5 ways we can encourage those with autism in our churches

October 17, 2019

Every church has socially awkward Christians. I parent one of them. Our son has level 1 autism, formerly known as Asperger’s Syndrome. Autism Spectrum Disorder is often paired with Sensory Processing Disorder or even Giftedness. He looks and smells like your average middle schooler but he processes information in a very different way. Most people don’t realize anything is different about him until they socially interact. They may leave an interaction happy, mildly annoyed, confused, impressed, or astounded depending on what took place.  

Though time should also be made to discuss and address those with more severe disabilities and how the church should care for them, I’d like to discuss the more subtle, socially awkward or belligerent adults and children of your church family. Most people from my generation who aren’t neurotypical don’t carry around a diagnosis or vocabulary for their struggles. We can sense that something is “off,” and our natural inclination may be to avoid interacting with them. Many in the church feel ill-equipped to deal with the young child with behavior issues or the socially awkward adult, both of whom could be on the autism spectrum. Here are a few things about those with Autism Spectrum Disorder that will help you understand a little bit about them:

So how can you embrace and encourage those like my son in your church and community? 

  1. Be patient. Give grace, as they are often confused. Whether it’s a social cue or a spatial issue, like being too close to other people or hanging on them, my son tells me he spends a lot of time confused about what’s expected of him. The way his nervous system processes information also causes him struggles. When he was young, just hearing a car start up in the distance would cause him to scream because his brain couldn’t interpret that the car was far away. New research is discovering that the autistic brain has more nerve synapses than is typical, so everything is felt more acutely. The world can be a threatening and confusing place for these brothers and sisters.  
  2. Be honest. Be direct. One great thing about our son is that he can handle the stone-cold truth. We can be blunt and honest with him about things, and he’s actually appreciative of the feedback.  
  3. Be aware. Pay attention. As Sunday School teachers, youth leaders, pastors, and elders, one great thing you can do for the neuroatypical is to watch for what makes them come alive. They often have special interests that feed their brain dopamine and help their worlds feel ordered. And in the midst of that, you can get a peek into the gifts Jesus gave them in the midst of the disability. 
  4. Be attuned. Joyfully connect. It’s easy to want to avoid the socially awkward person at church, but they need belonging and a people group. They need to be able to identify with the body of Christ. Conversely, respect their need for social disengagement. They may become overwhelmed easily and need to retreat from social interactions.
  5. Be intentional. They need to learn relational skills by being in relationships and social skills by interacting in various social settings. Just like the rest of us, they need to live in community, in a safe environment, where they can learn what they lack through the body of Christ. What’s more, any relational skills that weren’t absorbed from families, communities, or churches at a young age can still be learned. But it requires immersion into life with someone who has that skill. A person who has never built the skill of connecting joyfully can learn from someone who will joyfully connect with them. Or a person who doesn’t realize they are overwhelming others can learn to recognize this if they have an intentional example. And this brings with it a call for humility (Eph. 4:2).  

When intuition is missing, intention is required. And our intention is not to change behavior so that we are more comfortable. Instead, it’s to reflect Jesus so we can all grow in spiritual maturity. We aren’t trying (nor do they need us) to impart more head knowledge. Instead, our brothers and sisters need relational connection where they can deepen their understanding of their own personal relationship with Christ.   

With love and intentionality, seek to understand and build joyful relationships with those in your church family who are made differently.

In my family’s life, we have seen the love of Christ displayed through our church. They’ve helped me remember that Jesus was with me when I was carrying a screaming young boy from the auditorium during a service. I’ve seen it in the empathy and humility of Sunday School teachers who have asked for guidance on how to handle my son. I’ve heard it in the proclamation of the truth that my salvation is based on Christ’s work alone, not my ill-equipped parenting skills. And we’ve been blessed by our pastor and youth leaders as they’ve rejoiced with us in the growth that’s occurred in our son.  

We must remember that our autistic brothers and sisters in Christ are so much more than their autism. And if there’s one thing I can testify to after almost 14 years of parenting an autistic child, it is this: They can learn, but they won’t learn this from a book; they need you. So, with love and intentionality, seek to understand and build joyful relationships with those in your church family who are made differently. You will grow in the process and make a world of difference in the unique and divinely designed lives.  

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24