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:
- They don’t easily interpret social interactions or facial cues.
- They may have extra sensitive nervous systems.
- They may have incredible capacity for knowledge and details.
- They may struggle to predict behavior.
- They may struggle to regulate their emotions.
- They function mostly from the left brain where “data” is stored.
So how can you embrace and encourage those like my son in your church and community?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.