Oct 05, 2011 0 Share

Autism in Communities of Worship

Close-up of man's hands with religious service congregation in background.

Margaret Fernandez believes two colors of thread intertwine to define who she is as an adult with Asperger syndrome.

“The gold threads in my cloth are God, and the silver threads are the spectrum,” said Fernandez, 32, of Fredericksburg, Va. “I rely on Him in every woven piece of my being.”

Religious involvement has served as a bridge for Fernandez throughout her life to connect with those without disabilities. She improved her eye contact while volunteering through her Catholic Youth Organization as a young adult. She also gained confidence singing in the church choir.

“I learned to project my voice over time and grew more and more comfortable standing in front of the congregation,” she said. “When I was very little, I was quiet and didn’t speak.”

These activities prepared Fernandez to later run a booth at a business conference and interact with difficult customers without retreating.

Fernandez is not alone in tying her growth as an adult with an autism spectrum disorder to her faith in God and dedication to religious practice. Many adults on the spectrum enjoy inclusion with neurotypical peers in their religious communities and credit religious involvement for improving their socialization, communication and sensory processing.

Such spiritual adults tend to thrive on the consistency and organization worship brings, Fernandez said. “In church, we follow a very close routine and the services are well planned,” she said.

And worshipping with neurotypical participants allows such adults to learn key skills in a natural setting. “The ability to learn from our mistakes, to learn how things are done in a patient, calm way without the stress of being reprimanded, the ability to share and communicate with other people in a uniform and congenial way, is priceless,” Fernandez said.

David Bennett’s behavioral challenges have lessened over time in part by participating in regular services at his Jewish synagogue. Bennett, 17, of Miami, used to have to sit in the back of the temple because of his outbursts and fidgety behavior. Now he often sits in the front row. “I am calm and happy” after praying, he said. 

One of the rabbis at temple has asked Bennett to carry the Torah at services a couple of times now, thrusting him into the spotlight — and social interactions. “It was very heavy,” Bennett said.

“I was confident he wasn’t going to drop it or wander off with it,” said Rabbi Alan E. Litwak at Temple Sinai in North Miami Beach, Fla. Most of the members of the congregation know Bennett has autism, and accept him. “He is a lesson personified in recognizing the divinity in every person,” Litwak said. “We are created in the image of God, therefore, everyone is perfect in his own way.”

The benefits of religious activities reach beyond the walls of places of worship. Zac Zepp, for example, has taken cues from other young adult members of his Presbyterian church to appropriately dress and fit in with his peers at school and in the community.

“The way you dress defines who you are to other people,” said Zepp, 17, of Tallahassee, Fla. “I learned from my friends that if your clothes don’t match who you are, people won’t connect with you as well. You have to be comfortable with who you are.”

Zepp’s long-time friends have also exposed him to popular movies and music. This has better armed him for social interactions.

“I didn’t know how to start conversations as well as I do now,” he said. “Now I like the social part of church and it’s not really awkward anymore. I can contribute more to conversations. I have a lot more friends now.”

Just as many do outside religious walls, some individuals with autism work with behaviorists early on to better integrate into their congregations and benefit from the socialization. A behaviorist helped Jonathan Farris behave more appropriately during devotionals. Now 20, the Tallahassee native attends a college-level church group, where he makes fewer outbursts. He also now attends overnight church retreats, where he enjoys meeting new people.   

“I used to get too hyped up and interrupt people,” Farris said. “I’m more comfortable now. It helps so I can have friends.”

Tabitha Jozwick, 30, of Galesburg, Ill., also sees church participation as a way to connect with people outside her immediate neighborhood. Jozwick does not disclose to everyone that she has autism, but she usually warns people she does not like being hugged without first being asked.

“I do participate in the hugs and handshakes after a service,” Jozwick said. “I just don’t do it with everyone yet.”

Jozwick attends an Apostolic Pentecostal church because its doctrine of one God with three roles is easier for her to rationalize than the Trinity doctrine at another church she attended. “It’s a lot easier [for me to understand] the Apostolic Pentecostal belief of God because lots of people have three different roles and there are not three of them,” she said.

It’s only natural for people with autism to question the existence of God, just as any nondisabled person might question it, Jozwick said. Some may even blame God for “making” them have autism. Not Jozwick.

“[Religious worship] allows me to accept my autism as part of me, not something to be mad at God for, because there is a reason He made me autistic,” she said. “I am at peace with my life when I go to church services. Everybody needs God in his life, whether he has a disability or not.”

Steps to Spiritual Participation

Individuals with autism and members of the clergy suggest you take these steps to pave the way for an inclusive religious life:

  • Decide if you’re going to disclose your autism: Many people on the spectrum do not feel the need to disclose their autism because they can worship like everybody else. But seek a private meeting with the leader of your place of worship to discuss challenges that you know may arise during services or other activities, said Diana Johnson, special needs director at Community Bible Church in San Antonio, Texas. “It’s better to be prepared before something happens,” Johnson said. For example, if you or your loved one may have occasional outbursts during a sermon, rock back and forth, or need to walk around, let your clergyman know. Also inform security guards at larger venues so they do not restrain you unnecessarily for seeming threatening. They will likely tell you they would prefer to just move forward and ignore these occurrences when they happen. “I want to know there is a potential for that, so I can ignore it without calling further attention to it,” Litwak said. “Be partners with your clergy, not hiding [your autism], but helping to educate us. There are a million different afflictions, mental health problems, diseases—pick whatever you can think of. If you don’t tell me until we are far along, that’s not helpful. We have to get over the shame and concern for ostracization."
  • Build in breaks: Recognize when sitting still for a long sermon or spiritual activity is not going to work for you and devise ahead of time a way to take a breather, Fernandez said. Consider finding a place of worship with a small congregation, Jozwick said. This may ease some socialization and sensory challenges.
  • Give yourself prompts: Zepp likes to write things down to remind himself what to talk about with his peers. “Inform yourself and don’t let frustration keep you from trying to connect,” he said. “But if you can’t connect with someone, also don’t get mad at yourself. Move on and try to connect with someone else.”
  • Seek visual supports: Ask your place of worship to project PowerPoint slides of hymns and prayers to help you participate with everyone else, Jozwick said. This has helped Jozwick at her church.
  • Ask for responsibility: Learn more about your religion and hone your social skills by volunteering for your place of worship. Zepp contributes to his church’s recycling program and cleans on occasion. Johnson recently enlisted one of her young adult members to read bible stories with younger children. “I have seen her socialization improve,” Johnson said.
  • Don’t give up easily: Zepp struggled to sit still to listen to long sermons at church. He often skipped sermons, choosing instead to hide in the bathroom. But then he started listening to a quarter of a sermon, then a half, then three-quarters, until he could listen to the whole thing and now he said he listens to entire sermons, no matter how long they are, because he finds meaning in them. “You need someone there for you and autistic people don’t have many friends, so God can be there for you,” he said.