Book Review: Autism and the Church
by GRANT MACASKILL - Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Director of the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland: Baylor University Press
In his new book, Autism and the Church, Bible scholar Grant Macaskill describes in meticulous detail how autistic people come to find themselves on the periphery of the community, even and especially in places designed to be welcoming, such as our churches. In part, autism itself makes large spaces and big gatherings overwhelming to the senses. A bigger problem, according to Professor Macaskill, is the continued reliance of our social institutions (including churches) on the economy of social capital. Like its financial counterpart, social capital is the net value of what an individual brings to any given group. Unlike money, social capital’s value is skewed by perception (what others think we can offer) instead of actual value (who we are as children of God).
Whether it is the need for different space with reduced sensory overload, the systematic manner of autistic thinking or the awkwardness with which autistics conduct conversations, Professor Macaskill acknowledges the unfortunate fact that autism does not fit cleanly into what we have come to expect from church experiences as a community. Yet each child, teen and adult with autism brings a multitude of gifts, ideas and needs to the table of worship which do, in fact, fit perfectly into the Gospel message of God’s love and design for what a Christian community is meant to be. Professor Macaskill does a splendid job of outlining and explaining this in practical terms backed by solid Scriptural references. He also includes caveats for how to avoid misuse of Scripture in approaching the question of welcoming those who present with a poverty – even bankruptcy – of social capital.
Grant Macaskill’s approach speaks to autistic Christians with clarity and perspective that we have yet to see overtly discussed in either autistic or Christian circles. The institutional response to autism has been typically geared toward the deficit. Keeping with his social capital framework, “acceptance” has happened when others have created special and exceptional programs and categories for autistics, highlighting our social poverty; or, by outright exclusion, presented as an incentive for us to increase those traits the group finds valuable until we finally qualify as insiders. Neither way acknowledges the reality that our autism physically and emotionally compromises our ability to play into group dynamics and then drains us of the energy we need to maintain our participation. As a result, autistics often remain on the periphery as a matter of survival, doubting our worth to the community.
For this reason, the wide-sweeping methodologies and cookie-cutter recommendations which have proliferated in educational settings and trickled into other areas such as sports, churches, clubs and service organizations have not helped autistics feel more included. Why? What we really need is relationship: to be known for who we are and the gifts which we have as individuals. In applying institutional norms to autistic people, we’re still being grouped and reduced to numbers… and not thriving. What we really need is relationship. Grant Macaskill does a masterful job of describing how autistics can thrive in the community through application of St. Paul’s theology of weakness and relationship. His conclusions are both challenging and encouraging to Christians and church leaders, in that he reaffirms what we already hold as our core belief: that each one of us is, first and foremost, a beloved child of God. Seeing one another for our God-given gifts, instead of appraising our value in terms of how well we fulfill institutional norms, will not only keep our focus on the truth of the Gospel message we proclaim, but is vital to celebrating autistic persons and families as important and essential members of the Body of Christ.
A Continuing Look at the Nicene Creed
with Fr. Mark P. Nolette
Special thanks to our spiritual director, Fr. Mark Nolette, for his ongoing work in his home diocese of Portland, Maine. As a regular contributor for HARVEST magazine, Fr. Mark continues his closer look at the Nicene Creed and has graciously allowed us to link to that here. Fr. Mark’s article appears on page 9.
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak