I have been working as an intern at the Coalition as part of the Justice Leadership Program (JLP) since September. My other work in the program is to support the social justice outreach of the congregation of Prospect United Church of Christ. In the past 9 months in that role I’ve been to many church meetings, organized forums on nonpartisan ballot initiatives and homelessness, discussed morality with my representatives in Washington DC during Ecumenical Advocacy Days, and most recently – gave a sermon about existing authentically in church and society as an autistic agnostic queer human.
I preface every conversation I have about the program by explaining that I did not join the program because of the church aspect of it – the intentional community aspect and the opportunity to work for an organization like the Coalition are what appealed to me initially. The pulpit was not where I expected to be but I’m glad that I had the opportunity to talk to my congregation about some aspects of the autistic experience.
My supervisors here at the Coalition asked me to highlight a few key points from my sermon that pertain most to the people involved in our work. Early on in my sermon I defined autism, I specifically defined it in terms of differences instead of deficits because autism isn’t an inherently bad thing
Autism is a developmental disability in which our brains develop differently than those of the 98% of people who aren’t on the spectrum. The different ways the autistic brain develops affects our language and communication, cognition, sensory processing, motor control, and social behaviors.
I went on to explain that autism is disabling because our society is not designed to work for autistic people. A lot of our problems come from the ostracization that happens when we fail to intuitively grasp and follow the unwritten social rules of our society. Our marginalization is a major contributing factor to some worrying statistics:
- My life expectancy is 16 years shorter than that of my non-autistic peers. If I had an intellectual disability it would be 30 years shorter.
- The leading cause of death for autistic people like me, who don’t have intellectual disabilities, is suicide – we attempt suicide at a rate 28 x that of our nonautistic peers.
When I read the studies behind those statistics I wasn’t surprised. I have a lot of friends who are also on the spectrum and all of us have chronic health problems that are influenced by stress, all of us have depression, all of us have attempted suicide at least once. It’s obvious from my lived experiences and stories that I’ve heard from others that these problems are an effect of the common view of autism/autistic traits – which is that this is the wrong way to exist. Near the end of my sermon I explain that:
It is assumed that we are broken for not communicating the way that you do and that our goal in life should be to become more like you. Autistic people like me who can pass as nonautistic are constantly working to adapt to your social expectations. I am nearly constantly evaluating my body language and behaviors in relation to the rules I have in place for social interaction in different situations. 22 years of experience has taught me that if I deviate too far from the norm people will assume I’m unintelligent, my ideas won’t be taken seriously, and I will be scorned and avoided. And I’m one of the lucky ones, because not all of us can adapt to your norms. Not all of us can pretend to be normal long enough to land or keep jobs that we’re qualified for, for police to trust that we’re not a danger, for our medical concerns to be taken seriously, or to experience acceptance that doesn’t feel like one of those TV show episodes where we’re a life lesson for the cast regulars.
I concluded with the following tips for non-autistic people who want society to be a little bit better for autistic people:
- Recognize that your assumptions are based in your experiences and perceptions of the world and that they aren’t universal – what comes naturally to you, especially in terms of body language, eye contact and speech patterns, does not come intuitively to everyone. Things like flapping your hands or not making normative amounts of eye contact aren’t hurting anyone and should be an accepted way of being.
- When you’re planning events or meetings, think about how accessible the environment is beyond basic mobility and sound access. We process our environment differently than you do.Try to limit loud sudden sounds, intense smells (perfumes are the easiest to avoid), and touching without asking and waiting for a response.
- Different people have different needs, ask what those are.
- Acknowledge that our thoughts and opinions have as much value as anyone elses.
- Recognize that written or typed or otherwise nonverbal types of communication are as valuable as verbal communication.
- Give us time to gather our thoughts and respond during conversations. People think and communicate at different speeds and taking longer to get things out of our mouths or fingertips does not invalidate what we’re saying.
- Get to know the weird people in your life. Ask us about ourselves, our struggles, and our triumphs and truly listen even if the answers you get are unexpected.
You can read the full sermon at this link.