We claim to be one in Christ, but are we really open to perspectives and ways of being that we do not understand?
I have wondered from time to time what it must be like for someone who identifies on the autism spectrum to come into my worship community. We claim to be one in Christ, but are we really open to perspectives and ways of being that we do not understand? In making our worship spaces inhospitable to autistic people, what potential and what community are lost in the pursuit of comfort?
I awoke one morning after a night full of dreams wondering how welcoming my worship community was to those who identify on the autism spectrum. I was not impressed with the truth. It was as if we were collectively saying that either autistic people have no need of communal worship or that God has nothing to say to autistic people through worship.
I began by visiting groups dealing with autistic children and youth. I talked with autistic individuals, and with their families and friends. I became convinced that the way that we practice worship in most churches makes it difficult for autistic people to fully engage. I also came to appreciate the great breadth of expression and experience within the autistic community and the foolishness of my first thought that I could find one way of worship that would reach across the whole spectrum.
I sought to begin modestly, with an autistic community desiring to worship. I imagined that as this community took shape we would come to share and create community with the existing worshipping community at Jubilee United Church in Toronto.
To create a good space for autistic people to worship, we needed to thin out and declutter our sanctuary. We removed more than half of our chairs and created “pods”—six-foot tables that could accommodate three or four people—that were distant enough from each other to allow interaction but would also remove distraction and create a measure of comfort. In our sanctuary we love our open, clear windows, but they provide a great deal of distraction for autistic worshippers, so we moved the “front” of our space to a blank wall.
A challenge for me was to recognize that much of what I value in my preaching and liturgy was problematic when it comes to facilitating worship for autistic people. Loud noises, surprises, and breaks from routine were disruptive; language-based humour did not connect. I found that two songs were preferable to five, the piano or guitar was preferable to the organ, and that repetition was welcome and helpful in bringing people into a place of openness. Taizé worship, which involves the contemplative repetition of a prayer chant, offered inspiration and resources.
In the midst of my project, I met the Rev. Anne Dionisio, now my ministry partner at Jubilee, and she brought elements of Godly Play into worship. Godly Play provides a stylized method of storytelling that keeps the emphasis on the story rather than the storyteller, and invites people to wonder about it in personal and creative ways. We created tactile felt boards with story elements that could be moved by worshippers as we shared the story in a larger medium. This was not a “dumbing down” of the preaching or liturgical experience, but a more participant-focused way of sharing scripture and encouraging personal engagement.
In some services we engaged in physical movement in the style of Dalcroze Eurhythmics—a method of music instruction that teaches concepts like rhythm—and in others we took time to share within the small table groups our responses to questions like: “What day of creation are you in today?” “What is the desert like for you?” “What are you feeling because of this story?” Expressions could be verbal or employ a physical medium like modelling clay or the felt boards. I have a dream of one day having computer tablets for participants!
I found that what I would usually convey in 20 minutes in a typical worship service would take about 40 minutes in a service that respected and engaged autistic worshippers. We needed time to stop and process; we needed time for some participants to express themselves in ways that are not common in typical worship. (I was advised to have gym mats nearby for those who like to hit things with their limbs or heads. This proved valuable in one service.) We sought to create time and space that minimized distraction, and provided a space where participants did not feel uncomfortable acting or processing in ways that were individual. We succeeded in many ways and shared some beautiful worship services, exploring our individual and collective relationships to God.
We have yet, however, to create community. Not surprisingly, attendance was sporadic and irregular; we have taken worship services to existing communities, but we have not yet been able to build a community at Jubilee. Part of the problem is that we didn’t begin with the community; we began with my assessment of a general need. Autistic individuals and their families have expressed support and interest in being part of a Christian worshipping community, but are reluctant to make changes to established routines to incorporate a community that has only existed a short while; they are more likely to risk joining a church that has shown a long commitment to the autistic community.
So, for now, our experience and resources await the community—stored away but coming out occasionally to travel. I remain patient and confident that the time will come when we will build a worshipping community that includes and engages people autistic people. It may not be at Jubilee; it might begin with someone who takes our experience and builds on it. But it will come because we are all one in Christ, and God is speaking to the whole body.
— The Rev. Norm Seli is the minister at Jubilee United Church in Toronto. He has used identity-first language in this article, which in his experience most people prefer. Should you meet him, he will use the language that you prefer.