By / Oct 26

My mom, grandma, and I were shopping for clothes for my 9th birthday. For the first time, I had strong opinions about what I wanted to wear, and everything I liked was on the boys’ side of the store. That year, I had stopped going by my name and had asked my teacher and friends to call me “Tom” instead, as in “tomboy.” In 1988, that’s what girls who acted like boys were called. Everyone around me saw it as a phase I would grow out of, and in fourth grade, I did. Not because I fully accepted being a girl, but because I had to start wearing a bra. There’s nothing like puberty to convince you of the reality of your biology.   

As I grew up, I still felt more masculine in many ways than I did feminine, especially by cultural standards. I wanted to watch sports and hang out with my guy friends. I was very black and white in my thinking. I couldn’t figure out how to wear make-up. I never felt like I fit in when the girls talked about crushes or their feelings or what I considered to be “drama.” And if I was part of a group, I took charge. It all made me feel different from most of the girls I knew. 

As I grew into my 20s and 30s, I figured out why I always felt like an outsider. All the characteristics that didn’t make sense to me finally did when I learned more about neurodiversity and characteristics of those with autism, dyslexia, and ADHD. I found myself on this spectrum, understanding that the quirks I tried to hide and overcome were, in God’s sovereignty, a part of who I was.

As God told Moses in Exodus 4:11, “Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say” (CSB). Although disabilities are a result of the fall, God uses them in our lives to produce Christlikeness. They weren’t part of his original plan for humanity, but they are part of his plan for 1 in 5 people now. But even as we (rightly) normalize disabilities and neurodiversity, we can’t let society convince our young people that their neurodiversity is tied to a mistake in their gender identity.  

Recent study finds connection between transgender identity and neurodiversity

If my shopping trip had taken place in 2021 instead of 1988, many would peg me as transgender. I would have been tempted to classify myself in that way instead of coming to understand that I was on the neurodiversity spectrum. That’s why a recent study caught my attention. This study, released in 2020, found “elevated rates of autism, other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses, and autistic traits in transgender and gender-diverse individuals.” Journalists explained, 

“People who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth are three to six times as likely to be autistic as cisgender people are, according to the largest study yet to examine the connection [641,860 self-reported individuals]. Gender-diverse people are also more likely to report autism traits and to suspect they have undiagnosed autism.”

The study’s findings that relate to girls and young women held particular interest for me. There are many characteristics that are true of neurodiverse girls that are typically associated with being masculine — especially during the school years. These include:

  • Challenges with social skills
  • High IQ
  • Concrete, black-and-white thinking
  • STEM skills instead of language/fine arts skills

Considering that girls often receive autism diagnoses later than boys, it’s likely that a young girl who identifies with these traits may be more tempted to think of herself as being transgender because of the differences she is struggling with, rather than considering she might be neurodiverse. She likely — in light of the frequent conversations that occur in culture and social media where so many girls spend their time — knows more about society’s acceptance of a spectrum of gender identification divorced from biological sex than the spectrum of neurodiversity. As she’s figuring out what these differences in her personality mean for her personhood, it can be a very confusing time for the struggling girl and her family, especially as the world’s answer to gender confusion is embracing transgender ideology.

There’s an opportunity for the church to support and encourage these families during this confusing season. We need to draw near, not push them away because we are unsure of what to do. 

How can the church respond? 

Numbers and studies report facts, but they don’t tell the full story. They can tell us what, but they can’t always tell us why. So when we read studies like the one cited above, we must look through our biblical lens, beyond numbers and profiles to see the people represented. How can we draw those who believe they are both neurodiverse and transgender into a relationship with their Creator, the lover of their souls? How can we show them their biological design is for their good? Here are three ways to start: 

First, avoid teaching gender roles and expectations that aren’t biblical. If a girl can’t see herself on the checklist of biblical womanhood she hears at church, our society gives her one option — she isn’t a girl. But we can see spectrums of femininity and masculinity within the gender binary. We can teach those spectrums to our children while staying faithful to gender differences.

On Saturdays, I drop off my teenage son at musical theater rehearsal and come home to watch football. Our interests, skills, and even appearances don’t change our God-given sex. There is beauty and purpose in our diverse expression.  

