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Rainbow infinity symbol, this is the symbol for Autism awareness

A Reflection for Autism Acceptance Month

By Noelle Collis DeVito

Part of the beauty of being a member of the Body of Christ is that it brings each person into a deeper sense of community while valuing their gifts and contributions to the greater whole. Each person, created in God’s image and likeness, has their own unique way of being that can reveal a piece of the divine to the world. As imperfect people, we lean into our own understanding of what it means to be human which limits us to finite measures and linear thinking, but our God is limitless. God’s image is reflected through humanity in both our similarities and our diversity, through our united struggle with suffering and the unique experiences that shape us. As we enter into the Easter Season and reflect on the wonder of Christ’s Resurrection, it is also essential for us to see the face of Christ in one another and to recognize our unity through every person’s experience of the Paschal Mystery in their daily lives. 

Just like Christ endured isolation and loneliness in his darkest hour, it is all too common for people who identify as neurodivergent to feel marginalized and unaccepted. We have been socially conditioned to believe that there is a “typical” way that people think, behave, and communicate, and when there is a deviation from this “norm” it is easy to dismiss, ignore, or even mistreat God’s creation. We see one another through the lens of humanity instead of the lens of the divine. As we move through the Easter Season, we are called to be transformed by Christ’s Resurrection, and this transformation includes opening our eyes, ears, and hearts so that we can truly encounter Christ in every person we meet.

Conveniently, much of the Easter Season coincides with Autism Acceptance Month, which takes place during the month of April. There is a growing number of people who identify as Autistic, and it is essential that, as members of the Body of Christ, we seek to understand, embrace and create spaces for all people in our faith communities and on our campus. For many, Autism is a part of their identity- it is a lens through which a person experiences the world. As a society, we are becoming more familiar with words such as neurodiversity or sensory-friendly. It is increasingly common for students to have accommodations for classes, and there is a movement toward better “inclusion” within our community, but as people of faith, we are called to do more. We are called to create a culture of belonging for every member of the Body of Christ.

In his epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes, “Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, “Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” (1 Corinthians 12: 14 – 21) This excerpt tells us that every person is needed and essential for the Body of Christ to function successfully.  When we esteem any person as “less than” or we unintentionally exclude people through a lack of accessibility, we weaken Christ’s body here on Earth. A culture of belonging calls us to work for a standard greater than inclusion- a culture of inclusion and meaningful participation for all people in our community.  This culture of belonging focuses not on passive inclusivity or reactionary inclusion tactics, but on giving agency to every person, so that they can truly embrace their own unique call by God.  

Until April of 2021, Autism Acceptance Month was called Autism Awareness Month, but Christopher Banks, the president and CEO of The Autism Society of America, announced an important change. To explain this decision, Banks stated: "Awareness is knowing that somebody has autism. Acceptance is when you include (a person with autism) in your activities. Help (them) to develop in that community and get that sense of connection to other people." When I think of what acceptance looks like in a theological context, my mind immediately gravitates toward the Prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace; 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love; 
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
And where there is sadness, joy. 
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console; 
To be understood, as to understand; 
To be loved, as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive, 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, 
And it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. 

The words of this prayer have always resonated with me as the perfect example of Christ’s call to us as disciples. In John 13: 34 – 35 Jesus states, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This is no easy task, considering the perfect way that Jesus loved those he encountered.  

There was something very special about the way that Jesus entered into relationship with others. Not only did he seek out the marginalized, but they were eager to be in his company. People of all walks of life were drawn to him and felt safe in his presence. He embraced every person and truly recognized the image and likeness of God in his midst. Before he ever spoke of conversion or redemption, he took the time to acknowledge the inherent worth of humanity and treated those he encountered with an outpouring of love. He sought to understand the struggles and joys of the people before him, and he never presented himself as too good or too holy to show genuine love and compassion to the people in his midst. As imitators of Christ, we are called to “go forth and do likewise.” We are compelled, through the Gospel, to be an outpouring of love into our communities. It is only through the love of Christ that hearts can be changed and lives can be healed. 

When we consider our call to be imitators of Christ in light of Autism Acceptance Month, there are some key takeaways that might help neurotypical individuals to better love persons who are neurodivergent. First, in the words of St. Francis, it is important to always seek to understand. There is a great quote that states, “When you meet one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism”. (Dr. Stephen Shore) No two autistic people have the same worldview, life experiences, or expressions of autism, so leaning in to preconceived notions about what autism might look like can only lead to further marginalization of people in our community. In order to promote a culture of belonging, it is imperative to let go of assumptions that might exist surrounding autism or a person’s behaviors and really take the time to seek to understand. A better approach would be to ask questions, take the initiative to learn about autism from reliable sources, and be receptive to any feedback that you might receive.

Secondly, it is important for to reframe our communal expectations of social norms. Currently, much of the burden of change is placed on persons with autism, which often causes people to feel the need to mask regularly. Masking is a defense mechanism that is used in order to fit in to a social setting or situation. This strategy is frequently utilized by persons with autism as a way to hide their diagnosis or assimilate in society. Masking can occur consciously or unconsciously, and it can be incredibly exhausting and draining to feel like you can never be yourself. As St. Paul referenced in his Body of Christ narrative above, we cannot demand that a foot behave like a hand. Instead of placing the burden of assimilation on autistic people, neurotypical people can be a part of the work to create social and communal environments that embrace uniqueness and communication differences. It is essential to refrain from shaming a person for letting their autism show and to be open to new forms of expression like stimming and vocalizations that are just a part of who a person was created to be. Every person desires to feel wanted and accepted, and the Body of Christ can only function successfully when those desires are met.

Finally, it isn’t enough for neurotypical people to make changes to create a culture of belonging. While intentions may be good, there have to be neurodiverse people driving the bus for change. Autistic people need to serve in a leadership capacity and be empowered to have agency over positive change in their communities. “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice, and belonging is having that voice be heard.” Until we create a space where the expression of neurodivergent persons is honored, our community lacks the richness of their contributions.  

As we open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the presence of God in our midst, let us keep these thoughts in mind. In promoting a culture of belonging in our community, we are in turn healing the Body of Christ, so that it can truly become a testament of God’s love to the world.


*Image by PBS North Carolina 

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