Why Churches Can Be Hell for Autistic People, Part 2 of 2: My Easter Post (2016)

Happy Easter, or Happy Resurrection Sunday, or if neither of those apply to you, Hi!

I won’t be going to Easter service because I was in the emergency room some hours ago, and apparently I have bronchitis. So I will be ushering in the day by watching Easter service on the live stream from my home. (Don’t worry; I’m not that sad about missing. I don’t like how overcrowded Easter services are; they overwhelm me...plus the kids and I went to a Holy Week service on Friday night anyway.)

This is the second part of a series that I am writing about how churches can be very uncomfortable and unwelcoming for autistic people. In the first post I discussed clothing, small talk and touching, socializing, weird terminology/traditions/rules, manipulation, excessive emotional stuff that's too light on intellect, disturbing words/imagery, misogny/discrimination against women, churches that are too loud or too quiet, and Bible studies that are too much like being in school. Now I am going to discuss my thoughts on several other points.


Ableism in disability ministry...or non-existent disability ministry

Some churches have tried to find a solution to the way disabled people are treated in many faith institutions. That brainchild is known as the “disability ministry” or “special needs ministry.” Some churches use other euphemisms, such as the “Special Friends” club or “Explorers” or something like that. These ministries, like Women’s Ministries, Creative Arts Ministries, Youth Ministries, Divorce Ministries, Missions Ministries, Recovery Ministries, College Students’ Ministries, Formerly Incarcerated Ministries, Music Ministries, etc., were created to build community and serve a need. The intention behind them is commendable. And some disability ministries are really awesome. (You should look up Shannon Dingle, a Christian activist, international adoptive mom, and writer who has a graduate degree in Special Education and writes not only about her life, but also about disability ministry; she’s awesome!)

But...some disability ministries, despite their benign intentions, are simply segregated spaces. They designate separate places for disabled churchgoers away from all of the “regular” people. They have a different schedule and seldom interact with the rest of the church. They are basically the disabled church version of Jim Crow’s so-called “separate but equal.” We know now that separate is never equal. But apparently it is okay if a church is doing it. Why is that?

If I told you that my church was starting a “Black Ministry” for all the little black children in our church to attend because they were just “too different” to have their needs met in the “regular” service, I don’t think you’d find that to be a good thing. What if I told you that beginning next week your child needed to report to a building tucked off in a back corner of the church's property because there was a new “Asian Ministry” and I really think your child would be “more at home” there?

I don’t need to wait for your answer. I know you’d be horrified. Yet no one even blinks when churches do this. Does anything go when it comes to disabled people? Or is only certain matters of discrimination that get people upset?

I would be remiss to state that there can be some value in having a safe, separate place as a resource when needed/wanted. Or for having a place for marginalized people to gather and draw strength from one another, or simply just bond. Or for providing alternative activities at a designated time. That’s a good thing. But when the entire ministry exists as a separate, parallel entity to the “real” church with little to no actual inclusion and the only non-disabled people who are ever around are teachers, volunteers, “special buddies” of disabled people, or abled siblings/partners of disabled people, there is something wrong.

But even these “Jim Crow” disability ministries are a start of sorts. They are a sign that the powers that be in those churches at least acknowledge the existence of disabled people and their right to be on the premises, however ableist the actual programs themselves might be. But many churches, even churches with abundant resources, choose to not even have a disability program or ministry of any type. Perhaps they think disabled people aren’t worth even thinking about.

People all cramped together

Churches can be very claustrophobic places. For all the Western/White people’s focus on “personal space” and all that, it sure as heck doesn’t seem to apply to church layout. Dang, can the seats be any closer together? If they move the seats any closer together people might end up accidentally copulating. (That’s a joke, people! Please, please don’t copulate at church. Moving on...) Autistic people often have different perspectives on the whole “space” thing than other people do. Sometimes we might get too close and inadvertently violate people’s space (sorry). But other times, it is our space that is invaded. Church is one of those places where that happens.

As an autistic person, I am not comfortable with having to be bunched up together on a pew next to someone. I am not comfortable not having sufficient room to stim if I need to. I am not comfortable with chairs that are placed too close to one another. I am not comfortable not having a ready exit or a way out if I need one. If you are a church usher, please know that I mean this with utmost respect, but I’m not going to apologize for my words: You are a problem. You are.