Second, welcome those who are neurodiverse. If a family has a member with autism, they are eight times less likely to attend church than a typical family. And surveys show it’s even less likely for adults with autism to attend church. Churches should take steps to be more welcoming to those with autism and other disabilities, breaking down barriers to the gospel and to inclusion in the church family. (Read: “How special needs inclusion changes the culture of the church” for more on the topic of accessibility). We need to show the children and teenagers in our church families that they don’t have to fit into behavioral boxes to be accepted. It’s okay to struggle with social skills, sensory input, or even reading out loud. Church should be a safe place to be yourself in the years when you’re figuring out what that means.  

Finally, offer stronger community ties than other tribes. What did I want more than anything as I was struggling? To fit in; to have a group of people who accepted and even celebrated me for who I was. This is a common theme for people who “come out” and are affirmed by the LGBTQ community or those who receive a diagnosis of autism and join a group of people trying to make sense of what that means. Both these communities, for different reasons, are tightly knit and committed to those who identify with them. But the ties that bind us together as Christians are even stronger than what ties other groups together. 

According to Galatians 3:28, we are called to prioritize our relationships as children of God, as brothers and sisters, above other labels we have, “There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This doesn’t erase who we are; it just shows us our primary identities. 

I’m thankful for studies that show us opportunities for love and action for those who often don’t look to the church first for acceptance. I am who I am today because my parents and church continued to accept me, give me opportunities to be myself as I grew and learned what that meant, and pointed me to God’s design in his Word. I look at girls in our youth group and see so much of myself in them when they struggle with their identities and even possible diagnoses. I can point them to a God who created them with care for every detail and with a purpose for each trait and quirk, and I can show them that being a part of a church family that loves you is even better than the communities the world tries to provide.

Pray with me for those who are neurodiverse and being convinced they are also transgender. And let’s all work to point them to the hope we have in Christ and the fellowship we have as believers.  

By / May 7

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss a big dip in U.S. fertility rates, Biden’s July 4th vaccination goal, COVID-19 in children, mask mandates on planes, Trump Facebook ban, Amy Bockerstette’s college title, and the Malian woman who gave birth to nine babies. Lindsay gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including Alex Ward with “Why reading classics can help us answer age-old questions: An interview with Karen Swallow Prior,” Jared Kennedy with “Conversations about gender should begin with humility: Helping parents navigate hard topics with their children,” and Rachel Lonas with “Why it’s important to value neurodiversity in the Church: And three ways you can help.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Elizabeth Graham for a conversation about life and ministry. 

About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Graham serves as Vice President of Operations and Life Initiatives for the ERLC. She provides leadership, guidance and strategy for life and women’s initiatives and provides oversight to other strategic projects as needed. Additionally, she directs the leadership, management and operations for all ERLC events. Elizabeth is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Richmond, and they have a son and a daughter. You can connect with her on Twitter: @elizabethgraham 

ERLC Content

Culture

  1. U.S. fertility dips to its lowest rate since the 1970s
  2. Biden sets goal of fully vaccinating 160 million Americans by July 4
  3. Children Now Account For 22% Of New U.S. COVID Cases. Why Is That?
  4. Pfizer vaccine expected to be approved for children ages 12-15 by next week
  5. TSA Extends Mask Mandate Aboard Flights Through Summer As Travel Increases
  6. Trump Facebook Ban Upheld by Oversight Board
  7. Amy Bockerstette to Be 1st Athlete With Down Syndrome to Compete for Collegiate Title
  8. Malian woman gives birth to nine babies

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By / May 3

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. 

The fall of mankind means that we live in a world where our bodies and brains don’t function perfectly. Even though that is the case, the dignity of all humans as image-bearers of our triune God should still be affirmed and celebrated within the body of Christ. 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?

We’ve been trained to see diagnoses like ADHD, autism, dyslexia, or sensory processing disorder as purely deficit-based, measuring people negatively against a set of normal brain functions. But advocacy on the part of neurodiverse people themselves is beginning to flip the script. And fortunately, our society is beginning to see the value of people with neurological variations instead of seeing those people as problems. For Christians, this is welcomed news. We, of all people, should be able to see the beautiful way that God uses us in the midst of our challenges, difficulties, and sufferings.

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.