Clergy and laity need to start asking:
* How many people in our congregation have an autistic child? Have we unknowingly pushed some people away?
* Are any of our services or education programs ready for children with “profound” autism symptoms, those with IQs below 50, with aggressive behaviors, including self-injury?
* Have we seen people lose their faith, or have seen their children lose faith, because of the mental and spiritual pain caused by autism and other mental-health challenges?
* Can our congregation afford to offer day-care ministries that include autistic children and, someday, even adults?
* What can religious educators do, since the most of their schools cannot afford to hire autism specialists and, for doctrinal reasons, cannot qualify for government programs funding this kind of care? What happens to believers who want their autistic children to attend faith-based schools?
* Are clergy ready to lead funerals for those who are accidentally killed by actions linked to their autism symptoms, to deliver sermons facing these modern twists on ancient questions about pain and suffering in daily life?
It’s important, said Schneider, that some congregations are beginning to use child-friendly booklets and missals that, with step-by-step illustrations, guide autistic children through services and the classes preparing them for Holy Communion. For example, Loyola Press now offers worship books for special-needs children. The Eastern Orthodox artist and educator Summer Kinard — the mother of five autistic children — has created books, music, videos and “church bag” strategies for those with children on the spectrum.
Religious leaders need to “stop looking at autism from the outside” and try to imagine what autistic people are seeing and hearing in worship, said Schneider. Do children consistently have problems at specific times, such as during announcements? Does some music calm them, while other music seems to cause distress?
“We have to remember that God created each person as unique,” said Schneider. “There will be beauty in their lives, as well as pain. … Can we see the patterns? Can we see joy, as well as suffering? Can we imagine what other people are experiencing and then try to help them?”