NB: please see my other post, “what social stories don’t teach you” about a remarkable autistic friend who was a UU almost until she died. It was she that came up with the idea for the elephants, and I was given permission to talk about them here before she passed.
Having devoted two previous blog posts to ableism within UUism, I am now writing my third and for-now final post on being an autistic UU, and am going to write about why you – yes you – need autistic people in your congregation and in your faith. Alternatively, if you are an autistic reader, here are some great things that autistic people bring to their communities and congregations, and why you should not give up on having a voice and a role in your church.
I am fully aware that this essay might sound a bit like a justification for disabled people’s continued existence, and I would like to assure my disabled and already-radicalized readers that this is not the case. I acknowledge that the only real reason that you need autistic people in your congregation is the same reason you need people of color, LGBT people, children, older people, immigrants, and people of differing beliefs – because of the First Principle, the one that acknowledges the worth and dignity of every human being. Since autistic people are people, therefore, we get included. End of story.
However, as I continue to work with and be included in my congregation, I am realizing that, despite all the accommodations I need and the help that I get, I offer a lot to my congregation in return. Some of these things are because of me being me, but some are a direct result of my being autistic and having an autistic brain. So here’s a list of strengths to think about the next time someone comes up to you and says tiredly, ‘you won’t believe what (autistic congregant) said to the newcomer.’
Instead of commiserating, try empathizing. A good reply might be, “Yeah, he has a really hard time figuring out what to say to them. But did you hear about all the research that he did on the historic back staircase?”
You need autistic people in UUism because…..
- We point out the elephant in the room, every single time. And when the elephant is stomping on people’s toes, we keep pointing to it and encouraging people to do something about it.
“You always say the things that need to be said, even if they make people uncomfortable,” a church friend said yesterday. This is true! A staff member is leaving, and we were having a discussion about how to say goodbye. I pointed out that some people, including myself, had had numerous conflicts with that particular person and so all of the celebrating we were doing might be difficult for some. I said that we had not handled the departure of another staff member five years earlier well at all, because we never acknowledged the hurt that he had caused. I pointed out the repercussions this would have on our congregation for years to come. This made people uncomfortable but it needed to be said. When things are left unsaid, they fester in the dark and become sour and gross. When you bring an issue to light, then you can discuss it and change your behavior for the better. You can say, that really sucks, and live with the pain openly as a community.
As a matter of fact, if you happened to be at General Assembly, the big convention of all UUs, this year, you might have noticed that there were numerous stuffed elephants all around the convention center. This is taking the elephant in the room literally, and yes, it was the idea of – you guessed it – an autistic UU. (I now have 2 white supremacy elephants in my possession, courtesy of that autistic friend, and it will be accompanying me to all social and social justice events from now on.)
- We have really, really good memories, and we remember details.
Quick! Name your last four intern ministers and the schools they came from! Name your last three interim ministers! What year was the church built? Where are the fire extinguishers? Why is glitter banned in adult education classes?* Who knows? The autistic knows! Facts, figures and names stick in our heads like glue. Many times this memory is a curse but it can also be a blessing. We might not be able to take minutes while a meeting is happening but we can often recount verbatim weeks later what someone said at a meeting. My memory is average for an autistic, which means that compared to a non-autistic’s, it’s very-very-very good. I seem to have an especially good memory for people who have ever hurt me or any disasters. I know who was teaching religious education when the kitchen filled with smoke and I know exactly why I detest the Reverend A. Institutional and congregational memories can be short; autistic memories are long.
- We are very enthusiastic.
We are doing renovations to my church soon, and I am absolutely positive that nobody, but nobody, is as excited to see the plans for it as I am. When we get into a subject, we get deeply, deeply into it – it is a whole-body experience of joy and excitement, like standing in a storm of glittery birds and hearing a full chorus inside your heart. This is how I feel about the building work we are doing. I’m so excited at committee meetings that I’m literally flapping away and biting myself because I want to know what will happen next. It’s better than any play or story to me, because it’s real. It’s happening.
- We get really into a subject.
Autistic people are great researchers. When we want to know about a subject, we want to find out everything ever written about or said or sung about a subject. When we do research for a project, our fluency in facts and figures enables us to give miniature lectures on demand to any congregants who might need them. I can explain exactly why the building work is so important and when we last did it and what we have found and what the timeline is and I will talk to you about this without stopping forever. I mean, not forever, I think I’d get bored eventually, but I’ve yet to reach the point where I get bored on my own, people always change the subject because they get bored.
- We are not afraid to point out hypocrisy, to speak up for others or to criticize people.
A teenager in our congregation is neurodivergent and explained to his parents that he had been lending books to our office manager. “He said he didn’t have the time,” the teen explained, “but I said he did too if he had the time to look at pictures on the computer, that’s what he does all day, he’s always looking at pictures on the internet.”
- ……especially when it comes to social justice.
If your church is a place of polite platitudes, if people ask how others are without really wanting to know, if manners cover up racism, sexism, homophobia, and other unacceptable isms – then you need more autistic people there. Often times, people are so afraid to break social rules that they let things like racism go unchecked. When at a recent meeting, someone said something very racist, I exploded. Without waiting to be acknowledged, I said that what she’d said was awful, horrible, and racist, and she shouldn’t have said that. After the meeting, several people thanked me for saying that. Yet, nobody else said anything at the time. This is so stupid. If someone says something racist, it should be pointed out. Yet neuro-typical people are often socialized to be polite to the point where they are physically unable to break out of this role. It is awful.
- We are hard workers, and we show up.
Lastly, you need autistic people because we are very hard workers, and since many of us don’t work full time, we have the time to devote to church matters that many other people do not. From a very young age we had to work harder and longer than anybody else to get things done. As a result, many of us, when you accommodate for our executive functioning difficulties, are extraordinarily hard workers and devoted to the cause, whatever the cause may be. I am well aware that I need more help than most people to do things like follow along in meetings, understand what’s being said, and get my real words out. But I truly think that I give back to others also, and I love doing it. It is not a coincidence that the steadiest, most enthusiastic member of our greeting team each Sunday is neuro-divergent. It is no coincidence that I know where to get the ladder to hang the Christmas wreaths every year, or that I bring cakes and other things for social hour quite frequently. When autistic people makes promises, we follow through on that promise, and if we don’t, we usually have a really, really good excuse. (For example, not showing up to a meeting because it was held at X place on Y street, and we went to Y avenue and wandered around lost for three-quarters of an hour before having a meltdown.)
I know that it can be hard to have autistic people as a part of your congregation. However, it is also hard to have children, elderly people, and many other people in your congregation. I mean, did it ever occur to anyone that a church could run perfectly well if there were no people to mess things up? Because people mess up. Autistic people mess up. We are human beings and we have needs that can be hard to meet. A month ago I felt the urge to investigate a new chalice we had and accidentally spilled lamp oil everywhere. Lamp oil is not the easiest thing to clean up, but it could be cleaned up, just as all messes can be. If UUism is going to be a place for all people who identify or find fulfillment in UU churches, then we must open ourselves up not only to people of differing ages, races, classes, and beliefs but to different abilities and different neurologies as well.
All means all, and all have a lot to offer.
*that was totally because of how a craft I did, very sorry.