I know you mean well and I appreciate the fact that you volunteer your time to the church as an usher. But the way you tell people to sit here and there does not take into consideration the needs of autistic people. You scan the room for three empty seats in the middle of a row in front of the church and tell me I need to sit there. Sitting there is not in my best interest, sir/ma’am/zir. I don’t want to be stuck in the front with the bright, hot lights, the camera, the band, and the loud speakers. I don’t want to be in the middle of a row where people are going to sigh with exasperation because I have to inconvenience them if I need to get out of the row. I need you to understand that if I ask you to move the dang rope that you have blocking off some seats in the back for some people who aren’t here yet so I can have an aisle seat because I tell you that I have an accessibility need, I need you to believe me and not play Twenty Freaking Questions in the middle of the sanctuary. Yes, I realize I am not in a wheelchair and in your mind only people with wheelchairs, walkers, and seeing eye dogs count as disabled. Think whatever you like. Just move the dang rope, please.

Body shaming/accessibility shaming

Churches can be unpleasant places for autistic people because we are likely to experience body shaming and/or accessibility shaming in church settings. And I believe at least part of the problem is because churches seem to love to regulate how people move.

Sit like this. Stand up at the designated time. Sit down at the designated time. Be still. Be quiet. Raise your arms. Close your eyes. Worship silently. Worship aloud. Start praying and tell God how much you love Him. Sing this particular hymn. Speak in tongues (or don’t speak in tongues). Dance (or don’t dance). Sing, but not too loudly. Dance, but not like that. Don’t wear that dress to church; it might cause some guy to look at you with lust in his heart (which is apparently your fault, not his). Come down this aisle and give your life to God. Turn to this passage in the Bible. Clap at the appropriate time. Give the pastor verbal confirmation that you like the message at the right time. No, not right now. Make eye contact and smile at people.

Or what about this? Turn off all electronic devices. Sorry, we ran out of headphones already. Oops, the part-time/sometimes sign language interpreter isn’t here today, so I guess you’ll have to do without. Service animals aren’t permitted in the sanctuary unless they are seeing eye dogs. What do you mean our cool lighting effects and flashing lights are a possible seizure risk? No, we aren’t sure what the ingredients are in this church snack your child is potentially allergic to; can you pack your own snacks from home from now on? Sure, we allow autistic kids in the choir, but only if their parent sits through every practice with them because we don’t know how to deal with autism.

Unnecessary war with science

The other day my teenage daughter was watching a video on her phone in the car as we drove home. One of her brothers asked her what she was watching and she replied that she was watching a video on the evidence of evolution that she was planning to send to a friend who had a conflicting viewpoint on it. That made me both happy and sad - happy because I love watching my kids take initiative and find resources on their own, but sad because I knew that the whole situation was not going to end well. As Christians who believe in evolution (sometimes called “theistic evolution” by some), my family often has to defend ourselves on two fronts. We have to defend ourselves to Christians who think we are wrong for not believing in a young-earth fundamentalist creationist view of how the world began, and we have to defend ourselves to non-Christians who think that because we believe evolution is true we are foolish for believing in God. It gets draining.

I’m not here to condemn or try to change anyone’s belief in how the world began. Young earth, old earth, intelligent design, theistic evolution, non-theistic evolution, or something entirely different...you believe what you believe. And I know what I believe. I shared this to make the point that churches (not all, I might add, but a lot) do themselves no favors with autistics by acting like there is some conspiracy among scientists to “take down” Christianity.

Science is science. It’s not pro-Christianity nor is it anti-Christianity. It’s simply pro-science. It’s a discipline that bases its theories on observable data. Science isn’t “hating” something (in this case, Christianity) if you can’t confirm or deny its existence due to lack of evidence, and to portray it as such is unfair (and, some believe, irrational). I believe that the tendency of some churches to condemn and bash science - something we autistics understand - is harmful. If you are such a church, think about this for a sec. You’re asking us (autistics as a whole) to reject something we DO understand (science, which offers facts and proof to back up its claims) and instead accept something we DON’T understand (Christian religion) even though you have no compelling reason or evidence of why we should do so? I hope you can glean why that might be something autistics may be reluctant to do.

It’s difficult to prove, you say. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. It requires faith. You say that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.”

We autistics might think over that, and then inquire if that same principle also applies to presuming competence in us? Because a lot of the things we are trying to get people to understand about US are hard to prove as well. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And we want to have faith in humanity; we want to have hope. We are hoping you, and the rest of the world, will view us as sentient, competent human beings deserving of dignity and respect even if the evidence of us being such isn’t easily seen by the world’s (neurotypical) standards.

Does that concept of faith transfer to us too, or only to you?

