Editor’s Note: “Sydney” sent me this e-mail last week and gave me permission to share with our readers. Her e-mail is a wonderful, first-person description of attending church as a person with Asperger’s Disorder.
Church is one place where there ought to be a place for everyone. We’ve had two very similar conversations in the last few weeks…one with a man who, like “Sydney” has autism, the other with a woman with bipolar disorder and PTSD. We share in the hope that the church will listen and learn from “Sydney’s” perspective…
I have aspergers, ADD, depression, and anxiety. I am a student who recently moved to do more studies. I am very nervous about joining a new church because of the experiences I have had in church before. I so find the loud rock concert type services completely overwhelming. However, the social aspects at the quieter services are just as overwhelming as some very perky person pounces in on me. Although I typically like structure and routine, I do enjoy contemporary (less high services) for connecting with god. In addition, there is all that small talk around swarms of people wearing all sorts of perfume who do not understand when I talk loudly, change topics, or suddenly get distracted.
Coordinating getting myself to church and then balancing a cup while talking to people is a challenge. When I finally do get the courage to introduce myself to someone, it turns out that I met the person the week before but did not remember his or her face. I am never on time for church and it is a good day when I remembered both my money and kindle bible. (Real bibles are too distracting as the smooth pages are too much fun to feel!) I feel left out as others display their feelings and get emotional during worship. I never know where to sit and always leave belongings behind after church.
I have managed to alienate everyone at my old church–apparently through breaking countless social rules (though I am not sure which ones). It is hard to know what I do wrong since no one communicates with me and I cannot read body language. Even when I try to send update emails, I get no response. It is so is hard for me to initiate conversations. Therefore, I even sent an email with pictures from Corinth and Ephesus to initiate a conversation. However, no one from church ever emailed me back. Many people when dealing with me say, “There’s Samantha. And I hadn’t even asked god for patience when I met her.” I have taken all of these “find your spiritual gifts” and “find your ministry” quizzes. All of them say that since I care about social issues and kids that I must want to do all these social activities. I like people as an abstract concept and I like helping them indirectly. I would rather hang out with the kids since I feel as immature as they are. In addition, my attention span matches theirs.
I do not want to join a small group in a new church because I am so afraid of belong alienated again. My old pastor told me I just needed to get more antidepressants and more friends–if only it was that easy. In my old church, I tried doing alpha at the church but I never felt like I was part of the fellowship. I enjoyed watching the alpha videos online more. I am currently learning from Christian courses.com and biblicaltraining.com in the meantime. When I have autistic meltdowns, worries, or compulsions, I am just admonished for not giving things to god and that I have not asked for enough healing. If I speak about issues such as modesty, they admonish me for being too shy introverted or antisocial. In discussions in admonished for always being too off topic. Do not even get me started sitting still for quiet time with god. Clear sermons with pictures and outlines are such a blessing (though church with so much socializing can be tiring!)
I do not even know how to approach joining a church now since it is so evident that no one at my old church in my old city wants anything to do with me. For all the talk on forgiveness, I am apparently too eccentric and egocentric to be forgiven and to be accepted. Moreover, if not even loving Christians can put up with me, the rest of the world seems scary. I once volunteered at a Christian youth centre, but I was told I had to leave after a few days for being too clumsy. I applied to several Christian schools, but I have found them to be the least accepting of my disabilities. I have this vision that if I ever get married, it will be an empty church (not that I want to be the centre of attention making small talk and hugging others). I was told once during a healing session that I was to remember that I was a princess in God’s kingdom; however, what I also remember is the person who described me as the “pre-princess” from The Princess Diaries.
Key Ministry has assembled a helpful resource on the topic of Asperger’s Disorder and Spiritual Development. This page includes the blog series Dr. Grcevich and Mike Woods developed for Key Ministry, links to lots of helpful resources from other like-minded organizations, and Dr. Grcevich’s presentation on the topic from the 2012 Children’s Ministry Web Summit. Click here to access the page!
That letter is so sad….but in an odd way, it reminds me of so many other people over the years. I work at a Catholic parish and am frequently the recipient of “confessions”. For example, even though Catholics traditionally are thought to value big families it isn’t really the norm these days, and I can’t tell you the number of people with big families who have told me that they get the cold shoulder because of it. The day I spoke to one of these people, and then an hour later had a woman confess to me that “no one would speak to her” in our parish because she and her husband only had one child….well, it came to me that almost everyone is carrying around some sort of baggage that makes them feel unloved, unforgiven, and “different”. A few examples? The woman whose husband is Jewish; she is sure that she’s the only person at Mass without a husband by her side. All of those who have separated or divorced, or those who have unhappy marriages and believe they are the only ones in that situation. Those without college degrees in this university parish. All of those whose children are less than well-behaved, have learning disabilities, or aren’t sufficiently musical or athletic to gain the acclaim that every parent wants for their child these days. Some things happened in my family that I feel set me apart, I can’t help but think that when people look at me now, or speak to me, that these things are the only thing on their mind….. I know better.
Perhaps the biggest difference I see between Sydney and the rest of us is that we somehow manage to put on a “mask” that we hope makes people believe everything is OK. Yet, we sit in church feeling like outsiders.
