I wonder what people with autism perceive when they come to church? What do they perceive when they enter a social situation? It would be interesting to begin by trying to understand their perspective.
Imagine someone with a disability, say autism or intellectual disability, riding in a car on the way to church. What are they thinking? As they get out of the car and walk toward the door of the church or the ministry, what are they anticipating will happen or are hoping will happen? As they go into the worship service, do they understand what that is about? When people around them are singing and raising their hands, what do they perceive that activity to be? If we were to explain to them what worship is, would they feel they have worshiped? Do we know the answers to these questions. When the class/ministry/church experience for the day is over, would the person say, “Yes, I received today what I was hoping to receive from my experience at church.”
In part, the answer to this question goes to the culture of the church or ministry. If people have different perceptions of the world due to disabilities that impact their intellect, are the activities that impact those without those types of disabilities touching them in the same way?
Take for example something as “intuitive” as friendship. I have a man who is a friend of mine who is autistic. He seems to be constantly always on the lookout for a friend. He will attempt to reach out in friendship to others, people with intellectual disabilities, and although they might respond in a friendly manner, they seem to not be providing what he is after. His perception or understanding of friendship seems in some ways to be different from theirs. And like many people without disabilities, they either don’t understand what he is after or are not interested in engaging in the type of completely appropriate relationship that he is seeking.
I think it would do us well in ministry to attempt to understand how those we are seeking to serve perceive us, what we are trying to do, and whether to them, we are being successful. What we learn would not only impact what we do in ministry, but potentially also impact recommendations we would make on how these same individuals might be socialized in their upbringing.