Ignoring Christianity's skeletons (the Crusades, not actively opposing the KKK, anti-Semitism, slavery, segregated churches, some churches' role in opposing integration and other equal rights, etc.)

My (non-autistic, neurodivergent) husband is such a sweetie. He is so loving, supportive, and kind. He really is my best friend, not just my spouse. I love to talk with him. But we disagree on some things.

One thing he disagrees with me about is the candid way I share with the kids about my life pre-parenting, pre-marriage, pre-Christianity. I think it’s important for me to let them know about the (many, many, many, many, many) mistakes that I made so that they can hopefully learn from those things and be better than I was. But my husband thinks it’s a little much for them to hear about my fistfights, spontaneous moves across the country, and youthful sexcapades. He thinks that a more general discussion of why they should exercise caution and good judgment would be better than them hearing the "juicy details" from my past. I counter that coming from me and knowing that I experienced it makes it carry more weight to them because it’s more real.

Who knows which one of us is right? I guess that remains to be seen. But while our good-natured tug of war over this is one that only affects our own family, a similar tug of war exists in terms of Christianity. Well, there’s actually not much of a tug of war; it seems that for many churches my husband’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” perspective is the way to go. I personally find it both shocking and disheartening how little Christians know about the sordid details of their own history. They view Christianity as having always been this loving, benevolent force for the world’s good. They seem blissfully unaware of how much dirt that we, the Christians, have done (and still do) to others. I don’t know if it’s truly ignorance or if it’s just denial. But whatever it is, Christianity has hecka skeletons in its closet, and Christians need to acknowledge and come to terms with that reality.

Everyone has a past. Lots of groups have done much good, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t also done much bad. I mean, isn’t that one of the recurring themes of any history course? Identifying the accomplishments as well as the mistakes of various groups and determining how it all fits together in order to both understand its past and present significance and learn from it?

I feel that my kids can handle learning about how “out there” their mother was because I’m not there now. I grew. I changed. But that stuff, good and bad, is all a part of who I am, and pretending it didn’t happen doesn’t make it disappear.

Similarly, the church does itself a disservice by ignoring or justifying things that it has done wrong, such as the Crusades, failing to condemn the KKK and other hate groups during their lengthy reign of terror several decades ago, anti-Semitism, slavery, segregated churches, how some churches openly opposed integration and other equal rights, etc. Why not discuss it? Why try to pretend like it didn’t happen?

In my opinion, the church's failure to “own up” is viewed by many autistics as dishonesty and/or hypocrisy. Basically, if you can’t even be truthful about your own self, why believe anything you say now? I think that autistics would find the honesty to be refreshing, and even if they still disagreed with the theological beliefs of Christians at least they could consider Christians to be credible and forthright rather than dodgy and revisionist.

Parables/metaphors/allegories as cognitively inaccessible language

My son’s former therapist tried to convince him that I was mistaken/outright lying about being autistic. I don’t know what sick thrill he got out of doing this, and it still makes me angry. My child has a history of being repeatedly hurt, repeatedly mistreated, repeatedly lied to. One of the things he cherishes most about our family is that he knows that he can trust us. He knows I will tell him the truth and he needs to know that. (For example, he recently did a project and asked me to look over it before he turned it in. I told him, truthfully, that I thought it sucked and deserved a zero because about a third of it was plagiarized, and that he’d better go re-do it. He asked me how I knew it was plagiarized, and I replied, “I know how you write.” He grumbled, but got right to work getting rid of the plagiarized parts and doing his own work.)

The therapist tried to list all of the reasons that I couldn’t possibly be autistic. Among them: I speak too well (it’s called scripting, dude); I don’t stim (lol, I stim practically nonstop all day every day; it just isn’t always apparent because many of my stims are internal); I have a graduate degree, a job, and engage in a lot of advocacy (ever heard of special interests?); I am married and have a family (I’m not even going to deign to address that one; how ridiculous); and...his trump card: I understand sarcasm and use metaphors and cliches a lot.

Needless to say, there were other problems with this “therapist” and I am glad we fired him a long time ago. (Effin jerk.) But he planted a seed in my child’s head, and once my son confided in me I knew that I now had to prove myself to my son. To restore his faith in me. 

My son couldn’t care less whether or not I am autistic or non-autistic; what jarred him was the possibility that I could be lying to him about something so effortlessly and for so long. And because of what he has been through, I understand his need to be able to trust me. So I busied myself that evening digging through my mountains of papers and clutter in search of my diagnostic report so that I could show him proof. But because of my poor organizational skills, I couldn’t find where I’d put it. Darn it!

