, or volunteer), you’re in ministry because you love God and love God’s people.

You’ve also probably faced the burn-out-dragon (you might be battling it right this moment; you might feel it looming around the corner) and you’re probably doing the very best you can to serve God’s people.

First, thank you for your service. Thank you for responding to God’s call and delving “into the trenches” of service to the Body of Christ.

The other assumption I’m going to make, is that if I told you there are approximately 3.5+ million adults, teens, and children we can and need to be more intentional about serving and I want to help you reach them, you’d probably feel a range of emotions from excitement to busy-over-worked-shut-down-leaving-this-blog-now and everything in between.

I’m going to appeal to your love of God and God’s people to invite you to stick with me for five to ten more minutes (depending on how fast of a reader you are).

Who Is This Group We Can Do Better By?

In 2014, researchers estimated that there were over 3.5 million persons in the United States on the Autism Spectrum (Buescher et al., 2014). They are adults, teens, and children who have been diagnosed with a pervasive, developmental, neurological difference. They are hyper-verbal, non-verbal, selectively mute, and everything in between. They have universally human needs, goals, aspirations, hopes, and desires. Sometimes, these needs and desires are communicated and manifested a little differently than neurotypical (non-autistic) people communicate their needs and desires. Sometimes. They have different ways of thinking and processing the world around them in varying and unique ways.

They are us. They are the Body of Christ.

One of my favorite scripture passages is St. Paul’s explication of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. St. Paul speaks of the various gifts given to members of the Church and that we should not think of certain parts of the Body of Christ as more important than others lest we think everyone should be the “same part”. The passage is a celebration of the beauty of diversity in God’s creation and self-image we represent in mosaic. As I returned to this passage for insight and to bolster my claim for greater and more intentional effort in ministering to our autistic brothers and sisters, a new element of St. Paul’s verbal painting struck me:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this. But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If [one] part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

1 Corinthians 12:17-26 (NAB; emphasis mine)

To be clear, I don’t want to suggest that people with autism are less than anyone else in any way, shape, or form, but rather that they might be analogous to the body parts that “seem to be weaker” or “less honorable” because they are a minority disability group in an overwhelmingly and often ableist society. St. Paul is clear that these parts of the body may not actually be weaker or less honorable, and in fact are all the more necessary for the Body of Christ and deserving of honor and glory. This isn’t some falsely noble pity or elevation out of generosity. Autistic individuals are all the more necessary and deserving of honor and glory because God placed them in such position and made them as they are.

Church of Mission

Scripturally and theologically, God places the call upon us to especially and intentionally evangelize, catechize, and integrate the autism community into our parish communities because they are already part of the Body of Christ. Further, the Church (you and me) have been co-missioned to go out and share the Good News. Canonically, the parish is not just the active members in our parish databases, but everyone within the boundaries of our parish. Roughly 1% or so of that population is on the autism spectrum and if we aren’t intentionally inclusive of them in our mission, they are either not being ministered to or are being ministered to by other church communities.

Specifically, I’m grateful for the Protestant or Non-denominational communities that are outreaching and serving the autism community, so please don’t mistake this as denigrating any particular Christian tradition. The point I’m trying to make is that while others rise to the occasion of honoring the autism community as the Body of Christ, we can see even more clearly where our own ongoing call to mission needs to lead us.

Let’s Do This Together

So, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I invite you to journey with me. Let me accompany you as we embark on responding to the ongoing mission to reach all God’s people, especially our autistic brothers and sisters. Through this website, I hope to share blog posts, articles, resources, videos, and anything else that might be helpful as we acknowledge, honor, and integrate the autism community into our parish communities.

One Comment

  1. Love this, and I agree – we need to recognize and reach out to serve this particular segment of our Catholic population… because all of us are the Body of Christ!

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