As I’m sure many of you have seen in the media and on social media, April was Autism Awareness Month. It’s not just a month of plugging awareness but also educating others and opening discussions. I myself was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 1995 so thought I’d write a small piece on being ‘autistic’ and having faith.
In a short and simple definition, Autism is a neurological difference meaning people perceive the world differently. This can involve senses and communication (in- and outgoing). It’s a spectrum so no one person is the same as another and can go from ‘mild’ to ‘severe’. Autism is also a hidden disability: you cannot tell someone is autistic by sight alone. This can cause a plethora of difficulties and prejudgement from supposed friends, family members and the further community who do not understand or accept the way you perceive the world.
Having a faith and being autistic is another conundrum: those who are autistic can often be seen as lacking in empathy and unable to converse and maintain friendships (which I add is completely untrue. Empathy is often shown in many different ways and not always the way you expect. Not all autistic people are non-verbal and not all communication is verbal. Many have social circles including a relationship and/or friendships). However a relationship with God is different to a friendship or relationship. It is not draining, anxiety is much less of an issue and God does not cause me to overload from ‘too much information’, including sensory or other information. I often refer to this feeling as being ‘overcooked’ but the word ‘moment’ and meltdown’ are also commonly used in this instance. God is different and greater than humans. He is also the only one who really understands and is always there.
Also God loves us how we are. Jesus hung around with Judea’s undesirables in the eyes of a first century Jewish state. I never used to love myself and always wanted to be ‘normal’. It is frustrating and draining when you can only see what you can’t do. Things that you see your peers do with ease while you just cannot cope like parties, meeting up at the weekend and music concerts. Through Jesus I have learnt all the things I can do and things I never thought I’d be able to do, I have done or will be doing. I studied French and German at university; studying in France and working in Germany (not without difficulty I add!) I met friends throughout Europe through a summer school I attended and have travelled to Austria, Slovakia, Sweden, Switzerland, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Poland, France and Germany. I now hope to study MA Autism Studies and become a student disability advisor. I am now also one of the volunteer youth workers at Youth Group and drop-in.
Coming to church for me can be difficult. I find church sometimes too busy with the noise, chatter, people and lack of space for me to escape to. I find this so frustrating as I want to go and want to grow. I now often wear earplugs and headphones to help cancel out volume and certain frequencies as it causes me pain. I sometimes feel this is not fair as I usually can micro manage input and church is one of the few places I need to physically block out noise. It makes me feel not included. But I remember there are people who need to wear noise-cancelling headphones more frequently than I do due to sensory sensitivity and Jesus loves me regardless if I wear noise-cancelling headphones or not.
Many autistic people do have faith: 1 in every 100 people identify as on the autistic spectrum therefore in every church congregation and community there is bound to be someone who identifies as autistic, diagnosed or undiagnosed. In spite of this I do not let Autism define me. I am Krysia and am and have so much more to me than one label. I do not consider myself to have a disability as I believe this limits me and a good knowledge of myself means I know my own personal limits. However I do come across barriers to inclusion, feel frustrated that such barriers exist and feel disappointed when unfairly judged (Autism is like your gender, it is just part of you not supplementary).
I’ll end with a saying commonly shared in the autistic community: ‘when you have met one person with Autism, you have met one person with Autism’.