I had to use another approach. It was all I had. My truth.

I sat my son down and talked with him at length. I refuted the therapist’s examples one by one. When I got to the part about the metaphors and cliches, I explained to him how when I was younger I used to be very confused by proverbs, parables, cliches, and the like until one day my mother explained them to me. She said that people used them as a more interesting way to get their points across, and that even though just saying it outright was more clear, this type of speech helped people to better relate to what was being said and to some people seemed fun and easier to remember too. I liked that explanation a lot, and for a time I latched onto these types of statements.

I checked out “Poor Richard’s Almanac” from the library and devoured it; I peppered my speech with the air quotes everybody hates; I scoured my elementary ELA textbooks for cliches and committed them to memory. I pestered my parents to share with me all the African proverbs that they remembered from their childhood. In other words, this became one of my childhood special interests, so even though this type of communication is something many autistics aren’t fond of, I took a liking to it, and still use it pretty frequently.

That was a long example, sorry. But it reminds me of how the Bible is full of parables and examples and stories. That’s the way people communicated back then, and it made sense to them. But it isn’t the way many people communicate today, especially autistic people. Such language is often cognitively inaccessible to autistic people because of the way that we think. Churches, however, often assume that “everyone” understands these parables and their meanings, and use them liberally in sermons. 

Some pastors are good at providing an explanation for these unclear parables, but a lot do not. Autistic people aren’t mind readers. It would be very helpful to us if some context was provided for the things we aren’t supposed to be taking literally. Otherwise, we might take it all literally - and therefore discount the whole thing, because we know there’s no way that all of those things actually happened. Nor does the Bible try to portray every occurrence as literal; some are supposed to be seen as illustrative examples. But how the heck are we supposed to know that unless someone makes that clear?

Intolerance and bigotry
I said in part one of this post that I was not going to call Christianity out for hypocrisy because that is something that it shares with humankind. And I won’t do it here. But I will call out some churches (again, not all, but too many) for their intolerance and bigotry. I can’t not do so, not when I am discussing how churches can harm autistic people and that is one of the biggest ways. And certainly not now, since it is after midnight and therefore Easter - the commemoration of what is the most important day in the Christian faith (yes, even more so than Christmas, though retail sales figures comparing the two would suggest otherwise).

I have a house full of children, most of whom share bedrooms. They love each other (most of the time). They like each other (though not all the time). And they have learned to coexist with one another even in the areas that they don’t agree. I have asked them not to exclaim, “Eww! That’s so gross; I hate that food!” when one of their siblings is eating something that they dislike. They used to do that; all of them (from youngest to oldest). I was bothered by it and shared with them that the way they were communicating was hurtful. That there was a better way to tell the truth about how they feel without inadvertently “ripping others to shreds” with our words.  

I explained to them that though they personally may not be fond of that food, their sibling is fond of it and their sibling has EVERY RIGHT to consume it - and that they should be able to do so without having to endure rude comments like that. You don’t like that food? Cool; that’s your prerogative. You can’t even fathom how they can even put a spoonful of it to their lips without gagging? Okay, fine; what you think is what you think. But you don’t have the right to say it - not in this home. You don’t have the right to tear down someone else because it isn’t something you like. Keep your dislike to yourself; no one asked you your opinion on THEIR food. And if they DO ask your opinion on it? You can be truthful and share your opinion without disrespect. I have taught them if asked about their opinion about a food (or other thing) that they personally dislike, a safe, honest, yet respectful response is to state, “It’s not my thing,” or “It’s not my preference.” (They usually go with “It’s not my thing.”)

I am so proud that this is something that it seems that they took to heart. Not long ago I overheard one of my older kids conversing with a friend about a peer. When asked to remark whether they thought a certain person was “cute” or not, my child said, “There’s nothing wrong with how they look; they’re just not my type,” rather than saying the person was “ugly” or was “fat” or was whatever unkind remark tweens/teens might make. My child didn’t lie and say, “_____ is SOOOO hot!” knowing that isn’t truly what they believe; they were able to express that while they aren’t personally attracted to that person, it doesn’t mean the person should be denigrated nor that they are unattractive as a whole; someone else might think otherwise. My kid’s opinion was simply that - an opinion. BUT they shared it respectfully.

So if my babies - kindergarten and up - have this figured out, WHY can’t the church?

Too many times I am seeing churches opt to affix themselves to the wrong side of history - because they can’t seem to comprehend that other people may feel differently about certain things than they do. Church A, Church, B, Church C, etc. has a right to their policies, opinions, and beliefs, and no one should take that away from them. But Person A, Person B, Person C, etc. ALSO has a right to their beliefs, etc. - and no one should take that away from them either. Including the church.

