A remarkable increase in the diagnosis of autism has been occurring around the world over the past couple decades. At the same time, better therapies for early childhood intervention lead to a better quality of life for many children in the U.S. More children and adults are assigned to what is sometimes referred to as the “high end” of the autism spectrum. I counsel caution about using the term "high-functioning," because many adults who live with this condition resent the term, feeling that it discounts the invisible challenges they live with and disparages those regarded as "low functioning."
It is ever more likely that your church will come into contact with and experience someone with a high end autism spectrum disorder, once called “Asperger Syndrome,” and since 2013 simply known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). ASD is a neurological condition characterized by marked impairments in social interaction and restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. The rest of this article will describe those who have average or higher intelligence and no delay in language development, although use of language may have pragmatic differences.
Autism spectrum disorders by definition involve limited or highly different communication and socialization patterns. Communication and socialization are primary ways in which people build communities. So the autism spectrum presents profound challenges to Anabaptist-related churches, which stress the importance of community.
A Cross-cultural Experience
The playful name, "Oops…Wrong Planet! Syndrome,” adopted by some persons who identify as having Asperger Syndrome, suggests that such persons may perceive the challenges of relating to those who do not have an autism spectrum disorder or other neurological difference as even greater than those of crossing cultures.
Understanding the challenges of cross-cultural communication can help those of us who are “neurotypical” to relate to persons on the spectrum. However, an added challenge for learning the “culture” of the autism spectrum is that each individual is a culture of his (or her) own. While some generalizing may be possible, there is so much variability between different individuals on the spectrum that one dare not assume uniformity. My experience of living with two children and a husband diagnosed on the autism spectrum has given me a few glimpses of the variety of ways the spectrum can be expressed.
Encountering these differences, for a person not on the spectrum, can range from exasperating to delightful. In order to enjoy the delight of relationship with a person on the autism spectrum, we who are seeking to build bridges must work to understand the world as the individual perceives it, and to enter the other’s world.
Key autism spectrum differences
- Restricted social awareness, especially a limited ability to understand another’s point of view. This often leads to “social blunders.”
- Blunt and direct communication, what one author calls "no buffer between what is thought and what is said." May be perceived as rudeness.
- Literal interpretation of speech. This leads to confusion over idioms such as “getting up on the wrong side of bed.” It also causes misunderstandings with sarcasm or teasing. It can be especially difficult for a person with ASD to detect the difference between friendly and malicious teasing.
- Inability to generalize from specific situations. Example: A teenager who objects strongly to the smell of perfume on others, but doesn’t understand why her own using deodorant is appreciated by others.
Church members can take steps to build bridges to the culture of the person on the autism spectrum. If you start a conversation on a topic of mutual interest, you will likely encounter a fountain of information! Direct but not condescending speech along with setting simple and kind social guidelines go a long way toward helping the person on the spectrum feel safe and valued.
Our effort to listen and observe allows us neurotypical people to make honest, loyal, and delightful friends who provide us with astonishing new perspectives on ourselves and our culture, as if from another planet.