If you’ve not heard the word “neurodiversity” yet, you might soon — and I trust your life will be richer for it. Neurodiversity identifies people whose brains and bodies process information differently than much of the population.
We’ve been trained to see diagnoses like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or sensory processing disorder as purely deficit-based, measuring people negatively against an assumed set of normal brain functions. Advocacy on the part of neurodiverse people themselves is beginning to flip the script. As such, our society is beginning to understand the value of neurological variations instead of seeing them as problems.
Within the body of Christ, where the dignity of all humans as image-bearers of our triune God is affirmed, such joyful celebration of God’s infinite creativity should be commonplace. So why does it feel like many of us have been waiting too long to hear the church speak to these issues in a meaningful way?
Looking for love in unfamiliar places
Author, hip hop artist, Christian, and autism advocate Sho Baraka raps in a verse of Propaganda’s “I Ain’t Got An Answer” and captures the tension of life in a neurodiverse household as a parent of two sons diagnosed with autism:
It’s apparent sometimes I think I’ve failed as a parent.
And my son having autism is rough.
But maybe he don’t speak cuz words don’t say much.
Maybe he don’t need words to communicate his love.
And sometimes his silence causes me to stumble.
It’s possible he’s a version of me that’s more humble.
And I think my child finds more joy in playin with my phone,Than playin’ on his own.
Will he shed a tear when I’m gone?
I’m wrestling with the shame of an outsider view of me,
Cause life is the spotlight on my own insecurities.
But I know his laugh, it lights up a thousand rooms.
And when he speaks to me it just like a flower blooms.
Baraka has shared publicly about how initially he didn’t want to disclose his boys’ diagnosis, wrestling with the world’s expectations of his boys and of him as a parent. Once he used his platform to share his family’s story, though, he said he received hundreds of notes from others saying he made their family feel represented.
Similarly, in his new book, Disability and the Church, Atlanta pastor Lamar Hardwick recalls a dual reaction when he shared his diagnosis and changed his Facebook page to “The Autism Pastor.” Being honest about his autism with his congregation opened the door for many families who — seeing the label — felt comfortable going to his church because they knew they would be cared for and prayed over, and that their worth would be acknowledged by “having a seat at the table.” While Hardwick says he respects people’s right to disclose or not disclose their diagnosis, he has been hurt by other Christians who indicated it would be better for him as a leader not to identify so freely as someone with autism.
Hardwick knows firsthand that “families and individuals with special needs don’t need us to rush them through the valley. They need us to walk with them slowly and deliberately . . . . Good shepherds go at a pace that works best for their flock.”
I can attest from my own experience that the pastors who best understand my sister (who is neurodiverse) are the ones who themselves have children with disabilities. The level of patience and kindness they demonstrate is always from a place of knowing. I’ve also seen too often that such empathy is a rare commodity in the church.
What can you do?
If families with special needs are the most underrepresented demographic in the church, how can churches reach out to, get to know better, or shepherd neurodiverse families? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Don’t pathologize — Do some research
Neurodiversity is not one-size-fits-all and doesn’t necessarily always come with an official diagnosis. Spend time listening to neurodiverse people and reading some books on the subject. You may be surprised to find out just how inaccurate and hurtful some ideas you have about ADHD (“That just means he’s hyper all the time”), autism (“Oh, he’s like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, right?”), dyslexia (“She’s just a slow reader”) are — let alone the pain that comes with dismissal (“Those aren’t real problems; it’s all overdiagnosed”).
If you have a friend who has been diagnosed (or perhaps their child or a relative has), ask if they are comfortable sharing. If so, ask what things they enjoy about themselves and about neurodiversity in everyday life. Read websites from autistic people, people with ADHD, or dyslexia, and you will see that every story is unique.
Several churches in my hometown of Chattanooga have “buddy programs” or “parents’ night out” to help make care and love for special needs families part of the regular ministry of the church. They want to be known as families who open their arms to serve others who otherwise might be overlooked, and then retain them as valued members. If Christians take the time to think through their social networks (school, neighborhood, workplace, sports leagues, etc.), they might recognize that they actually know several neurodiverse people. Are we seeking out them out for community within the body of Christ, or do we see them as an inconvenience or “high-maintenance” relationships to be avoided?
2. Support and accept them like Jesus would
When I think back to some of the trauma my sister endured in public schools in the early 1990s because of her neurodiversity and other special needs, the church was often one place my family could count on to go and have people support them. Thankfully, my sister’s behavior was not always a barrier for inclusion. Yes, she might talk your ear off about snakes, medical news, or whatever she had just learned about, and her volume might be louder than you anticipated for a conversation, but everyone knew how much she loved coming to spend time with the body of Christ every week.
To this day, people from the churches my family has been part of still take my sister to run errands or to her various volunteering jobs because she cannot drive. Neighbors ask her to dogsit. She has tutored children at the local elementary school. She longs for a reason to get up in the morning, and Christian community is one of the few places where her dignity is actively being restored.
3. Advocate for neurodiversity in your church
If a member of your church is chronically misunderstood because of their behavior, don’t let others ridicule them or make jokes at their expense. If someone has an nontraditional idea or suggestion about ministry and shares it with church leadership, leaders should pause and ask themselves why they are uncomfortable with the out-of-the-box thinking or inconvenience before they say no.
Neurodiverse people are very aware of power dynamics because too many are used to having their actions misinterpreted by those in authority. Youth leaders need to be especially vigilant and proactive about advocating for inclusion where possible by educating parents and children on issues of disability and acceptance.
The easiest way to advocate for neurodiversity is to encounter it from an asset-based approach — ask what strengths the person brings to the church body before asking what they may lack.
Three years ago, my husband and I joined a new church to be closer to home. One of the big draws there was the wide range of neurodiversity represented in the congregation. Parents were open about their children and diagnoses, including our pastor’s son. It has been a major encouragement to see our daughter, who is diagnosed with ADHD, feel represented and understood by other parents and peers when she comes to church. This gives me hope that others will see that kind of inclusion as foundational to the church’s mission, and I pray that the Lord will give us his heart for those the world often leaves out.