Autism and Your Church

Nurturing The Spiritual Growth of People in Your Congregation With Autism Spectrum Disorders

 

Autism and Your Church: Nurturing The Spiritual Growth of People in Your Congregation With Autism Spectrum Disorders. By Barbara J Newman. Friendship Ministries, 2011.

Cover of Autism and Your Church shows church shape built out of jigsaw puzzle pieces
 

Book review by Sue Cassel, former ADNet Field Associate

What does it mean to be made in God’s image? What does it look like to be made in His image? How can a faith community become intentional about including individuals whose social awkwardness and unpredictable behaviors may bring about a desire to walk in another direction?  In a newly revised and updated version of Autism and Your Church:  Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, Barbara J. Newman addresses these questions with purpose, compassion, and a willingness to step outside of the norm. 

Whether guiding the reader to look through the eyes of the person on the autism spectrum, discussing a workable plan of inclusion, or tackling the difficult topic of behavior management (new in this edition), Newman packs a wealth of information in this guide to radical, biblical inclusion.

While Newman readily admits that there is no specific formula for success, and not all concepts benefit all people, ample action steps and resources make Autism and Your Church a valuable resource for congregations seeking to welcome all of God’s children.

Buy from publisher.​

Review of the first (2006) edition

Reviewed by Christine Guth

Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Barbara J. Newman. Grand Rapids: Friendship Ministries, 2006.

Autism and Your Church: Nurturing the Spiritual Growth of People with Autism Spectrum Disorders, by Barbara J. Newman, provides useful information and strategies for church leaders who want to welcome and integrate people with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) into the community of Christ's body. The book begins with a theological grounding for a ministry of inclusion, followed by a succinct outline of various ASD and the behavior differences they typically represent. Moving into the heart of the book, the author recommends practical strategies that churches may implement on their way to becoming five-star places of hospitality and understanding for persons with ASD. This slim volume provides an excellent introduction to ASD for church workers and any others who would profit from an experienced guide on the journey toward full inclusion of those with behavior differences.

Autism and Asperger Syndrome, a milder condition, have gained much public awareness in recent years, as the number of people so diagnosed has mushroomed. The unusual perspectives and atypical behaviors of persons with ASD can baffle those in the church who have caring hearts but little training in relating to persons with special needs. The frequency of ASD in the general population (a common estimate is one person in 166) suggests that the perspectives and strategies Newman shares will be helpful in a large number of congregations.

A theological and biblical basis for including those with disabilities and differences in the community of faith appears in the book's first section and runs as a strong current throughout the book: Human beings are made in God's image, for God's purposes, to be part of a larger body of God's people. God invites us to see those who are different from us as God's delightful handiwork. This theological stream is a unique contribution of this book among the wealth of recent works about ASD, and it shapes Newman's understanding of ASD as difference rather than deficiency.

Newman tailors the information about ASD that she includes to the particular needs of persons working in congregations. Her introduction to five specific ASD and to the characteristics they have in common contains enough information to orient church members who are new to ASD, but does not overwhelm with detail. She illustrates the ``areas of difference'' that distinguish ASD with examples of how these traits might show up in a congregational context. Her intent is not to turn the church into a treatment center or school, but to help the church offer the love of Jesus in a way that persons with ASD can receive, nurture their relationship with Christ, and encourage their active contribution to the faith community.

Every reader will find possibilities to put into practice from the author's section of strategies for inclusion. Each of the ten strategies is a chapter in itself, a rich and multifaceted approach to a common ASD-related challenge. These strategies reflect Newman's twenty-one years of experience in the fields of special education and disabilities ministry, from which she offers many stories that illustrate the strategies implemented in particular situations.

My personal favorite of the ten strategies is the last, "Teaching instead of Reacting,'' perhaps because this challenge has been the latest learning curve for me in relating to my own family members with ASD. She suggests that those who encounter socially inappropriate behavior consider that the person with ASD surprisingly may not know what to do in the situation at hand, and is not being deliberately difficult. In such situations, Newman suggests that teaching a new way of interacting instead of scolding or punishing is more effective and respectful.

The book's final section offers suggestions for developing a long-range and systematic action plan to assure that a congregation will be welcoming for those with disabilities. An appendix contains reproducible forms and stories that churches may use in implementing the book's strategies.

Autism and Your Church is a helpful resource for all in a Christian community of faith who want to increase their confidence and expertise in relating to children, youth, or adults with ASD. Newman has met her stated goal and more, providing a highly usable resource for any in the church who want to reach out to fully include those with diverse kinds of behavior differences. In a field where focusing on fixing autism's deficits has sometimes alienated those who have autism, Newman's warm appreciation those who have ASD and her respect for their unique gifts is a welcome contribution to the literature on ASD.

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