Jesus said, “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s; give God what is God’s.” You know what that reminds me of? Separation of church and state - which many Christians forget was something that people of FAITH advocated for so that they could have religious freedoms and not be persecuted for their unpopular beliefs. (Jesus was so ahead of His time! Awesome dude.) Back when the Christian church was a marginalized, hated, powerless minority group they desperately wanted that separation of church and state - so much so that they moved to an entirely new continent to obtain it. My, how things have changed now that the church is mainstream. As the Bible says, “Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” Why is the separation of church and state that was so critical for the church and so beneficial suddenly not good enough anymore? Why is it that other less privileged minority groups don’t deserve the same liberty and rights the church once sought for itself?

Why can’t churches learn to respectfully disagree with others without denying those people their inalienable, vital, God-given rights?

Churches, you may disagree with me, but atheists are not the dang anti-Christ; LQBTQIA* people are not abominations waiting to assault your daughters in the restrooms; Jews are not bloody Christ killers; and Muslims are not scary terrorists. I could give you some more if you like: disabled people are not “broken” objects of pity; women are not beneath men; people of color are not less than. And I’ve got more, but I eventually need to get some sleep.

No one is asking you to deny Christ or be untrue to your beliefs. To believe whatever you believe while still affording other human beings the courtesy to live their lives even if you think they’re totally off...these aren’t mutually exclusive. Remember the woman caught in adultery (funny how they dragged her to be punished while letting the man run away unscathed) that Jesus refused to condemn? He didn’t jump up and down and shout, “Yay! I think it’s great that you were cheating on your husband; great job!” So He clearly wasn’t enamored with her actions (or, I assume, with that of the person she was caught with either). But He didn’t treat her like crap either. He treated her like she was a person. Why can’t the church follow that example? Is it really that hard?

It isn’t. And I won’t let you sit here on Easter and try to convince me that it is. It doesn’t have to be.

Some autistics are Christians. Some used to be Christians, but are no longer Christians. And some autistics will never be Christians. That’s just the way it is. But I promise you this: autistics will never, never respect the church until it respects others, and until it respects us. Until it stops making “Christian” appear to be synonymous with “intolerant bigot.” And if you can’t do that, if you won’t do that, then well, why SHOULD autistics, Christian or otherwise, respect the church?  

I say all of this with sincerity and with Godly love. Sadly, sometimes the truth hurts.

“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

Recommended citation: Giwa Onaiwu, Morénike. (2016). Why Churches Can Be Hell for Autistic People, Part 2 of 2: My Easter Post . Just Being Me...Who Needs "Normalcy," Anyway? [Personal essay.]


  1. Thank you so much for this two-part post!!!! It reminds me of some of the issues brought up by Thomas E. Reynolds — author of the book _Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality_ — in a seminar he gave at the church I was attending 3 years ago. I haven't actually read the book since I'm dyslexic and legally blind and am waiting for an audiobook version to be produced. But I got the basic gist from his seminar and I think he would appreciate your post immensely. I'm going to try and find out where to contact him to send him the link to your post.

    As for me, I'm Autistic and chronically ill with dysautonomia (as well as legally blind and dyslexic) and I'm a Jewish Buddhist follower of Jesus, so I'm quite spiritually eclectic. And I've encountered similar problems in all the faiths I've investigated over the years. I've attended and eventually left several congregations, synagogues, and a Hindu community, and Buddhist temple over the years because of various forms of inaccessibility due to reluctance on their part to accommodate one or more of my disabilities. I refuse to play at being a part of a community that I clearly don't really belong to in the minds of the other members of that community.

    These days, I belong to an accepting spiritual community where I really do feel like I belong and am accepted the way I am. And it has been a profoundly liberating experience, since I'm finally rid of the anxiety of whether my needs are going to be met or not. Yes, it took a few months of them getting to know me and me getting to know them, but in the end, everyone seems to have opened up — including me — to my presence in the community.

    I hope other communities learn from reading your post and similar writings like Reynolds' book. Access to spiritual community ought never to be limited to only the abled.

  2. My biggest pet peeve is flowers, scents, etc. I can't be around lilies without risking my life, but when I try to find a church where I can worship safely it's … awful.

  3. A lot of this stuff is why I became an atheist at the age of 8. Especially the "check your brain at the door" and the bigotry. My school and church both emphasized those aspects of Christianity very heavily.