It’s one of those universal truths that it is hard for special needs families to be a part of their faith communities. But there are a number of things, some pretty conventional and some maybe not so much, that will go a long way to helping special needs families feel more included and supported in their church family.
These are excerpts from an article was developed from a talk introducing the concept of neurodiversity, the secular concept that autism and related conditions are a variation of human neurology rather than a disease, to Christian audiences in the context of Psalm 139: 13-16.
By Samantha Pierce
What is Neurodiversity?
At its core neurodiversity seeks to recognize the value and dignity of those individuals who have traditionally portrayed as broken, diseased and less than human because disability. The secular neurodviersity movement posits that atypical neurological development is a naturally occurring difference that is to be recognized and respected just as any other biological variation.
Autism, ADHA, Tourette Syndrome Cerebral Palsy, and any number of a host of conditions need not be seen as a terrible tragedy. Instead recognize the basic humanity of these individuals and treat them with the respect due any other human being.
Respect for the dignity of the individual regardless of their ability is a concept that resonates with Christians who hold strongly to the belief that each of us is a precious creation of God formed in his image and as such deserving of love and respect.
Hope for something better is a strong component of the neurodiversity movement. Thomas Armstrong notes in his essay Neurodiversity: A Concept Whose Time Has Come, “Neurodiversity brings with it a sense of hope, that all individuals, regardless of how they read, think, feel, socialize, or attend, will be recognized for their gifts, and accorded the same rights and privileges as any other human being.”
This hope is offered in light of the checkered past, and present, humanity has when it comes to dealing with individuals whose functioning deviates from the norm. The parent driven cure culture that subjects children to unproven and dangerous treatments, the deaths of autistic children and adults at the hands of their caretakers, and a past of forced sterilization and institutionalization of disabled individuals are all issues that neurodiversity pushes back against.
Neurodiversity has entered the ideological fray in a world where more than 90 percent of all women who receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome choose to terminate their pregnancies as noted in the 2008 article Airbrushing Diversity: Parents of Down Syndrome Children Tell of Abortion Pressures. This is the stark reality of how the world views disability and what the world does about it when given the opportunity. The plight of babies with Down syndrome reflects the insidious influence that eugenics still holds in western cultures.
What Can Christians Contribute?
Within the neurodiversity movement is a strain of respect for the individual that Christians can easily relate to. It is the echo of what the Psalmist writes in Psalm 139
For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them. Psalm 139:13-16 ESV
Christian thought posits that each individual is a unique and marvelous creation made in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made to quote the Psalmist. As such each of us is worthy of love and respect, no child or adult should have to hear how they are poisoned, broken, soulless or somehow undesirable and undeserving because of their disability. The value of a person to God is not tied to what they can do but the fact that they exist.
Reaching out to the neurodiversity movement provides the opportunity to build bridges within the disability rights movement lending Christian voices and Christian concepts to the discourse. The greatest impact that Christians can have is to demonstrate the love the God has shown us. Love that like leaves a mark on the lives it touches. Even a self professed cranky old atheist recognizes the power of such love:
“Although I am not a fan of religion in general, I love the commitment to family and to love beyond oneself that faith often awakens in others. …Christian values can open up a deeper and more meaningful conversation about people with autism than what we usually see on TV.
“This is one example of how Christian people often express an openness to people who are different and an appreciation of love that cranky old atheists like me could learn from.”
What better endorsement than that about the capacity for love to change people’s lives?