Autism and Faith

A Journey into Community

Autism and Faith: A Journey into Community. Ed. Mary Beth Walsh, Alice F. Walsh, and William C. Gaventa. COSAC (2008).

Book review by Christine Guth, ADNet Program Director

Autism and Faith: A Journey into Community offers stories and essays emerging from faith communities that include persons on the autism spectrum and from other communities that have struggled to do so.

This diverse collection affirms that persons on the autism spectrum and their families deserve the benefits of participation in faith communities and that these communities can be enriched by their presence.

In May 2008, the Church of St. Joseph, a Catholic parish in Bertha, Minnesota, filed court papers to block thirteen-year-old Adam Race, a boy with autism, from attending services. Although Adam's story represents an extreme example, many parents of children on the autism spectrum can identify in some measure with the tension with one's faith community that the story reflects. Faith communities are social contexts; consequently the social impairments we call autism have considerable potential to affect relationships within such communities. The rapid upswing in numbers of children and adults being diagnosed with autism spectrum conditions has made more pressing the need for resources that can help faith communities respond positively to the social challenges of autism.

Autism and Faith grew out of collaboration between the Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities and New Jersey Center for Outreach and Services for the Autism Community (COSAC). It reflects the joint effort of scholars, educators, clergy, social workers, and parents who have contributed stories of personal experience and essays on an array of topics related to autism. Contributors include Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim perspectives, along with a wide range of Christian voices and ethnic diversity. Three of the authors are persons on the spectrum.

Early in the book, the essay, ``What is Autism?'' describes autism as ``a spectrum disorder, ranging from mild to severe,'' and it is in this broad sense that readers may understand the term ``autism'' as they encounter it throughout the book. Essay topics include the impact of autism on community and family life, the value of faith community participation for persons with autism, the theological and ethical basis for inclusion, practical ideas for inclusion of children and adolescents, and strategies for engaging adults with autism as ministering persons.

Autism and Faith is a unique and needed resource for facilitating conversation about autism within faith communities. It is a pioneer in considering religious participation of persons on the spectrum. No other book considers the person with autism within his or her family context as participants in communities of faith. Its interfaith perspective allows congregations to learn from each other and share common ground without being stopped by faith tradition boundaries.

A stated purpose of the book is to help persons with autism and their families to not feel alone as they struggle to practice their faith, and similarly, to help faith communities not feel alone as they work to become better at being inclusive. The many glimpses of personal experience help to accomplish this purpose. Practical strategies and thoughtful theological underpinnings will give many faith communities additional tools for taking the next steps toward including the persons with autism in their midst. The book's low cost ($5 postpaid, free to residents of New Jersey), made possible by the generosity of the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation, will make it easy to put this resource in the hands of leaders and in the libraries of many faith communities.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in editing such a book is maintaining unity of the book. The very diversity that is a considerable strength also makes for limited continuity between the pieces, reflected in widely differing writing style, length and nature of the component pieces. Certain perspectives are less well represented than others. I felt particularly the need to hear more from individuals on the spectrum. A couple of the pieces presented in outline form would have merited more development to make the points more clearly understood to the reader. Yet overall the book makes a significant contribution. For years I have wished for material addressing the theological and practical issues of persons with autism within communities of faith. This slender book is a solid beginning to the dialogue.​

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