Been extra quiet this month as I had to go to Florida for 17 days for a family medical issue, and trying to get any real work done outside my personal space is really just not likely to happen. I did go to church with my mother one day though, and that got the old gears going in many ways, so I figured I would share this bit, as it was a novel but also strangely familiar experience.
Going to church was every bit as stressful as I could have expected it to be, but not because of the content or message (the church is very very liberal, we are talking quips about Palm Sunday and Gay Pride Parade sort of liberal, actually was quite amusing), but the very nature of the use of space and expectations for socially sanctioned ritual. In regards to that specific experience, I pretty much went into shutdown mode not long after entering the space. The congregation was warm, friendly, and welcoming, which for me was extremely uncomfortable since there were tons of hand shakes, hugs, pats on the shoulder and back, way more physical contact than I was mentally prepared for actually, too touchy and that was just the beginning. The space was acoustically a nightmare, this church was actually in a dance studio, so everything echo’d and amplified. Finally, an entire wall was mirrors and the Pastor stood in front of that, so I was able to see everyone every single time I looked up, I spent almost the entire time hunched over staring at my feet and desperately wanting to cover my ears to reduce the noise. To say it was a sensory nightmare, was an understatement, I wish I could have kept my sunglasses on too, anything would have been a small blessing to use some church parlance here.
The experience also had me thinking back to my youth, and how I am conditioned to not see a church as a sanctuary where all are welcome, but instead a place of ridicule, judgment, and suffering. I can recall in childhood the stares when I could not hold still, how my feet would burn with pain having to stand up, how the noise was a cacophonous roar, all the time I was expected to make eye contact, because failing to do so consistently got me labeled as being untrustworthy. Over the decades that tainted and damaged my view of Church, for a long time it led me down a road not too far off from the view of Richard Dawkin’s and Christopher Hitchen’s, angry anti-theism, attempting to place the ills of the world at the feet of the Church. I was wrong in that, a person’s religious views do not inherently make them rigid and judgmental, it just happens to be a very common occurrence in my life experience and in the churches I attended over the years. As I have stated before, rigid ideology and belief is the underlying issue, religion does not have a monopoly on that, and not all religions are equally rigid in their worldview.
In turn this has had me thinking about autistic meltdowns and church, I had a few in church, many would label it as me being a spoiled brat, some went as far to claim I was or was at least at risk for possession. And it is not just the meltdowns after all, the skeptic in me wants to question and challenge, to seek more data, and when the expectation is that one takes these things on faith, I became inherently flawed as well for not just doing so. One thing I loathe about sermon’s is that the congregation must sit there and just listen to the sermon, it is horribly one sided, this social conformity that assumes a great deal about the person giving the sermon being an authority on the matter being discussed. Listening and absorbing, approaching a religious leader after with questions but never feeling able to actually challenge them for fear of retribution from them, the congregation, or my own family.
I wonder then, based not just on my own experiences, but the experiences of others on the spectrum in church, or parents who are now trying to advocate for their children to a congregation that sees them as a distraction, as individuals flawed and unworthy of being there, how many of us in the past have suffered at the hands of a church’s judgments and assumptions. How many children on the spectrum who had meltdowns have been thought to be possessed? How much have we suffered at the hands of neurotypicals who in their honest ignorance could not and did not know any better, and thus applied their limited worldview in judgment upon us? How many of us have suffered true religious trauma and still do so today? Ostracized, judged, pointed out and denigrated for things outside our control, especially when the very space, the very nature of how we congregate for worship is a horrendous sensory and cognitive nightmare for so many of us on the spectrum, and yet again the onus of our actions is upon us, the focus on the flaws in an individual vs the flaws of the socially accepted ritual and paradigm.
I fret and worry about non-neurotypical children in religious settings constantly, and the judgment faced there diffuses out into the communities as well. In a way, a church can be an epicenter, not just for a solid sense of community, but for the judgment and suffering of those who do not fit into the dominant paradigm, who through no inherent moral fault of their own, cannot thrive in that particular environment. I then see a possible solution as well, through education, through combating ignorance, where the Pastor’s, Priests, and Clergy have the power to disseminate real knowledge and understanding on autism, real compassion, to expand the dominant paradigm’s understanding of who we are and how we unintentionally more often than not are made to suffer in those pews and outside the church doors. And if they can welcome and embrace these children, find time to create a space for them to avoid overstimulation without fear of judgment or damage to their self-identity in the form of feeling they are wrong, unworthy, or even in my personal case, made to feel I was actually evil and flawed beyond words. This would benefit not just the congregation, not just the people of faith, but the overall community as well, it could help address issues of bullying based on ignorance of the difference, it could help mitigate suffering within the community, if only they could see that it truly is not a flaw or fault to simply be different and unable to thrive in certain environments. To understand how both in the Church and in greater society as well, the very environment can be harmful and damaging to those of us on the spectrum. And in doing so, find a bit of redemption as well for themselves, for the untold generations who have suffered for just being different and having difficulty coping, for being wired to not always take things on simple faith, but by their very wiring must question and try to understand.
For all the harm that has been done, that same mechanism could now be a powerful tool to expand the conversation and the dominant social paradigm, so help further tolerance and understanding more in line with the views of Jesus of Nazareth, the church could again help unite community instead of being used by some as a mouthpiece to spread intolerance out of fear of the erosion of their views of morality. I do not understand how so many people of faith pick and choose intolerance, swear the Bible is infallible, yet consistently no longer practice or judge based on many Biblical references, how is it we manage to so blindly cherry-pick our ideology. Homosexuality is an abomination to so many, because of the the Biblical references, but tattoo’s, divorce, slavery, and a host of other Biblical references are now view differently. Logically, if one admits to some of these being flawed, then it is only logical to view other one’s as being flawed, that whether or not it was divinely inspired, fallible humans wrote, edited, translated, and altered this work over time. I suppose this is a topic for another time, the myopia of religious institutions, that overshadow the words of Christ in favor of Leviticus or Paul.