Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology, and Community
Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2019.
Available at BUP.
This is easily one of my favourite books of 2019. Moreover, it is a book that I would urge every church pastor to read because all of our churches will have people, especially children, on the autism spectrum. So definitely add this to your reading list for 2020.
I should note that I have a son who is on the autism spectrum with some sensory processing issues too. He is high functioning, yet still has certain educational needs and often requires intense parental care. I myself am somewhat “aspie”, existing somewhere between being a performative introvert to sometimes coming across as socially incongruent. So I naturally have a big interest in this space.
This is not a cheesey book that Samson or Paul had autistic traits, nor is it filled with tired platitudes about the need to be nice to people with autism. Rather, Macaskill’s book is – and I cannot emphasize this strongly enough – about what happens when our ecclesiology, notion of union with Christ, and hermeneutics makes contact with autism.
Chapter 1 explains what autism is according to the latest scientific literature. Macaskill shows that autism is not a disease or psychological disorder but a “genetically linked neurological condition” with “demonstrably different neural development” (p. 12). People with autism can struggle with social communication, either as nonverbal or simply with understanding social scripts for communication. People with autism process language differently and sometimes struggle with embedded idioms. Persons with autism are also drawn to systems, routine, and systematization. Also, people with autism literally experience the world differently, they are not just hyper or hypo sensitive, their brain filters or processes information differently to most other people. Rather than think of autism as a disability, it is now more common to think of it as neurodiversity with people different. Of course, people with profound autism are in a sense disabled, so we should not think of neurodiversity or disability as mutually exclusive. Importantly, we should not think of people with autism as having low empathy. They can often reason or find their way to empathy, just not necessarily in the manner triggered in most people (this is one of my own personal traits that autism better explains, I don’t necessarily feel for people, but I’ve learned that they need certain responses from me in certain situations). Macaskill exposes the absolute and irresponsible absurdity of those who try to correlate immunisation with autism. I like Macaskills’ exhortation: “Much of the theological engagement with autism rightly seeks to give a positive account of the condition and its place within the church, but we cannot allow this to blind us to the real difficulties and suffering that it can often bring. We have to develop ways of speaking about autism that allow us to identify certain of its elements or aspects as bad, without thereby labeling the condition in wholly negative terms” (p. 40).
Chapter 2 is on autism and the Bible, the challenge of reading responsibly. Macaskill warns of trying to identify autistic characters in Scripture and treating autism as something to be miraculous cured. Instead, he offers several sober and cogent principles for reading the Bible in light of its overall structure and historical particularities. This is a terrific chapter and is on its own steam constitutes a very, very good introduction to biblical interpretation. Macaskill makes a fantastic point that reading the Bible in community, within the body of Christ, with autistic siblings in Christ, forces us to recognize “autism as something that has been united to Christ and his body” (64). Furthermore, churches are not always safe or welcoming places for people with autism. In fact, the church is “the battleground of good evil and those who come into the church can expect to see both lovely and ugly values at work.” As such “we should expect our experience of autism to expose some of those values, and to incur an obligation that we reconsider them” (64-65). Macaskill does not hold back: “Where churches have asked families affected by autism not to attend because their behavior compromises the performance of the worship service, something is functioning as an idol” (66).Chapter 3 is on autism and the body of Christ. Macaskill shows that in the biblical view, people without social capital, who are rejected and despised, are counted among the elect precisely to shame the strong and powerful. I agree that equating the imago dei with cognitive ability or capacity to form relationships is problematic, esp. for people with autism. Instead, for Macaskill, the imago is about participation in Christ. In the church, people with autism should be not tolerated but celebrated and their giftings recognized. Macaskill adds that that autism should not be valued purely as something that confers special abilities such as laser-like focus or systems analysis. Also, autism should not be used as a license to justify immoral or unloving behaviours, people with autism need moral transformation and holiness too.
Chapter 4 pertains to autism in the church and is more practical about the stresses and strains that people with autism experience in church in general and in public worship in particular. Macaskill advocates accommodating the needs of persons with autism and giving them space to decompress from too much human interaction.
Chapter 5 is about the dark side of autism: anxiety, depressing, and addiction. People on the autism spectrum are more likely to experience things like substance abuse and suicide. Thankfully Macaskill shows the church can help such people and the gospel holds out hope for such people.
Chapter 6 is an important section on the challenges of pastoral care for people with autism, their families, and caregivers. How do people who are non-verbal confess Jesus as Lord, here Macaskill points to Romans 8 and the “unspeakable groans.” Also, there’s a great discussion on autism and gender dysphoria/non-binary/LBTIQ. People with autism are more likely to experience these things or to identify as non-binary. Macaskill holds to the normativity of Scripture, while he urges pastors and practitioners to behave lovingly towards autistic people whose sexual identity does not correspond to normal expectations.
Macaskill wraps things up in the conclusion and along the way makes some pointed remarks: “All this is to say that, in some ways, our willingness to appoint autistic people to positions of leadership may be a test of whether our theology of weakness has really been applied to the church in a thoroughgoing way” (198). Macaskill also urges people with autism who profess faith that autism is not what defines the sum of their identity, rather, they are fundamentally in Christ.
In sum, a terrific book, necessary for anyone who has autism, who has family with autism, or pastors a church with autistic people and their carers. Five stars from me!
I should add that that Grant Macaskill and John Swinton head up the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community at Aberdeen University. Grant is also available to speak at conferences and churches about the Bible, Autism, and Church.
Also, check out this video of Grant talking about Autism and the Bible