Everyone needs to drop the mask. Including Sydney. If she wrote this letter to the staff at her church or other key people without being anonymous, I believe that the light would shine in. Christians are not perfect, but most of them DO try to behave with kindness and compassion. It is just that people cannot be kind or compassionate when they don’t understand. If they knew that while Sydney was giving them all kinds of facial and bodily cues that said one thing – she was actually thinking and feeling something else – that might help them communicate with her more understandingly. If people knew the woman with the big family (or the one with one child) felt ostracized I think most people would make sure they didn’t.
Sydney took a beautiful first step, in putting all she’s experienced and feels into words – if she could do this for people at her church in a small group setting, my guess is that she would find a loving family there who could respond in more grace-filled ways not just to Sydney, but to many others as well.
Wow! I feel like in many ways you just described me! I have Asperger’s, Sensory and Anxiety issues. It is so hard to be “me” and fit in. I feel like I have to be an “alien to myself” to be accepted. I really hope that you will find that which is comfortable for you and makes you happy. You deserve it! I belong to a very wonderful church with many wonderful programs and people, but being accepted on a deeper level after many years just hasn’t happened. I am not accepted as I am.
Never give up and never change who you are. You are an amazing and wonderful creation of God…just as you are!
Thanks for being you!
The ones with the biggest disorders are the ones who have no compassion, no forgiveness, no grace, no representation of Christ’s love. And those that I speak about are the Church. Even Jesus would be sadden by this treatment. He didn’t come for the perfect people. He came for the ones that needed Him. The imperfect, the lowly, the ones who showed humbleness. Continue to look up to Jesus, to reach out to others like you, to give your testimony. May God strengthen you and lead you in a path that will give others knowledge, understanding, and wisdom about disorders and what people go through when affected by what you have personally been through. God bless you!
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This letter screams to the Church – all believers – to FIGURE people out – including people of particular, special needs! If we do not understand and care, we cannot be the Body of Christ as God means it to be! “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it!” (1 Cor. 12:27)
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She should read “Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality” by J. Brent Bill. I’ve just started reading it because I always felt I’d get along best in a Quaker environment for many of the same reasons.
Here is a description of the special needs ministry at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.
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So grateful for this candidness. I see myself in many places but it gives me a glimpse of what transitioning into independent worship could be like for my son if I we don’t learn and practice strategies in the church realm. It’s like when I read Dr. G’s ADD blog that empowered families families to bring school accommodations into church (and discuss with doctor). I can’t expect–nor can The Church–my son to magically figure out how to search for and navigate a new church, affect culture, etc. But churches can very easily publicize to newcomers if the church is willing to meet in advance for a guided tour, learn about someone’s needs to help them determine a plan for a comfortable initial visit, create reserved seating for those wishing to spend time alone with God, ask how someone prefers to communicate and learn. And I can teach my son to ask these things and help him learn how his spiritual growth thrives. I don’t care what other Christians think about him–I’m only now at the point where I care more about how God feels about me than other Christians. This honest post will helps me refocus how to help him focus on God.
Thanks for your gracious…and very helpful comments!
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I’m horrified that any Christian would behave in such a deplorable way to this person!
The thing is, Krista, those with disabilities that are not physically marked (in contrast with, for example, Down Syndrome) do not possess any natural way to elicit a compassionate and gracious stance that might come with thoughtful realization that “this person” truly is different. They are judged as harshly as any neurotypical person who would behave in similar ways, yet without any capacity to “improve” to conform to the standards, as a neurotypical person could. They are expected to EARN a place of acceptance and belonging in the world by the same standards as everyone else, yet do not possess the ability to do so. Pretty cruel place to exist.
Steve, This is a truly moving letter. My hope, as pastor/church planter, is that our church would be the kind of place that everyone would be welcomed… and comfortable. Sadly, what is “comfortable” for many of us isn’t for others. This is a good reminder.
My pondering after reading this article:
Hope seems so unattainable by the mentally sick. But, who shall offer this hope?
The unsick make no place for mentally sick. The life journey of the mentally sick cannot be fit into the daily business as usual routine of the unsick.
The unsick give the mentally sick tolerence, for a time, but expect a sunset date. Then, when the sun goes down, the unsick walk away.
Can’t blame the unsick, really. The mentally sick apparently don’t want to get better, or they would have responded to the extra kindness and patience they were given by the unsick. How dare the mentally sick remain mentally sick.
There are few organizations today, the least of these being the local chuch, that daily seek to give hope through prayer and good works to the mentally sick.
Thank you, Dr. Steve, for continually responding and working the call God has given you for the mentally sick. Thank you for A Church 4 Every Child.
I’m an adult with Asperger’s Disorder and my heart’s desire is to serve Jesus. Anyone know of a current online Bible study group for women with Asperger’s syndrome? I would even be willing to start a faith based group via zoom if there are other women interested.
I have also been looking for an online Bible study for adults with Asperger’s. I am desperate for Christian community and connection, but neurotypical people at my church always seem to be put off by my social ineptitude. I wish I could attend Bible study with other people who have similar struggles.