On Tuesday night, PBS aired the television premiere of the documentary “In a Different Key.” Focused on the work of Caren Zucker and John Donavan, the documentary explores the vast experiences of autistic people, their families, and the communities they inhabit. It gives an overview of some of the joys and challenges within the autism community. The documentary also explores the history of damaging attitudes and treatments and the systematic barriers that prevent the full acceptance and inclusion of autistic individuals and their families in society.
The documentary is an introductory-level presentation of autism that is good for people who are curious about what autism is (and is not) and those who want to have a deeper understanding of autism to show support, love, and care for individuals and their families.
As a pastor and a father of an autistic child, I believe there are lessons the church can take from the documentary. These insights will hopefully help the church understand what individuals and families experience, especially regarding full inclusion in the church.
The church needs to listen to the stories and experiences of autistic people and their families.
The documentary focused on the story of Donald Triplett. He was the first person diagnosed with autism. He still lives in Forest, Mississippi, and his community widely accepts him. It focused on what he dealt with, how his family showed him support, and how the community came to love Triplett.
Triplett, though, is one person on the spectrum. Not every autistic person and their family experience are the same. What my son experiences is not the same as what others may experience. In truth, when you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.
The church needs to listen to families and the autism community. We cannot engage the community without listening to individuals and families. The church needs to hear what people experience and learn from those who are autistic. This education will help the church understand the adaptations needed to become more inclusive. It will also help to understand how our attitudes and presumptions can create separation from families and individuals because of an unwillingness to accept people for who they are.
Thus, the church needs to actively creates spaces of welcome for individuals and families with autism across the spectrum.
Triplett is well-loved and accepted within his community. The documentary was open about how he experienced privileges others in the autism community do not always have. His family had wealth and connections through owning a local bank, which provided avenues for advocacy and acceptance. While that does not minimize the love and support provided to Triplett, it is necessary to recognize that not everyone has those same connections and support systems.
Individuals and families with autism often feel excluded and unaccepted in society and the church. A father who posts about his son’s experiences on social media expressed his feelings of isolation and his fear that he cannot die so he can support his son. I resonate with those feelings, as I have experienced both of them. My family feels excluded in a society that does not support people like my son. I feel rejected (yes, I mean that word) in the churches and annual conferences where I have served as a pastor because people assume what our life is like without asking us. People often interact with my family based on presumptions that only enhance exclusionary attitudes and behaviors.
I believe the church can foster acts of embrace by recognizing that God created every person in God’s image. Belief in this classic orthodox theology creates opportunities to welcome the person with autism and their families for who they are and not what we wish for them to be. To embrace people with autism means the church needs to accept noise, people walking around, and other behaviors that might upset the church person in the pew but might give space for a person with autism to express themselves safely. I also believe the church can provide care and welcome to families by doing the most basic acts of charity by offering love and encouragement to autistic families.
Forget that I am a pastor for a moment, what would move me to tears as a follower of Christ is to hear someone in the church say, “I love your son and your family, and you will never be alone.”
Thus, the church needs to stand with families with autistic children and adults.
The documentary does a great job of showing improvements in care through the decades, but there is much work to be done in creating better care for children and adults. There is a need for improvement in I/DD waiver programs to allow for funding to be tied to a person and not a state. There is a need for more access to therapies, education, and care resources in rural communities. We need more funding for training for teachers, police, clergy, and others so that they can better understand how to care for children, adults, and their families.
The church must stand with families and advocate with and for them. We cannot do this work alone or depend upon organizations that often only look out for their own interest. We need the church to do what it does back and stand with the vulnerable and voiceless.
No other group is more vulnerable than individuals and families with autism. They are often ignored and overlooked by society.
The church has it within its very nature to be inclusive and welcoming. What it needs more than anything is an attempt to try. I have not always seen the church try, but I pray for that to happen more often.