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Does Your Church Know About “Neurodiversity”?

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Not everyone’s brains are wired the same.

We consider some behaviors “normal” and other behaviors “atypical.” I’m thinking about things such as paying attention, reasoning, problem-solving, emotional control, comprehending texts, interpreting social cues, and sensitivity to sound and touch.

Over the decades, we’ve learned more about the natural range of human behaviors and neurology. In the past, atypical people were considered disabled. Or we say that someone has “special needs.” But not every atypical person sees themselves as having a disability. But there are many famous individuals with neurological conditions. So disability rights activists coined a more positive term—neurodiversity.

In the booklet, Neurodiversity by Design: A Practical Guide for Churches to Welcome Neurodiversity, the authors explain it this way:

“Neurodiversity is an umbrella term for people who are not ‘neurotypical.’ Neurodivergent people may have conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, Tourette syndrome, or Down syndrome, among others. Even people with emotional and behavioral difficulties, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety can fall under the category of neurodivergent. Many people become neurodivergent at some point in their lives due to aging, brain injury, or other life situations. Many neurodivergent people also go undiagnosed, leading to unnecessary frustration and suffering” (Zinsitz et al., Neurodiversity by Design, p. 3).

Some of that unnecessary frustration and suffering happens in local churches. According to the authors, “one in five of our congregants is likely neurodivergent” (p. 4). Nevertheless, few churches are autism-friendly or friendly to people with other kinds of neurodiversity.

Traditionally, church is where parents demand the highest standards of behavior. But many neurodiverse children cannot live up to that standard. Hence, they are seen as a problem and excluded from many areas of church life, including the worship service, where they can be asked to leave for being a distraction. As one mother asked, “I thought, what’s the point of coming to church if I’m going to sit in the hallway?”

Many families stay away.

Is that how you show grace? Is that how you show love? What can Free Grace churches do differently?

In Neurodiversity by Design, the authors outline three areas churches can plan to be more welcoming: environment, fellowship, and spiritual practice, but I prefer to call this worship. Please read the booklet to see all their practical suggestions. But here are a few.

First, you can adapt your environment to welcome the neurodivergent by using clear signage in your building, including symbols. You can keep the building layout simple so as not to overwhelm people. And instead of kicking people out to the hallway, you can have a quiet, open room where people who feel overstimulated or overwhelmed can collect their thoughts and emotions.

Second, you can improve fellowship by planning to welcome the neurodiverse. You can train ushers and greeters to welcome neurodivergent people, such as by being sensitive to people who don’t enjoy being touched. You can create a buddy system to help establish friendships. You can ensure that neurodivergent congregants participate in committees, sessions, and the worship team. And most of all, you can openly celebrate and discuss your church’s commitment to welcoming the neurodivergent and their families.

Third, you can adapt your worship to include simple changes such as having little repetitions that can give people who find it hard to process new information something predictable to hold on to week by week. You can also include visual elements during worship and in the sermon. Or you can set up a station at the back of the sanctuary with paper, pencils, and picture books where people can draw and color (e.g., art therapy).

Those are all simple changes to help people be included in the community. Please read the booklet for more practical ideas.

Wouldn’t it be great if Free Grace churches were not only clear on the saving message but also clear that everyone who believes in Jesus for their eternal salvation becomes an equal member of the Body of Christ? As Paul said:

For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ (1 Cor 12:12).

Every believer is a member. And no member is more or less a part of the body than anyone else. What message has your church been communicating to the neurodiverse and their families?

Thought for the day: Make sure you're preaching grace to every kind of brain.

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.


2 comments on “Does Your Church Know About “Neurodiversity”?”

  1. As a bipolar person and two sons on the autistic spectrum this is very important. I know one of my boys never wants to be touched. He eventually may come around. I think many churches could and should be aware of these variances. Autism is huge thing in the country. — I myself am quirky with my own issues also. I have grown to let people know about me. Of course I am 67 years old so I am past the point of worrying about rejection. But I wasn’t always that way. A lot of people with disabilities are quite intelligent and can pick up on a rejecting environment.

  2. Wow. This is eye-opening. I plan to share this with a couple in our church who have an adult autistic son, when I figure out how.

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